How youth players are sparking Valencia's LaLiga resurgence

Six guys stand in a line. Fran Pérez, Pablo Gozálbez, Cristhian Mosquera, Diego López, Javi Guerra and Alberto Marí are taking it in turns to define, in a word, what has happened to them recently and what this all means. Behind them, the football pitch at the 2,250-seat Antonio Puchades stadium where they used to play, the final stage before the 49,430 Mestalla stadium where they play now. Ahead of them, their whole careers. They are young -- one is 19, one 20, two 21 and two are 22 -- they are in their Valencia training gear still, yet to shower after the morning session, and they are smiling.

Along they go, some a little more confidently than others -- step forward, Mr. Mosquera -- and offer an answer. Reward. Pride. Magic. Dream. And ... magic again. There's another dream, too, and small wonder: most of them are from nearby. This is the culmination of all their work, and also just the start of it.

Those are good words, and here is another: hope. The kids are alright; they are also a symbol of the resurgence of one of Spain's great clubs, a reminder of everything done behind the scenes and the pinnacle of a long process: Pérez, Gozalbez, Mosquera, López, Guerra and Marí all came through Valencia's academy and all of them made their first team debuts in the last two years.

But it's not just that they have played: together, they have transformed this place that transformed them.

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Standing at one end with the slightly flushed face of the first year college student that he still is, Guerra is asked to go back to that moment, the one that changed everything. "It was the last few minutes, a difficult situation, a direct rival," he starts to say in a soft voice. "I didn't really think much. I couldn't see any lines of passes, and so I shot."

It was April 2023. There were seven weeks left in the season and Valencia were facing the increasing threat of relegation for the first time in 35 years, a catastrophe for the club. Their opponents were fellow strugglers Valladolid, in a game they could not lose. Guerra had only been on the pitch for three minutes and 22 seconds. He had only ever been on the pitch, any pitch, for 64 minutes: 19 years old, from nearby Gilet, a Valencia fan, he was playing his third ever LaLiga game as a sub. The clock said 92:04 and he shot with his weaker foot.

The ball flew through the air and into the net, one of the biggest clubs in Europe saved by by a quiet kid from just up the road.

Miguel Angel Angulo, the Valencia B team coach who had been working with Guerra watched it back with satisfaction. "You feel tremendously proud to see kids you have worked with go up to the first team," he says nine months on. "You see them grow, feel like they belong. You see them in the first team and you feel pleased of the process, the work, the part you played in their development."

Angulo was not alone, and nor was Guerra. His goal would be the start of a rescue mission led by Valencia's academy kids, an idea forming, rising from below. His example had shown that players from the youth system could contribute, that you could rely on them. In times of need, they would be there. As the ball flew into the net, Mestalla went berserk; it felt like the foundations moved. Something had shifted.

When Ruben Baraja took over as coach of Valencia late last season, he was the third coach they had employed that season, the eighth since 2019, and the situation was desperate. "All that mattered was to survive," the coach says. "There's so little time that you can't build a model, a way of playing. You seek something emotional, a reaction. When you don't get results, you need solutions. We were looking for freshness, energy, daring -- and the young players give you that. Sometimes in a situation like that, people cower; when you know how much you have to lose, you feel small. The young players didn't have that fear."

It was some situation to step into, but they were ready. "I wouldn't call it pressure; I would call it motivation," Mosquera says. "And if you're at Valencia it's because you have something."

"Things were difficult, but we all had the desire to play our part," López adds.

And so, although Angulo's B team were playing for promotion from the Segunda RFEF, Spain's fourth tier, his footballers were wanted in the first team. "I try not to think that we were weakened by five or six players going to the first team," he says, smiling, "because the target is always the first team and they were in danger. I had told Baraja that we were at his disposal."

Three weeks after Guerra's goal, Marí, 21 at the time, scored the 88th-minute winner against Celta. In week 35, López, 21, scored the winner against Real Madrid. López scored again in weeks 37 and 38, Valencia surviving on the final day. They had started something, the shift becoming permanent, the emergency solution forming the basis of a plan.

"I'm going to give them the chance to grow," Baraja said in the summer, aware that the signings he had hoped for were not coming -- the total outlay on incoming players was only €5million while established players departed -- and they certainly have. Six months into this season, the youngsters have Valencia on the verge of a European place.

When Valencia beat Atletico Madrid earlier this season -- the game that suggested that this shift really could work on a more permanent basis -- seven of their players had been through Paterna, the club's academy, and the average age of the starting XI was 23.1. No one in Spain has a younger side.

Six months on, as they prepare to face Real Madrid on Saturday, never mind final day survival -- they are on the edge of Europe. The team that played Sevilla last week included seven academy products, and 12 academy players have been given minutes in LaLiga; five of the seven players with the most minutes were raised at Paterna.

"When three, four, five, six youth products reach the first team at this level, it's not chance," says Javier Solis, the corporate director.

