Zidanes y Pavones.
That was the promise Florentino Perez made to the Real Madrid faithful a few years into his first spell as Real Madrid president. That was to be his governing policy. He’d be signing the superstars, like Zinedine Zidane. But that superstructure would rest on a foundation of homegrown players, like the fairly anonymous center back Francisco Pavon.
He would keep the first promise, signing Luis Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham in consecutive summers from 2000 to 2003. He would falter on the second part, and Pavon, along with Perez’s creed, was largely forgotten – the defender, who was mostly a backup during his seven years with Real’s first team, finished his career with Zaragoza and Arles-Avignon.
The Galactico strategy, as it came to be known, was wildly successful nevertheless, yielding six La Liga and four Champions League titles since the turn of the century. Real, of course, has conquered Europe in three of the last four years. And on the eve of another Champions League season, it is the favorite, by a decent margin, to win it again.
But a curious thing is happening. At the height of a new dynasty, the Pavones are making a comeback. As Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo begin to age – they are 32, 31, 31 and 29, respectively – a fresh batch of stars is rising. They are not expensively imported and already-arrived household names. They are homegrown players, or recruits from elsewhere in Spain brought in very young. It’s this shift that has seemingly positioned Real well for the future, to carry on its run of success.
Poetically, this awakening of the Pavones – who were never really given a chance after Perez’s initial declaration – is happening under Zidane’s stewardship of the first team as manager.
Ramos, at 19, was the only Spanish player bought in all of Perez’s first spell in charge, from 2000 to 2006. The controversial president returned in 2009 and has consolidated an iron grip on the club. He has also, apparently, tweaked his approach.
Real’s season is only five official games old. But going into the weekend, a raft of promising young players who are fairly new to the fold have made appearances. Not so long ago, Real’s lineup was ossified with big stars in every position. Not even world-class mega-signings like James Rodriguez could get into the lineup.
Winger Lucas Vazquez, an academy product who spent a year away at Espanyol, has played in all five games so far. So has forward Marco Asensio, a 21-year-old prodigy bought from Mallorca at 18 who already bagged four goals. Midfielder Marcos Llorente, striker Borja Mayoral and midfielder Dani Ceballos have all appeared as well and are 22, 20 and 21, respectively. The former two hail from the academy, while Ceballos was just bought from Betis.
Then there are the better-established Dani Carvajal and Nacho, both defenders and academy products in their mid-20s. Finally, Isco, the magical playmaker, who always seemed on the verge of leaving the club even though he made at least 30 league appearances in all four of his seasons since joining from Malaga, has played so well — for Real and Spain — that benching him suddenly seems unimaginable.
Don’t look now, but Real, a club that has thrived on signing established stars, is in the midst of a youth movement. Powered by players who rolled off the conveyor belt at La Fabrica – the club’s productive but underappreciated and underused academy – or were brought in young, well before they hit their primes.
There is already talk that the breakouts of Isco and Asensio have rendered expendable the world’s most expensive player ever until just two summers ago, winger Gareth Bale, even though he’s only 28. The same could be said about striker Karim Benzema, who is 29, once the pretense is finally dropped that Ronaldo isn’t just an all-out striker now.
And because the starters and stars of tomorrow are already at the club, there is, for once, no need to spend big on high-profile reinforcements. For much of the summer, Real was reportedly in pursuit of teenaged French phenom striker Kylian Mbappe. But, you had to ask yourself, where would he play? He might not have gotten onto the field with any regularity until Ronaldo finally faded from the picture in a few years.
The foundation for the next great Real Madrid team has been quietly laid. It is already the only team to have won in back-to-back years in the Champions League era of the past quarter century. It is, as follows logically, also the only team to win it three times in four years. An awful lot of things have to break just right for you to win this tournament, making true dynasties so rare, but the pieces are in place for this run to continue for the foreseeable future.
From 1955 through 1959, Real won the first five editions of the European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, consecutively. It did so with a team with a few of the game’s early superstars, like Alfredo Di Stefano, Raymond Kopa and Ferenc Puskas. But they were surrounded by a team of mostly homegrown or home-developed Spaniards.
It was a feat long considered impossible to replicate in modern soccer. It probably still is. But that we might even speak of that period and lay it side-by-side with the ongoing run of success is, in and of itself, remarkable.
But consider that Barcelona is in decline. Bayern Munich is retooling after its core largely aged out. Atletico Madrid’s threat is waning. Paris Saint-Germain still hasn’t broken through in Europe. And the English teams have been largely feckless in Europe in recent years.
This Real Madrid team likely isn’t done yet.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.