Real Madrid's talented youngsters suffered a double blow on Saturday. Not only did the club's Juvenil A team, the under-19s, suffer defeat in the Copa del Rey youth final against their Rayo Vallecano counterparts, but many were left with worries over their immediate futures.
The next step on a very high and tricky Real Madrid ladder is, or was, Real Madrid C. That step is set to be scrapped this summer, though, as president Florentino Perez looks to overhaul the youth setup, which will also see the club doing away with two other teams at youth level.
The news is yet to be confirmed but Perez announced his plans in front of club members at a meeting last September. "The objective is to reduce the teams in the youth system," he said. "We are studying the possibility of making Castilla and Madrid C the same team and reducing the amount of Juvenil teams to just one."
The move, according to Perez, is to ensure only the best players remain in each category and to make each team stronger by only hanging on to the creme de la creme. Others believe it is a cost-cutting exercise as the president places even more emphasis on a first-team he spares little expense on.
Either way, this summer will be one that leaves some talented players looking for pastures new with that leap from junior to senior football being made even bigger. The next step is now Real Madrid Castilla, the club's B team competing under the stewardship of Zinedine Zidane in the third tier of Spanish football. Up until now, the club's third string played in the regional fourth tier, allowing more time and another level for players to adapt and to improve.
Some will be lucky. Agoney Gonzalez, 20, is on the verge of a move to Borussia Dortmund, even though the winger missed large parts of this season through injury. The likelihood is that Madrid will allow some top talent to slip through their fingers with this latest move surrounding La Fabrica (The Factory, as it is known in Spain). Reports suggest Premier League clubs are also on alert to sweep up any talent with up to 25 youngsters facing the challenge of finding a new club.
You only have to look as far as Raul and how Madrid came to have the striker on their books in the first place to see how this downsizing could hurt the club. Neighbours Atletico Madrid announced similar plans to cut down their academy for financial reasons under president Jesus Gil, and Raul eventually found his way across the city to become Madrid's all-time leading scorer. Only time will tell if Madrid make a similar mistake with some of their youngsters currently heading for the exit.
The next step is Zizou's Castilla, but only a handful will make it. Zidane's son, Enzo, is expected to be one of them after being given a taste of Castilla action last season, but some will simply not be ready -- not yet.
In the modern game, players progress to first-team football earlier than ever before -- winter signing Martin Odegaard being a prime example -- but plenty still need time to reach their peak. While one player could show first-team potential at 15, another will only blossom aged 20. That difference is now likely to be costly within the walls of Valdebebas.
Alvaro Arbeloa, Diego Lopez, Esteban Granero, Guti, Iker Casillas, Javier Portillo, Juan Mata, Jose Callejon and Mista all sit alongside Raul in players that have utilised Real Madrid C. Some took advantage of the step up in training, some only played a handful of games, while others spent a season honing their skills. Now that step is set to disappear and those kind of players will disappear with it.
Even first-team coach Rafa Benitez spent time in the third team, back then known as Real Madrid Aficionados before changing its name in 1990 under a Spanish Football Federation ruling. Benitez knows first hand the importance of Real Madrid C to the club, but the decision was taken way before his arrival.
The move is a far cry from the "Zidanes and Pavones" campaign Perez led in his first stint at the Bernabeu helm. The construction magnate wanted to complement his big-money signings such as the Frenchman with top young homegrown talent like Francisco Pavon. In the end that didn't work out, and although Castilla graduates such as Jese Rodriguez, Dani Carvajal and Nacho Fernandez joined Casillas and Arbeloa in the first team last season, this latest move is set to further hamper youth development at the club.
While it is true that Madrid will hang on to their better players, their progression is the worry. A step up to Castilla is within sight but Madrid have been turning to splashing the cash on top young talent for their B team as well as their first team in recent seasons. It is not simply a team full of players that have progressed through all tiers of the club.
That leap from youth football to senior football will only get bigger if things go according to plan. Zidane's target next season is to get Castilla back to the second division after missing out in his first year in charge, and if that happens the gap will be huge. Some will make it such is the talent pool at the 10-time European champions, but plenty will have to move on.
If the pressure was already on youngsters at Valdebebas, it is only set to ramp up. The Juvenil A side will remain and compete in the Division of Honour and UEFA Youth League but on top of winning, as is always the priority at Madrid, they will be playing for their very futures. Any players on contract who move on will likely have a buy-back clause in any deal, but that is only sticking a plaster on the wound.
Some will look at Joan Laporta's decision to scrap Barcelona's C team back in 1997. La Masia's reputation has not been damaged but the Catalans still have two more teams than Madrid do if they merge Castilla and Real Madrid C and pull the plug on two Juvenil squads. Almost two decades ago Barcelona's third string suffered automatic demotion to the fourth tier of Spanish football owing to the B team's relegation to the third tier. Laporta did not inscribe them for the following season.
Now it is Madrid's turn to change the youth team scenery in the hope they can emulate their greatest rivals' famous La Masia. The problem is that La Fabrica has always produced talent but has failed to match the standards in Catalonia at honing that talent and easing it into the first team. Madrid's latest move is only set up to see more quality slip through their hands.