Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mareo: How the school saved the professionals

Ironically, the beautiful story of Mareo, the youth academy of Real Sporting Gijón, starts with a rejection. Back in 1973, the president of Sporting, Ángel Viejo-Feliu was able to convince a relatively prestigious coach, Branko Zebec, to sign for Sporting. The Croatian coach, who had managed the Yugoslavian NT and important clubs of Germany like Bayern Munich or Stuttgart, was ready to sign for the Asturian club, but when he visited the facilities of the club, he decided to give a step backwards and ended up leaving without signing his contract.

Branko Zebec had found miseries. The first team did not have a fix place to train. They used to mix training sessions in their own stadium. El Molinón, with other facilities like Los Fresnos, located in Gijón downtown (nowadays, there is a shopping mall there) and La Fontanía, in very poor conditions. The 2nd team, who were in Regional divisions, very far from the professionalism, used to play in Los Fresnos too and the state of the pitch used to be terrible. At the same time, given the lack of space, the youth teams were playing in different zones of the city or towns of the surroundings, cooperating with other clubs.

Since 1972, the former Sporting president Carlos Méndez Cuervo, impressed by the new facilities of Athletic Club (Lezama), wanted to create a school for his club. The new president Angel Viejo, who also shared the idea, decided to start the project to build Mareo, following the idea of Athletic. But there was a problem: the lack of money. At that time, after 11 seasons in Segunda División, Sporting had been playing in Primera División since 1970, fighting to avoid relegation. The most important players of the club were the Basque winger Iñaki Churruca and, especially, the striker Enrique Castro "Quini".

In the year 1973, Sporting reached the semifinals of the Copa del Rey and FC Barcelona got impressed by "Quini", who became an obsession for the Catalans, but the goals of the Asturian were essential for the team, as he showed in the year 1974, when he won the Pichichi award for the top scorer of Primera División. But, in 1976, Sporting ends up 18th and gets relegated to Segunda División, despite the 2nd Pichichi award for "Quini", and Barcelona insisted in this signing. However, the Assembly of socios of Sporting decided to sell Churruca to Athletic instead, getting 50 million pesetas (300,000 euros) in this operation, blocking the exit of their striker.

All this money was fully invested in the lands that ended up hosting the Escuela de Fútbol de Mareo. In 1978, the facilities were finally opened. We refer to 110.000 m2 with 8 football pitches, locker rooms, gyms, residence for young players, restaurants and offices. In 1977, returned to Primera División and the inauguration of Mareo meets in time with the Golden Era of Sporting, based on important local players like striker "Quini", the defenders Joaquín, Maceda and Jiménez. This team entered in Europe for the first time in the 1977/1978 season, after a great run of results second half of the season, and reached the semifinals of the Copa del Rey.

In the 1978/1979 season, Sporting played their best season in the history and they were the main rivals of Real Madrid. The team was leader of Primera División during 6 weeks in the 2nd round of the competition. The visit of Real Madrid to El Molinón with 8 weeks to go was decisive. Sporting lost the game and never recovered the first position of the league again. Still it was their best season in Primera División.


In the 1979/1980 season, Sporting reached the record of socios (22,796) and the season was wonderful too. Sporting led the standings during several weeks during the first half of the season, although they could not fight for the title with Real Sociedad and the final winner, Real Madrid. Still, Sporting ended up in 3rd position, reached the semifinals of the Copa del Rey and "Quini" was the winner of the Pichichi award for the 3rd time in his career, being 31. It also was the last season of "Quini" in Sporting, since the Asturian striker ended up joining FC Barcelona at the end of the season.

The post-Quini era started with Sporting missing his absence. The team has a wonderful Liga run, near the top positions, but never matching the performances of the previous leagues. Ironically, "Quini" was in their way. Sporting reached the Copa final for their first time ever in 1981 facing FC Barcelona. The Catalans won the final played in the Vicente Calderón (3-1) and "Quini", who had won his 4th Pichichi award with Barcelona in this season, scored the two first and decisive goals of the blaugranas. But it was not their only missed chance. In 1982, despite the bad Liga season, the team reached the Copa final again, this time it was against Real Madrid. Once again, Sporting failed in the decisive moments and the madridistas won (2-1).

If in the previous seasons Sporting had lived a successful era, based on a team full of local players, who had trained in the new facilities of Mareo, the 1982/1983 saw the first real products of the school. Players like the goalkeeper Ablanedo or the striker Eloy Olaya, who made their debut in Primera, had been formed in Mareo and got called by the Spanish NT very soon. The mix of youth talent, who started to appear in the first team, and the local heroes, led by Maceda, were the base of the Sporting of the 80s.


After 2 years of transition, the young team full of players of Mareo started to function at full gas. Despite the departure of Maceda to Real Madrid, the team did not miss his absence thanks to the return of an already veteran "Quini", who acted like a father for his all-life team. The Mareo team managed to finish 4th in the 1984/1985 season, fighting with Athletic and Atlético Madrid for the 2nd position, although far from FC Barcelona, who ended up winning the title. Sporting returned to Europe.

