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Nov 7, 2011

The decline of the Club Star

Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain started his first La Liga match for Real Madrid on a cold January evening in 2007 against Zaragoza. Back then he was just 19 years old and, despite his young age, huge expectations surrounded his arrival at the Bernabeu as €13 million appeared a big price tag for an unproven, virtually unknown striker.

Madrid started off strongly and, after only nine minutes, a cross from the right found Higuain in scoring position. He tried a first-time volley with his right foot, but badly squandered the chance, only half connecting the ball and the Bernabeu responded to the miss with overwhelming silence, only broken by a low murmur of disapproval that would follow the Argentinean for some seasons to come.

I was watching the match live in the broadcasting booth of a large Spanish radio network, located in the privileged position of the Madridistas' media zone. Raul, the network's play-by-play man, narrated in a strong, disappointed tone, emphasising Higuain's wrong body positioning when he hit the ball. ''That was a LEFT foot volley, muchacho'', were his final words before going to a quick commercial break. After turning his microphone off, he told the other commentator and myself: 'Verdict: He's s**te'.

Shocked at the harshness of his judgment, I offered a mild 'Come on, that was his first play', but he quickly countered: ''That's not my opinion, it's the Bernabeu's. Supporters don't have time for this. No left foot, poor body language, terrible teeth... What does he want, four years to develop and rebuild his smile?''

Almost five years later, with 88 goals scored, 183 matches played, four domestic titles and a distinctively beaming smile, Gonzalo Higuain looks indeed like an infinitely more accomplished player. Including his moment of beauty during Real Madrid's 7-1 rout of Osasuna on Sunday afternoon, he's scored 11 times in 11 matches so far this season.

However, for a decent part of these last five years, Raul was right. Most of the Bernabeu faithful took the Argentinean with more than a pinch of salt, despite his key performances in several matches that led the club to silverware, such as his impressive form in the final sequence of matches of the title-winning 2007-08 season.

To a sizeable number of Madridistas, Higuain's speed, ability to find open spaces, and scoring prowess couldn't make up for some glaring misses and technical flaws, even if these appeared like understandable points for development among the growing capabilities of any top striker in his early twenties.

Against the harsh verdict of many, the Argentinean ended up earning himself those years of growth that the Bernabeu didn't seem keen to grant him when he arrived, a quite similar case to that of team-mate Karim Benzema, although the Frenchman seems to have evolved at a faster pace.

Since the new century started, talented young players like Higuain find it increasingly difficult to earn enough chances to grow in their respective squads. More than in any other period, immediate impact has become a must for them to get recurring playing time and avoid getting sold to another team. Believe it or not, this trait is not the prerogative of the Madridistas - although they do have a long list of promising players who got burned and were then sold or loaned before being given the chance to shine elsewhere, as Sergio Canales and Pedro Leon can easily testify.

In this era of agents running the show, clubs creating investment funds, sheiks-come-sporting-directors, clubs and players splitting image rights deals, and companies investing in portfolios of players, Gonzalo Higuain belongs to an increasingly harder-to-find category of players: the Club Stars.

Leaving aside the top two teams for a second, up to less than a decade ago, one could point to one player (the hereafter called 'Club Star') in several clubs that complied with the following characteristics: a) had been developed by that same club since his early twenties; b) had become a bigger footballer with his team's successes and failures; c) had a few shots at earning caps with his international team; d) as a result, embodied the image of their respective clubs like no other signing possibly could.

With this concept I am not referring to the jugadores de club (club players) - those dependable, loyal workers who pledged themselves to fulfil their otherwise average careers with one specific club - but rather to those such as the iconic Raul Tamudo for Espanyol, Gaizka Mendieta for Valencia, Javier de Pedro for Real Sociedad, Julen Guerrero for Athletic or Francisco Narvaez 'Kiko' for Atletico de Madrid, using the 1999-00 season as an example. Teams with 'Club Stars' usually had a chance to win silverware back then, either in La Liga or the Copa del Rey, and were usually the toughest competitors for Real Madrid and Barcelona.

What used to be the rule a few years ago has now become a rarity, and this is not only a product of the uneven distribution of TV rights. Sadly enough the system, and especially its main actors, now favour impatience and quick sales over calm and development opportunities for young players. Most Primera Division clubs have now enthusiastically joined the intermediary chain that fosters a constant pilgrimage of players among teams and hardly reinforces the clubs' chances of creating a cohesive core of players.

Barcelona have obviously stuck to a different approach, with huge investment in home-grown players, no matter their nationality. One of them, a certain Lionel Messi, rescued them from an almost certain defeat on Sunday in Bilbao, earning Barcelona the draw that Phil Ball predicted last Friday. Needless to say, the Catalans are not immune to their fair share of dodgy signings, but their youth teams' philosophy significantly restricts the damage they would inflict on themselves by killing the career of promising youngsters.

It's clear that Barcelona's Club Stars' would be: Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Pedro and Lionel Messi, while Real Madrid would have Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Gonzalo Higuain. But nowadays who else does?

Obviously Athletic's Basque-only policy rewards them in this respect, as Fernando Llorente, and to a lesser extent Javier Martinez and Iker Muniain could be classified under this tag. Sevilla's Jesus Navas qualifies as well, and stretching the concept we could also include Real Sociedad's Xabi Prieto and Valencia's Pablo Hernandez [although 'stretch' could be an understatement in his case], but after those two quite generous additions it becomes difficult to identify more of these players, who used to be one of the main links between clubs and their supporters, in the current La Liga squads.

Currently at the peak of its powers of recruitment, Spanish football keeps getting recognition. Seven Spaniards figure among the 23 footballers selected for the FIFA Ballon D'Or award - Germany is a distant second, with three - while 13 of those 23 players ply their trade in La Liga. Nonetheless, the embarrassment of riches in the top two clubs continues, while the teams that used to be their rivals keep moving players on in their formative years and copy the impatient approach that only the clubs with deeper pockets can afford.

At some point, the upper middle class of Spanish football needs to get their act together and rediscover their 'Club Stars', those icons that used to lead their teams to glory in the past. Otherwise, we run the risk of repeating this exercise five years from now and we won't be able to find a single one outside the top two.

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