This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
Every morning at eight, my teammates and I would storm the bathroom armed with hair straighteners and tubs of wax and gel. The smaller boys would fight the taller ones for a spot near the bathroom mirrors; We respected the hierarchy within our ranks, but we respected our own beauty regimen more.
I'll never forget how walking into the locker room at La Fábrica (officially known as the Real Madrid Youth Academy) was to be overwhelmed by the smells of burnt keratin and early morning shits – plus the sound of reggaeton blasting from someone's portable radio at maximum volume. We were children trying to imitate our metrosexual idols – as if that would bring us closer to them and their success. Some of us were making more money than our parents, and all of us were working towards something short of unattainable. To be signed by Real's youth academy was obviously an honour, but it became one of the most difficult experiences of my life.
Before I joined the farm team, I lived with my parents in Tenerife and played for the local football club, U.D. Orotava. One day, I was scouted and invited to play some tournaments with the academy of AC Milan – which has a branch in Avila, in Spain. While playing a tournament with them, the scouts of Real Madrid became interested in me. Not much later, they sat me and my parents down at a round table in one of the offices of Ciudad Real Madrid (Real Madrid City – the name of the training facilities) and offered to sign me. For the 2008-09 season all my costs would be covered – the flight from Tenerife to Madrid, the relocation, my school fees, my dorm fees and a monthly allowance of 200 euros. I signed. I was a 15-year-old boy and I was about to be a player in one of the best football academies in Spain and the world. The future couldn't look any brighter at that point.
While I lived in dorms, miles away from my parents, some of my classmates stayed in apartments in the centre of Madrid with theirs. The club had wanted to sign these boys so badly that it had paid for their parents' complete relocation too. The same guys had also already been spotted by big sports brands and signed sponsorship contracts. My friends and I used to get so jealous when we saw them flicking through their sponsors' product catalogues, picking out any clothing and shoes they wanted. I remember hearing a story from the older boys about one player who had bought himself a brand new Audi without even having a driving license.
The days at the academy all followed the same routine. We'd wake up around 8AM every morning and sit down for breakfast. That consisted of biscuits, pre-packed sandwiches, orange juice, some pastry and a piece of fruit. An hour later, we'd leave for school, where we had classes until 5PM – only breaking for lunch at 2PM. After school, we'd briefly return to the dorms with just enough time to eat the biscuits and milkshake that the dorms supervisor had left on our beds before taking the bus to the training grounds, where we would train until 10PM.
Looking back, I don't think we were given the kind of nutrition we needed for what was expected of us – and no one monitored how or what we ate. The bus from our dorms to the training grounds took 45 minutes, and I remember some times spending that time praying that I would have enough time before training to buy something to eat from the vending machines or the canteen. But when there was time to eat, we faced another dilemma: either eat something too heavy and run the risk of throwing it up during training or eat noting and run the risk of not being able to last through the training.
The unofficial catering service for La Fábrica was a small, nearby restaurant called Giardino. On countless evenings, a group of us would flock around the entrance of our dorms waiting for their delivery guy to bring us chocolate-covered waffles and hotdogs soaked in barbecue sauce. We knew it wasn't healthy but we were 15.
Aside from us getting hungry during or after training, the fact that our diet wasn't monitored seemed to impact my performance. Not eating right can make you more vulnerable to injuries and affect the immune system, making it harder to recover from said injuries. In my time at the academy, I got diagnosed with things like pulled calf muscles, tendinitis, a sprained ankle or accumulated fluids in the joints – once, I had more than five injuries in one season. And even though the diagnoses from the academy's medical professionals were always correct, I think these guys were also mostly focused on getting us back on the pitch as soon as possible – treating our injuries, rather than looking at their cause.
Training sessions were very demanding and an out-of-place pass, an unexpected move or a poor execution of an exercise would assure you of a very public dressing down from the coaches. At La Fábrica, we weren't just competing against other teams but also against our own teammates.