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There are eight pitches at Paterna, heading out of Valencia to the north west, and a residency. It is small compared to many clubs, but that has its advantages too: there's an intimacy here, a manageability. Most of the 442 male players in the academy spread across 27 teams are local -- 80% of are from the Comunitat de Valencia -- but those that do come from further away stay here, right alongside the B team ground. There's a simple games room at one end of the first floor corridor with a ping pong table, a cabinet of books and a TV, and the canteen at the other. Along the walls are photos, notices, rules too: there are lists of behaviour that is banned, coded by colour depending on how bad it is. A menu is pinned up in the canteen.

Today it's fideua and satay chicken, then chocolate spread sandwiches for the early evening snack.

Kids here get access to Mas Camarena, one of the city's best schools, with classes organised around sessions. That's part of the attraction for the families of those who come, and if they don't study, they don't play. Most of those who arrive won't make it, that's the truth, and there are other paths -- or there should be.

"No one can look back one day and say [as an excuse for not having got qualifications] 'well, the thing is, I was at Valencia'," says Maria Angeles Atienzas, who runs the academy's educational programme. "It's unthinkable for them to say we didn't take that part seriously."

As for Guerra, Gozalbez, Mosquera and Marí they're all doing university courses, and there are classes for parents too. "Educating parents may seems pretentious but we give them tools," says Luis Martinez, the director of the academy.

"It's not always easy: all of a sudden my son turns out to be great, everyone tells me he's special, he's going to make it, 300 agents come to talk to me. I have to be able to manage that situation too. At 16, he makes more than me. Maybe I don't even have to work at all any more, and now the person that supports the family is a 16-year-old kid. Then I'm going to tell him how to behave and he's going to say to me: 'wait, you're telling me what to do?'"

Yet if most won't make it, many do. There are four key elements at play: recruitment, development, competition and opportunity. That last stage is decisive, and it is also the most visible, but it is nothing without all that comes before. "There's a lot of work behind it," says Martinez, and that's evident here.

It is evident in the numbers, too. Constructed in 1992, 101 footballers who have been through Paterna have made first team debuts. Some continued here, some moved on. According to statistics from CIES, only three teams in Europe have more players in the continent's top five leagues, and 31 Valencia academy products are currently professionals.

There have been some big names. Jose Gimenez, the head of scouting for the last 27 years can tell a tale, or maybe 10. In fact, he says, only semi-seriously, he might write a book one day. He recalls Isco, with more than a hint of mischief, and explains how David Silva came for a trial along with three others: Vitolo, Giovanni and Miguel "a little kid who was very good but wanted to go home and never made it."

As it turned out, no one who recommended Silva had even seen him; when they did, though, they knew. "We stuck him on Pitch no.4 playing with the U19s and he was so much better than them, aged 14," Gimenez recalls. Settling was not always easy, though, so Valencia brought Silva's family over with him. His father was made head of security at Paterna.

"Of course, I have had players that I thought would never get there," Gimenez continues. "They say 'Jose, I'm going to play in the first division' and I say 'well, ok,' and I go quiet, but then it turns out they're right. [Former Spain international] Gaizka Mendieta would stay for hours practicing. It depends on a player's personality. A player has to be in the right place at the right time, too. [Francisco] Farinos is a case: he had had a fight with the coach and he stayed behind, punished, while the team travelled. Someone in the first team got ill, and they had no one left here to call up except Farinos. He went, he played and he stayed in the first team."

"There was a period when we had six in the national team. We produced players like Raúl Albiol, Silva, Isco, Pablo Hernández, Jordi Alba, Juan Bernat, Francisco Alcácer, Ferran Torres, Carlos Soler... and although some left, look at the teams they went to. Real Madrid have had lots of players in primera, sure, but most go to Valladolid, Getafe, Rayo, Cadiz, Las Palmas ... Ours go to Bayern, Manchester, PSG, Barcelona, Madrid. Those that go are also good for us: they bring Valencia a lot of money, and go to the best teams."

"The truth is, the academy is a source of money, too," says Miguel Angel Corona, the sporting director. "We should not have a complex over saying so. Sales bring in funds to keep investing, and all the more so at a time of financial difficulty. This summer we sold Yunus Musah, who came here at 15-16, completed all this process with us and then we got a good deal from Milan."

Some players arrive younger than others. José Gayà, the current captain and from a different generation to the six guys standing at the side of the pitch now, started here playing 8-a-side football, still tiny. So too did Jesús Vázquez, Hugo Guillamón, Lee Kang-in (now at PSG) and Ferran Torres, who is at Barcelona. Alberto Mari had begun at Hercules and played at Eibar before joining Mestalla, Valencia's B team, in 2021 -- the plan wasn't even for him to play for the first team, but here he is. Javi Guerra was at Villarreal until juvenil (U19) level. Diego Lopez had been at Sporting Gijon, joined the U19s at Madrid and moved to Barcelona, but saw no way through and was offered an opportunity here instead; signed as a winger, he has turned out to be a forward in the first team.

As they progress, every step is monitored. As they get closer to the first team, the club identify those footballers who they think have the greatest projection. Increasingly they are asked to train with the first team: both because of the needs the first team have -- even if it's just a player for a practice match -- and their own development.

