BARCELONA (Reuters) - Chinese-owned Espanyol are pushing for a return to European football for the first time in a decade barely a year after being taken over and their rise has been fuelled by a new generation of home-grown talent rather than big-money signings.
When the Catalans, beaten UEFA Cup finalists in 2007, thrashed Osasuna 3-0 on Sunday to move to within four points of a Europa League spot there was extra satisfaction as six of the 11 players on the pitch had come through the club’s academy.
Defenders Marc Navarro and Aaron Martin and midfielders Marc Roca and Oscar Melendo featured together for the first time since making the leap from the reserve side, joining locally-born midfielder David Lopez and forward Gerard Moreno, who have returned since spells at Napoli and Villarreal respectively.
“These are players that came through on their own merit, they didn’t come in to plug a hole due to an injury, they’re going to have long careers in the top flight,” Angel Morales, head of Espanyol’s academy, told Reuters in an interview at the club’s Dani Jarque training complex.
“We had two generations full of very good footballers who have just reached adulthood and it was only a matter of time before they emerged, so we’re bearing the fruit of lots of hard work in previous years.”
Framed pictures of Melendo, Roca, Martin and Navarro are the latest additions to the walls of the academy’s office which shows every player to have appeared for the first team, from Manchester United defender Eric Bailly to top scorer Raul Tamudo.
Like many Spanish clubs, Espanyol felt the knock-on effect of the country’s deep economic crisis in 2008 and were forced to sell their best players to avoid financial ruin.
Those pressures have eased since Chinese firm Rastar Group purchased a controlling 54 percent stake in the club in January 2016.
New president Chen Yansheng said he wanted to see the club qualify for Europe within two years but their transfer activities have so far been discreet.
Last year they recruited La Liga mainstays Jose Antonio Reyes, Diego Lopez and Pablo Piatti, whose experience has been supplemented by the youthful energy of players such as Navarro and Melendo.
“He has transmitted his confidence in the academy and knows about its importance to the history of Espanyol,” Morales said of Chen.
“It’s nice to be able to keep working as we were before even after he has come in and invested a lot of money, that’s a good sign.”
The arrival of the new owner has also lead to an increase in the number of Chinese players emerging in the youth ranks, something youth coach David Fernandez welcomes as long as it does not compromise the quality of the teams.
“It’s difficult because our competitive level is very high and it’s hard to find the right players but we have a few in our teams and little by little there will be more,” Fernandez said.
“We’re always trying to find exciting talent and if we can find that in Chinese players then that’s doubly good.”
Espanyol coach Quique Sanchez Flores has followed Maurico Pochettino in embracing the club’s youth system but has a way to go before he eclipses the 23 academy players the current Tottenham Hotspur manager brought through.
Morales believes the structure of Spanish football, which unlike English soccer pits reserve teams of top-flight clubs against professional sides filled with hardened veterans, allows youngsters to flourish.
“In Segunda B and Tercera (Spain’s regional third and fourth tiers) you get players in their 30s competing against 19-year-olds and that’s a huge apprenticeship for the young players. You learn 50,000 things in every game,” he said.
“We’ve seen players jump from under-18 level to Segunda B and become men within two seasons as they are competing against teams with different weapons. It means they are knocked into shape very quickly.”
Espanyol have long been cast to the shadows of the city they share with Barcelona, who have won six league titles and three Champions Leagues since Espanyol were last in Europe.
Barca’s La Masia academy has been hailed for producing players such as all-time top scorer Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique, although their production line has slowed in recent years.
Espanyol’s youth system is thriving, however, and Fernandez believes the success of its four latest graduates can drive the club’s resurgence.
“When one player triumphs it opens the door for others, it gives stability to the club and generates identity and feeling and belonging,” he said.
“When I see an academy player make his debut it gives me an indescribable feeling. I remember them arriving as children and have watched them succeed. That’s something money can’t buy.”
Editing by Clare Fallon