COLUMN: Mixing business with pleasure – Las Palmas, producing the next Pedri and finding bigger full-backs

There’s the effervescently charming Javier Bardem, the heel-sharp global designer Manolo Blahnik, just as elegant with his words is Benito Galdos Perez, and give him a ball, David Silva makes football all balance and poetry too. The pattern is not immediately apparent, but all of them hail from the Canary Islands. All made their name elsewhere, be it Madrid, New York or Manchester. Las Palmas have no intention of changing that.

Pedri, an early graduate from their academy at 17 when he moved to Barcelona, is the latest talent to bring notoriety to the archipelago, timidly promoting projects to clean up the ocean, and ensure children have access to fresh Canarian bananas. The next one is Alberto Moleiro, now 20, and barely blinking in his first year in La Liga.

“When we sell a Pedri, then we have Moleiro now, that’s the way we are. When Moleiro goes, there will be another,” says Sporting Director Luis Helguera. In the media landscape of broad brushstrokes and vague hints, Helguera’s honesty that Moleiro is leaving, you sense in the not too distant future, catches your ear with an unusual abrasiveness.

Moleiro is very clear that he does not play like Pedri, but he is on course to follow him off the islands and into the top level of football. The transparency about it is disarming, and Helguera has no trouble looking their position in the football pyramid in the eye.

“It’s also true that we are a selling club, and it’s good to see players like Pedri playing for Barcelona. Pedri, Vitolo, Jonathan Viera, Roque Mesa, there are a lot of them, they represent us elsewhere. We’ve always done it. We’re not to worried about it, we’re more concerned with our academy development, player development, how we work with them… We understand that, we accept that this is our role. We are a platform and a springboard for people from the island.”

Rather than cling desperately to what talent they can foster and forage for without the spending power of rivals, Helguera at least has made peace with their departure on arrival. Las Palmas have the second-lowest salary cap in La Liga, and the reality is that Pio Pio are competing for players with somewhere around 100 teams at similar levels across Europe. Twenty years ago, that was probably closer to twenty or so, all in Spain.

This summer will bring up two decades since Las Palmas descended into the third tier, and had an existential crisis, but not in the usual throwaway sense you hear of these days. That descent started in La Liga and took just three years, but it would be eleven more before they were back in Primera. The threat was very real, and perhaps that helps inform their perspective when it comes to their ‘role’. General Manager Patricio Vinayo, formerly a journalist himself, says the fundamental issue working within the game is the dichotomy between the emotional and the rational, but it’s a separation they feel they are handling well.

The model appears to be working, but if the academy is the engine financially and football-wise, how do they protect that? With the grand economic canyon to the Premier League growing, Valencia, Barcelona, Real Sociedad and many more are even more obsequious in their talent sweep.

“As we are particular in what we look for within our model, that means the player can see themselves reflected in it, and that makes things easier for us,” assures Helguera. “We don’t try to sign the best player, we try to sign the best player for our style. The scouts know that.”

“They know they will develop, they will grow, and their characteristics fit this club. We let them know how we want them to develop, how we think they can, and our expectations of them.”

Moleiro at least reads from the same hymn sheet, after Helguera has left to catch a flight.

“I think that when Las Palmas knock on their door, players won’t think twice, because they know that we focus on young players, developing young players and playing a brand of football which is technical and nice to watch.”

“It’s true that the academy at Las Palmas know that they need to follow the style of the Canary Islands, they want players with ball, who compete well, that are very technical, very skilful. Tonono, the director at the academy, knows in his bones, that in order to product top talents, this is the way they need to work. They need to develop the young players in order to take them to the elite, as happened with myself, with Pedri, and many more.”

Having acknowledged Las Palmas’ ‘role’ with jarring realism for a sport that sells dreams, you do still get the seduction. The technique, the softness of touch, the subtle delays, the things unite Silva, Pedri, Juan Carlos Valeron, or Kirian Rodriguez and Moleiro.

