Will Spain produce an Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres or Xabi Prieto again?
You may brand me a pessimist if you wish but with Fernando Torres and Xabi Prieto announcing that these will be their last weeks with the clubs that they love, and Andres Iniesta likely to follow suit, then even though it's barely spring I fear a Spanish winter coming on.
These are three all-time greats, not only of their clubs but of La Liga, and of modern European football. Without them, Spain's Primera Division wouldn't have become as successful, attractive, well-known, marketable or beautiful to watch. Born within eight months of each other, the three men haven't just given us hundreds of thousands of moments of pure football joy. They've also played over 2000 senior matches, the majority of which for just three clubs: Barca (Iniesta), Atletico Madrid (Torres) and Real Sociedad (Prieto).
But it's too easy to focus only on the things to celebrate at this moment. Prieto was blessed with imperious physical grace, which has facsimiles in how both Zinedine Zidane and Juan Carlos Valeron played. "El Nino" Torres was thrilling mix of the mind and technique of a modern Spanish player plus the physique, pace and power of the prototype Premier League footballer. Andres Iniesta's trademark has been that constantly whirring, ticking and processing mind, matched only by his constantly whizzing, tricking and turning movements with the ball.
So, you ask, when they've fulfilled most of their dreams, lived most of ours and when it was always inevitable that their most fearsome opponent would be "Father Time," why the grim foreboding? Why not just simply abandon ourselves to praise and nostalgia?
Because these three guys came from a wasteland. They came from a horrible footballing winter during which players like them weren't appreciated, weren't understood and could easily have been thrown on the scrap heap, discarded as luxury items for whom it was neither worth fighting or wasting valuable patience upon.
The clock is ticking for them. These three utterly admirable footballers have, at best, 19 domestic Spanish games left between them. What I fear is that the clock is also ticking towards a mass amnesia about how damn hard it was for footballers like Iniesta, Torres and Prieto to make an impact, be trusted, be promoted, be handed responsibility or be properly appreciated given that they weren't glamorous foreign names with vast price tags.
Please don't let the clock be ticking towards a return to that barren thinking, sterile mindset when everyone focuses on the power of the transfer market, the hypnotic "quick fix" of buying solutions and the memory loss of how nourishing and enriching it is to back slow-cooking talent ahead of fast-food junk.
Prieto, Iniesta and Torres are now royalty at their clubs; they will be that for eternity. But I'm here to tell you that they were once viewed as serfs and simple foot-soldiers, players not considered regal by any stretch of the imagination.
Take Torres. Known as "El Nino" ("The Kid") not because he remains boyish looking at the age of 34, but because he broke into the first team aged just 17. Having won most of the grand prizes in club or international football you'd be forgiven for thinking that his talent, height and pace powered him into what was predestined to be a deserved place in the Spanish elite.
Yet he told me quite the opposite.
"If Atleti had been pushing for the title instead of stuck in Division Two, then perhaps I'd not have been trusted so early. If Spain were already world champions, when I was ready to be picked, then I'd have had a much longer wait to debut.
"When I was breaking through, our guys who were winning so many tournaments at junior level with Spain were being told by their clubs that they weren't needed. They had bought 'better' players. That's when you began to see that exodus from the Primera Division. [Cesc] Fabregas to Arsenal aged 15, [Gerard] Pique next, Xabi Alonso and [Alvaro] Arbeloa to Liverpool.
"If Cesc had stayed at Barcelona, he'd probably have got his first cap aged 24! That's almost the age Iniesta had to wait for even though he's a footballer with skills from another planet."
As Torres says, Iniesta, who's now regarded as a footballing deity, wasn't trusted at first, neither by club nor country. Intermittently used at Barca by Frank Rijkaard, who took an eternity to decide whether to allow the 21-year-old to be loaned to Rangers when the Camp Nou board delegated the decision to him, Iniesta had come on in a Champions League final at half time (2006) to turn defeat into victory before Spain even capped him: in fact, he was 22 years old. The same guy who, aged just 15, Pep Guardiola had spotted as having the talent to "retire both me and you" when discussing the pale kid with Xavi Hernandez. It took seven more years for Iniesta to be backed, understood and believed in by club or country. Right now, it seems impossible, scandalous even. But that was just over a decade ago.
