ON THIS DAY IN FOOTBALL HISTORY
Jesús Gil makes a disastrous decision (1991)
In the final days of Spring 1991, Jesús Gil made an appearance on afternoon television programme Tan Contentos presented by Consuelo Berlanga. The Atlético de Madrid president, looking smug and very pleased with himself, boasted about his triumphant Under-15 side: “These are my lads – this team you see here are the champions of Spain; these boys won the league scoring 264 goals in 22 games”. He pointed to one, small young boy in the group. “Look, over there, my captain, Raúl González – 55 goals!” Gil bragged, telling the presenter to “remember that name – he’s going to be a phenomenon". Gil was spot on with his prediction, the promising youngster did indeed go on to become a phenomenon – but not at Atlético, at Real Madrid. The young lad was fiercely atlético and proudly antimadridista since he was a boy he confesses in his own biography. What happened?
It was all because Gil took the calamitous decision to close, almost entirely, the youth academy. He told club staff that the club was now unable to fund one – after an audit conducted to verify accounts in order to reconvert Atlético into a public limited company exposed severe financial problems. Back then, the youth team set-up cost 80 million pesetas (just under half a million euros) to run; Atlético had eight teams up and running – two in each category from Under-12s through to Under-19s. In January 1991, he had already considered doing away with the Under-18s, which he finally did – retiring the team suddenly from competition. The situation at the club was delicate for those dedicated to the lower categories with many of the coaches failing to receive their wages, young players who lived on the outskirts of Madrid not receiving travel expenses and others not getting their social security contributions paid. Gil decided to drastically reduce the youth academy to just two teams – one Under-19 side and one Under-15 side, renaming the latter Atlético Chopera, because they played at the sporting complex of the same name in the Retiro park. Dozens of young players were left without a team; the best of them were quickly snapped up by Real Madrid - among them, the recently-turned 15-year-old Raúl and Jorge López Marco ‘Tote’.
Raúl went on to give 15 years of successes and goals to Madrid. It was a tremendous loss for Atleti and a coup for their crosstown rivals. In the summer of 1994 Raúl was miffed because he wasn’t included in the team for the Under-18s Cup final and returned to Atlético with the idea of signing for his old club. He was offered a place in the Under-19s for that season, graduating to the first team squad the following. But before Atlético could draw up the contract, [Jorge] Valdano, then-coach at Madrid, convinced him to stay. He started playing in the Third Division but soon Valdano started calling him for friendlies with the senior side, finally handing him his debut, three months later against Zaragoza at La Romareda. He would go on to achieve glory with Madrid while Atlético eventually reconstructed their youth academy but by that time, it was too late. The ‘Raúl Generation’ had been lost. But a new figure appeared who epitomized the new devotion to the lower categories: ‘El Niño’ Torres. Drafted to the first team squad aged just 17, he helped the team to gain promotion back to the top flight, and was the main reference in attack for six seasons. When he left to join Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool, he left 36 million euros in the club’s coffers which kept the youth teams going for several years. Out of all of the catastrophic decisions Gil made during his time in charge, dismantling the youth programme was by far the worst.