In 1986, Sporting achieved a historical victory against Sacchi's AC Milan in El Molinón, although they did not go too far in the UEFA Cup. In La Liga, Sporting repeats a good season, but unfortunately for them, they did not gain the ticket to Europe for just one point. But the team did it again the following year, after they finished in the 6th position. This 1986/1987 season is historical for the 0-4 victory at the Camp Nou, with goals scored by Eloy (2), Flores and Luismi. It was also the year of the transfer of Eloy Olaya to Valencia and, especially, the year of the retirement of the biggest icon in Gijón's history: "Quini"

After one year of transition, the 1988/1989 season was especially important. The coach García Cuervo makes three young talents have their debut in Primera División. These players were the central back "Pitu" Abelardo, the striker Luis Enrique and the winger Javier Manjarín. In this period, Sporting was in re-building process, based on the new talents. In the following two years, aside the very important players of 1989, other players like Luis Sierra, Arturo, Oscar, Tati or, especially, Juanele made their debut too. The 2nd great wave of Mareo.

Luis Enrique

The new decade starts very well for the new Sporting. In the 1990/1991 season, despite the injuries of Manjarín and Ablanedo during the season, the young striker Luis Enrique along with the Czech player Luhovy lead the team to the UEFA Cup spots with their goals. The club ends up selling Luis Enrique to Real Madrid for 250 million pesetas (1,5 million euros), being the first member of the new generation that is sold by the club.

The transfer of Luis Enrique to Real Madrid at such a young age was a change in the policies of the club. Until that moment, the club had been able to retain their talent until they reached the maturity, but Luis Enrique was a sad exception. In 1992, the only member of the Golden Era that still was a member of the squad, Joaquín, retired. The team was full of international players in the top category like Ablanedo, Abelardo, Manjarín or Christiansen (on loan from Barcelona); or in youth international teams, like Juanele, Tomás, Avelino, Dani Díaz, Ivan Iglesias, Pablo or Emilio Gutiérrez. Despite some nice performances, like the victories in the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabéu in 1993, the team is in constant decline (8th in 1992, 13th in 1993). The club changes its direction and the selling of young talent becomes permanent: In 1993, Iván Iglesias joins FC Barcelona, Manajarín was sold to Deportivo and Juanele is exchanged for the striker of Tenerife, Pier. In 1994, Abelardo is sold to FC Barcelona.

The replacements were more or less questionable, since some of them still gave the club good moments, like Lediakhov. But most of them were players in the last part of their careers (Julio Salinas, Eloy Olaya, Villarroya, Bango, Giner, Yekini) or rejections of other squads (Velasco and Morales from Real Madrid or Marcos Vales from Deportivo).  Some of these players still could add something to the team during the 90s, although it was remarkable that most of them were over the 30 years old age. This trend got even worse when the Bosman rule applied and the money of TV rights was a flood in La Liga. The club forgot Mareo (with the only exception of Sergio Fernández, who was not a top player anyway) and the youth team to invest money in foreigners, who did not reach the expected level, like Roland Gómez, Nikiforov, Cheryshev or Souza.

Eloy Olaya

After 21 years in Primera División, Sporting got relegated to Segunda División in 1998, showing a pathetic image, with only 2 victories and 13 points in the entire season, one of the worst records ever in La Liga. The relegation had a shocking effect on the club. The so-wished promotion was lasting too much and the financial situation of the club was a disaster. In 2002, Sporting sold the school of Mareo to Gijón's City Hall for 12.5 million euros in order to survive. In the year 2003, a 22 year old David Villa, who had been the best player of Mareo since the late 80s and early 90s, was sold to Real Zaragoza after his two fantastic seasons in Segunda with Sporting, scoring 41 goals in 85 games. In the year 2005, Sporting went into administration and had to look at the forgotten Mareo as necessity and the young players of Gijón kept the team in Segunda. During this period of time, Mareo gave Sporting the resources to survive. The money received for the facilities and the home players used during these years gave the club oxygen to survive and to set the base for their return to Primera in 2008.

Since 1978, when Mareo opened its doors for the first time, Sporting enjoyed their best times in football, especially during the 80s, with home talent that reached the top in total communion with the fans, but at the same time, these football pitches, these offices, these walls and grass have been essential for the club to survive. During the last year, Sporting is in talks with the City Hall of Gijón in order to recover the property of the facilities, which can be done refunding the money paid by the public administration in 2002.

Even though Sporting Gijón has been renting the facilities since they were sold, the club aims to recover Mareo for Sporting. The club is decided to make a serious bet for the youth system again. As an example of it, Sporting received the Football Draft award in 2009, which is given to the club that has more debuts of young players in Primera División, thanks to their coach Manuel Preciado and his trust in the youth. Mareo is the soul of the club, the chain that connects the club of the city, symbol of success and safety in the darkness. This is the story of one of the best academies of the Spanish football.

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