England were (and still are) much mocked for failing to vest responsibility and faith in Paul Scholes, one of their great post-war footballers. But neither Spain nor Barcelona can deny that they were on the verge of going down that same route with Iniesta.
Prieto was different. Coming from the youth system of a club desperate to match their neighbours, Athletic, for "home" production despite having "opened" their books to foreigners 15 years earlier, this prodigy was heralded as an emerging diamond. However, he had to force his way through paid "guns for hire."
When the Basque derby of 2004 became Prieto's second senior league match, six of La Real's starting XI were foreign, hailing from Holland, Argentina, Serbia, Turkey, Russia and Norway. Last weekend, just four of La Real's 18-man match squad were not from Spain.
"There were more foreigners in the squad when I was coming through," said Prieto. "It was harder to get to know them, to relate to them. They were big names, big signings and I was wracked with nerves either training with them or being daring enough to talk to them."
During their sublime careers, these three have each seen the pendulum swing. Torres, at least until his knee problem in 2010, had no perceivable deficiencies. He was the exception. But Prieto was a creative midfielder who was forced by his coaches to play wide and who "never really had much pace."
Iniesta was small, not terrifically prone to scoring regularly (albeit occasionally in spectacular fashion), often fighting injury problems and deemed "out of vogue" by some at his club compared to Marc Van Bommel, Edmilson and the breed of tall, tough, fast midfielders at, for example, Chelsea. However Spanish (and indeed world) football gradually began to believe all over again that there was a massive value in terms of homegrown players carrying the club's pride, history, DNA and ideology with them into crucial campaigns.
European football began to value technique, balance, vision, possession, intelligence, passing and wit over those who could merely run fast, leap high or impose their strength. Prieto, Torres and Iniesta lived through, and indeed helped to catalyse, a true renaissance in football, an era of brilliance over muscularity, technique over height and even investment over purchase.
It is a coincidence, perhaps, that just as these three representatives of a generation including David Villa, Xavi and Valeron, and that produced David Silva, Iago Aspas, Cesc, Juan Mata, Sergio Busquets and Pedro, are finally hauling up the white flag at their current clubs, Barcelona has chosen to invest significantly upwards of €250 million within the space of five months on two players who've so far yielded just 1700 minutes between them.
Given time, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele will mature and flower. But the lack of faith in youth team products and the vulgar sums spent on trying to "assure" success rather than build it bode badly for the Camp Nou budget -- and Barcelona's quickly evaporating "philosophy."
Kudos to Madrid, without question, for their successful policy of loaning out youth products and then hauling them back, even if for a transfer fee, because they are "ready." This has worked abundantly well with Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio, Casemiro and will do so with Jesus Vallejo eventually, perhaps even with Marcos Llorente too. But storm clouds loom over the project to transplant Theo Hernandez, Dani Ceballos or Borja Mayoral (plus Vallejo and Llorente) into Zinedine Zidane's squad, which includes Achraf Hakimi and Alvaro Tejero. My theme today will look more pessimistic still if patience around the Valdebebas and Bernabeu offices in that ideology runs out after less than 12 months.
Happily, there are always exceptions -- Valencia's development and use of Jose Gaya, Ferran Torres, Carlos Soler, Nacho and Toni Lato is a shining example -- but just look at Real Betis denying the very impressive Lorenzo (Loren) Moron a first-team debut until he was well past 24 years old. It's bizarre and redolent of 2004 and previous eras.
The key point here is this: it's not a given that Spain was always, is now, or will always be a place where types like Iniesta, Prieto or Torres (and their successors) will consistently be nurtured, treated with patience and vision, promoted, trusted and then, eventually, adored.
So despite Spring blooming in the natural world, I see beautiful petals falling to the ground right now. I hear the cold, blustery wind of Autumn when it comes to how football views the value of either spotting, protecting and developing budding talent, or simply spending its way to the kind of expensive cladding that is significantly beyond budget, is designed to last just one winter and looks far prettier than it is actually effective.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.