"Today for example, the first team needed a fullback," explains technical coordinator Urko Cherta over the shouts and the thud of the ball echoing round as he stands at the side of the pitch where Mestalla are training. "So, Mestalla send one up, someone from the Juvenil A goes up to train with Mestalla and a kid comes down from the residency to train with the Juvenil. There's a feeling of it all being inter-connected, that you can see a route. You come here as a Cadete, 14 or 15 years old, and you think 'wow, maybe in three years I am in the first division.'"

"We have a department called gestion de talento, for Mestalla and Juvenil A, that looks at the players who in a year, half a year, have the best chance of playing in the first team," Cherta continues. "We're on top of them, we try to ensure that the leap up is not so great for them. A player has to play, compete. He can't only train. So if you have someone training with the first team but not playing, he has to play with Mestalla too. We need them to have minutes. Gozalbez, for example, is training with the first team but plays for Mestalla too."

"I'm between the B team and first team," Gozalbez says. "The other Mestalla players are happy for us [getting first team opportunities]. Some of them train with the first team too. They can see the process, they can see that we are getting chances, and can see that opportunities will come. That helps them to give their best every day because that's the objective: to get to the first team. I got here at 9, I saw Gayà, Soler, Jaume in the first team: that's an example for the kids, a sign that if you work, if you do things right, the opportunities will arrive."

That final step is often the biggest, and also the least predictable. Some players struggle with it, but others find it easier. Plenty don't get the chance to find out. It can be hard to remain patient, to wait for the call you have worked toward for years.

"We're conscious that if a kid has a future we have to put him in the first team and see him, see what he can give us. We want kids to play as many minutes as they can," Angulo says. "Cesar Tarrega has gone on loan to Valladolid. Yellu is at Getafe. Sometimes that chance to go somewhere else and play is good for a player. I always advise them to be patient, to trust the process. I tell them that if they're here, it's because we see something in them. And all they have to do is wait for that moment."

And that's the thing. The moment that so often, for so many young players, never quite arrives. At Valencia, it has. Now, more than ever.

In an ideal world, pathways to the first team are opened. "We try not to sign players for the first team who will block the progression of a kid we really believe in," Martinez says. In a non-ideal world, pathways to the first team are opened even more. In times of financial difficulties, of limited signings, of a struggling first team, doors open sooner. Necessity is the mother of all invention, they say. It is true of academies, too. Why have so many youth products players made it into the first team? Because Valencia have needed them to.

"Even when you're winning, some came through: Albiol, Silva... There is always space for a great talent, whatever the results," Angulo admits, "but when you have a title-wining team, you don't look to the youth system so much."

"When things are difficult, that benefits the progression of academy players and we're happy as can be," Gimenez says. "Because what we do is to create players -- there is no other aim. That reduces the costs for the first team, because you develop players who can replace expensive salaries, which has an impact on the budget and provides a sporting service too."

"And then, above all, there's the braveness of Ruben Baraja," adds Gimenez.

When Pérez, Gozalbez, Mosquera, López, Guerra and Marí are asked to define Valencia's first team coach, one word keeps coming up: legend. Brave does too. Most of them are too young to remember him.

"I say to them, it's a good job you have YouTube. Some of them are 17, 18. I retired I 2010, when they were 5, 6, 7, years old," Baraja jokes -- but he played for Valencia for 10 years, winning two league titles. He is an academy product, too; not as a player, but as a coach. "I started here with the Juvenil," he says. "And that helps you a lot to understand the process for young players."

Now he stands at the end of that process, the gatekeeper to the first team. The man who has to open the door, or else none of this means much; the man who had to manage a crisis, pulling Valencia's first team away from relegation. In the end, the two things came together.

"When we came here, we weren't [clear that the kids were the way out]; the feeling we had was that we had to use the resources we had," he admits. "You can't take drastic decisions straight away because you don't really know them yet. But I did know there were one of two players in the B team who had the qualities we needed. And when you don't get results, you need solutions."

The solution was Paterna.

Led by a new generation, a connection has been established with the fans, a way out of the depression. The relationship between the supporters and the owners is not good but there is an identification with the team, a group of local lads, raised at the academy, who know what Valencia is about. Who, like them, have grown up watching the first team. Atienzas talks about that as another tool to build loyalty, passion, emotion, a sense of belonging.

That said, you have to be good enough. "Look," Angulo says, laughing, "what matters is winning. If we win and the kids are from the academy and from Valencia, then so much the better: people are even more happy. If we were bottom the atmosphere would be ... well, there would be problems. But we're good, we're happy, people see a bright future."

The kids have convinced everyone.

When youth teamers make the first team in these kind of numbers, there are always two key elements, Baraja says: necessity and philosophy. Valencia have had both, the balance between them shifting. "Last year we had to draw on them because we had to find a way to improve the team and the result was good," the coach says. "Ours has been more necessity than philosophy. This year, it has been a lo bestia, wild. It's not 3, 4 [academy players], it's 10. We've played games with seven, eight in the starting XI. It's incredible. Now we have to consolidate this, without the noose round our necks."

"They have shown the way, and the club has realised that it is better to have young players with energy, hunger, than names, stars, you know? I think that's good. To have a plan. I would like this to be the start of something lovely for the future and in two, three years we can recover the historic level Valencia always had. That's my hope."