Each dormitory consisted of 15 bedrooms, each occupied by three teenage players. All that testosterone, repressed sexuality and ego made for a potent, highly flammable mix. Kids can be cruel and know perfectly well how to hurt each other. I won't get into what happened when we found out one of our teammates had wet the bed, but you can probably imagine.
Two friends occupying the room next to mine would regularly lock their door and fight each other. They would invite some of us to watch, so we could also act as referees and break up the fight if it got too bloody. That happened a few times during my time at the academy – it didn't hurt their friendship at all.
Personally, I tried to cope with the pressure by singing motivational songs to myself on the 45 minute ride to the training grounds. Also, by repeatedly telling myself I had an iron conviction – that this was what I wanted.
My brother once asked me why I stayed at the academy if it was such a struggle for me. The truth is that when I left Tenerife to play for Real Madrid the whole island supported and envied me at the same time. I didn't want to disappoint my family – least of all my father – by admitting I was miserable at La Fábrica. As a boy, I never learned to acknowledge my feelings and express them; this chance at the academy was what I should want and complaining about it seemed just ungrateful.
In retrospect, I think what bothers me most about life in the academy was the education we got – specifically the lack of it. Every day after school, we'd go straight to football practise and would come back home from the training grounds around 10PM for dinner. The hours after dinner and before bed were the only time we had to study, but that is difficult to do after hours of straining exercise – especially when it's your own responsibility and you're a 15-year-old kid. The next morning, we'd be back at school, while Saturdays and Sundays were match days.
Last May, while watching the Champions League semi-final of Real Madrid against Manchester City, I noticed that one of my ex-classmates was in the starting lineup. His gestures and expressions hadn't changed since we played together. It made me very happy to see that such a talented and deserving guy had made it, but what you can't see on the pitch is that he failed school two years in a row while at the academy.
The better some players from my year got, the less they were pressured to study. Those boys happily went along with it because they were doing what they loved and what they thought they would be doing for the rest of their lives. The same was true for my former classmate – I can still see him sitting in the back of the class in our second year, not paying any attention. We used to tease him for having a beard – what we didn't realise was that he was the only one sporting facial hair because he was two years older than us.
Years later, when I was studying in the United States, I noticed how differently the system treated students who are on an athletic scholarship: If our grades weren't good enough, we weren't allowed to play until they improved. That approach instilled a different kind of study ethic in young athletes – a better one, in my opinion.
My year at the academy produced several successful players, like Lucas Vázquez, Álvaro Morata, Denis Cheryshev, Dani Carvajal, Jesé Rodríguez, Diego Llorente and Enrique Castaño. And there are many others – they might not shine in La Liga or other international top divisions but they still play professionally in second or third divisions. But if it's relatively rare for pupils at the academy to end up playing in the top leagues, is it acceptable that those students aren't encouraged to focus on their studies? Those who make it are used as a justification for the current training methods; but what happens to those who don't make it?
Of course, I can only speak for myself and my own experience. When the season ended, I was told I wasn't good enough to stay in the programme. I felt liberated. Two days after receiving the news, I packed all my things into my uncle's car and we drove away from the capital.
Back home everyone welcomed me with open arms – turns out that part of the pressure I had felt had been completely unjustified. When people at home asked me if I still supported Real Madrid, I assured them I did. But getting back to playing at home, I noticed that being at the academy had drastically changed my idea of what football was. I realised that real football – the kind I loved so much – is played in the streets, by teams that are made up of your friends.
Luckily, the youth programme at Real Madrid helped me get a football scholarship at an American university. After I graduated, I did an MA in Human Rights in the Netherlands, and later this month I'll be starting a law degree at UCL.
Like I said, training at Real Madrid's Youth Academy was the hardest thing I've ever done. That might also be because it taught me some hard life lessons that made it easier for me to deal with future challenges. The question, to me, is whether it was appropriate for a 15-year-old to learn those lessons. Whether puberty is the right time to find out that you're just a product in a market where everyone's out to get their cut.
More on VICE: