The Model Club
It is not quite eight years since Osasuna found itself at what Fran Canal, the team’s chief executive, described as the “worst moment in its history.” The team was a single defeat from the ignominy of relegation to Spanish soccer’s third tier. Bankruptcy loomed. The club, he said, stood at the precipice “socially, economically, in terms of credibility.”
On Saturday, Osasuna will face Real Madrid in the final of the Spanish cup, the Copa del Rey. Pamplona, its home city, is decked out in the team’s colors. Tens of thousands of fans are expected to descend on the Plaza del Castillo to watch only the second major final in the club’s history.
It is not the case, of course, that the journey between those two points has been straightforward. It has taken considerable amounts of deft, arduous, painstaking work to rebuild and revive Osasuna. Its rise has been of such a speed, and such a scale, that by definition it cannot have been easy.
It is striking, then, that Canal and his colleagues make it all seem, well, obvious.
One example: Aimar Oroz, a 21-year-old midfielder enjoying a breakthrough season, runs through the list of teammates he has known, essentially, since childhood. Six or seven spring to mind immediately. “The changing room is really important,” he said. “It helps the atmosphere when the people in there are friends.”
Another: In January, Osasuna’s coach suddenly found himself devoid of healthy fullbacks. He could have signed a player, or converted a midfielder into the role. Instead, he drafted in a 21-year-old, Diego Moreno, from the team’s academy. Moreno trained with the team for two days, made his debut in the cup, and within the week was in the lineup for a league game. “That is always where we look first,” Braulio Vázquez, the club’s sporting director, said of the academy. “If the type of player that we need exists here, we will not go and sign one.”
Simplicity, in soccer, is a deceptively complex thing. It is easy to proclaim the virtues of common sense. It is quite another to stand by them in the vortex of hope and pressure and expectation.
Osasuna’s results, though — on course for a top-half finish in La Liga, finalists in the Copa del Rey, all of it on a budget that is a fraction of most of its rivals — mark the club as such a model of best practices that the most pressing question is in plain sight:
Why doesn’t everyone else do it?
The Navarra Gene
At first glance, it is the sort of statistical anomaly that warrants further investigation: Navarra, the Spanish province sandwiched between the Basque Country and Aragon and glazed by the Pyrenees, produces more professional soccer players per capita than anywhere else in Spain. A few years ago, a study found that there was one player for every 22,000 people in the region.
There is a part of Ángel Alcalde, Osasuna’s director of youth development, that would like to believe that is somehow hereditary. He smiles at the idea that there might be such a thing as what he calls a “Navarra gene”: a random genetic mutation that for some reason makes the 650,000 inhabitants of the province better at soccer than everyone else.
He knows, though, that the correct answer is likely to be the simplest one. Navarra’s success has its roots in two things that are not mysteries at all: system and structure.
“There is a culture of soccer in Navarra,” Alcalde said. “But it is a region with just one club: Osasuna. We work with 150 affiliated youth teams. We have 20,000 players in our orbit. We have a very well-developed scouting network. We look for talent under every rock.”
Osasuna does not, of course, have a free run at those players. Part of the reason Navarra as a whole has proved so productive over the years is that the major teams in the neighboring Basque Country — Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad — have long regarded the province’s players as fair game. More recently, Barcelona and Villarreal have identified it as fertile ground, too.
Osasuna cannot pay quite as generously as any of those teams. It certainly cannot match the glamour of Barcelona. What it can offer, though, is a sure path from youth soccer to a professional career, from potential to fulfillment. “Our job is to generate a flow of players for the first team, and to make sure they are ready to jump from Disneyland into Jurassic Park,” Alcalde said. “If you want to become a player, then I am certain this is the best place to do it.”
He is keenly aware, though, that most of those hopefuls who come under his charge will fall by the wayside. “Becoming a player is complicated,” he said. “There are only very few who make it.” To offset that, the emphasis at Tajonar, Osasuna’s youth academy, is as much on health, psychology and emotional development as it is on soccer. “We want to make sure the sport does not do them any damage,” he said. “We do not want to leave broken eggs on the road.”
There will, on Saturday night, be plenty of players on the field whom Alcalde and his staff might point to as validation and vindication, players with, if not a Navarra gene, then certainly what Alcalde calls “Tajonar DNA.”
It is telling, though, that he is just as proud of those who will not be there. “We had one boy who suffered two really bad knee injuries,” Alcalde said. “He had a lot of talent, but it cost him his career. He studied data science at university, and now he is invited back to the club to work with our data department. That is important. We want Tajonar to be a mark of prestige for everyone who comes through, not just the people who become players.”
Where Monday Matters
Aimar Oroz got the call a few months ago. It comes, eventually, for every member of Osasuna’s first team: a request from the academy staff to spend an afternoon training with the youth team, offering any tips or advice they might have, correcting any mistakes they see.
Sometimes, players are sent to train with the youngest members of the club — boys no older than 11 or 12 — but for Oroz and the Croatian striker Ante Budimir, who joined him that afternoon, their charges were a little older: the under-16s and under-18s.
Oroz, in truth, did not relish the role of expert. He is shy, by nature, and only just out of the academy himself. He did not feel especially comfortable being drafted as an older head, or issuing commands. Still, it is a tradition at Tajonar. “It is part of the club,” he said. “It’s something we’re glad to do.”
The message is clear, and twofold: Those sessions show the younger players that the door is open, and they remind the older ones that, no matter how far they might go, they should always remember where they came from.
Whatever happens in the final on Saturday, the experience will broaden Osasuna’s horizons. A victory — the first major honor in the club’s history — would mean a place in Europe next season. Merely reaching the final gives Osasuna access to a spot in Spain’s lucrative Super Cup, staged every January in Saudi Arabia.
Playing will compound the impression that this is a club going places. Its stadium, El Sadar, has been renovated and in its new, sleek form has been voted one of the best in Europe; it is, officially, the loudest in Spain. Now, all of a sudden, it is home to a team ensconced in La Liga and competing with Real, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid — likely the other three Super Cup entrants — for honors.
That success, though, changes absolutely nothing. It is not that Osasuna lacks ambition; far from it. But the club, Canal said, will not “lose its values,” will not abandon the methods that have worked so well so far. It will continue to do the simple thing, the obvious thing.
“We know that means there will be bad moments,” said Vázquez, the sporting director. The success of this season will not necessarily follow again next year. “But that is the policy of the club, and the people understand that,” he said. “We cannot normalize something that is not normal.”
And so, whatever happens on Saturday, Osasuna will go on being run as it has been for these past eight years, from the nadir to the zenith. There might be a celebration. There might be a commiseration. The club that emerges on the other side will be exactly the same.
“Monday,” Canal said, “will still be Monday.”