“A beach, for example, was used as the first football pitch for the players of UD Las Palmas,” says Vinayo, a gentle smile always resting on his face. “The so-called tiki taka style, which Spain would dominate with already had a historical reference point in Las Palmas, because of the style of football, and the associative spirit. There is a phrase in our changing room – ‘none of us are better than all of us together’ – this lies at the heart of a different football.”

Since the boom times, Spain has been criticised often for busting out with that exact style. That identity has been questioned, and sometimes islands can be, for want of a less obvious word, insular. Mainland Spain has a tendency to condescend Canary Islanders, and it’s not exactly regarded as a paragon of modernity by high snobiety. It’s noticeable how open Helguera and Vinayo are to alternative ideas, and the history of the place as a gateway port between the Americas, Iberia and Western Africa shines through.

“We understand how small we are. We’re just a small blob on the map in the middle of the vast ocean,” grins Vinayo wryly. “We’re used to using more imagination or creativity than financial resources, [Las Palmas are] trying to find their way amongst the big-hitters, which has been dominated by big two trans-Atlantic clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.”

“We are the southern-most point of Europe, very close to Africa, and very well-connected with Latin America. Actually Venezuela, we always say it is like our eighth island in the archipelago,” says Vinayo, referencing the largest migrant population, with some 40,000 there as of 2017. “Las Palmas brings together all of these influences that have historically been identified with Latin American values, and in a football sense too.”

“Our model is very specific and clear, but we can’t neglect what is happening in the rest of football, we need to look at how they are playing, what they are doing, why there are so many transitions in football,” comments Helguera brusquely, saying that they watch ‘everyone’, mentioning Aston Villa, Brighton, Union Berlin, Rennes and Wolfsburg as examples.

“How can we adjust our model, to transition towards what is happening in Europe? PSG and Aston Villa are basically creating transitions the whole game, and if we want to sell players… Our model is very specific, but we must also provide the market with what it wants and needs. To give you an example, lately, our full-backs have been on the shorter side, and we’ve noticed that recently more clubs are using taller full-backs, it helps when there are set pieces and the ball is going into the box, and so we’re looking for taller full-backs, and basically adapting to the market.”

Logical, smart, sensible – and still a touch formulaic. It’s not a mantra to fall in love with at any rate, despite the patent romanticism of their blob against the vast mainland. As you allow Vinayo the space though, the warmth comes through, quite literally in the case of their training facility, which uses geothermal energy for heating – “We coexist, we see footballers working within a hollow in the mountain, to give you a visual.”

One of the things that stands out about all of them, from Vinayo to Moleiro to Kirian to Pedri, and can perhaps be extended to Bardem and Silva too, is a kind of reasonable serenity. A sense of what’s important is straying into the grandiose, but it certainly hangs around the right spot.

“We have to connect with the interests of the player, and their families too. We have to understand that they are people first and not footballers, we must look after the person and the footballer, and by doing so all of the footballers that come to Las Palmas will be grateful to us as the cradle of their career, to us, and there will always be a connection and a bond,” proposes Vinayo.

What Vinayo and Helguera espouse doesn’t really relate to their success this season – conspicuous by its absence in this piece – but rather a systematic approach to the future, one shaped carefully around an already-existing culture. An idea that will see players that can continue working for them years after they leave, reinforcing their reputation across the game. Smaller than the megastores with shiny facades, but a respected institution in its own right, a reliable tailor with its niche and its name. It might not be world domination in a traditional sense, but it is, in Vinayo’s view, their route to something special.

“This will make us great, no matter how modest and small we are, no matter how far away we are in the Atlantic Ocean, because in the world of football, everything that surrounds it is about passion. If you feel passionate about a brand or a badge, then you will follow it. Our brand is unique, creative, passionate, friendly, distinctive, and people will follow it.”

Watch UD Las Palmas in LALIGA EA SPORTS on Viaplay, available in the UK on Sky, Virgin TV, Amazon Prime Video and via streaming.

The post COLUMN: Mixing business with pleasure – Las Palmas, producing the next Pedri and finding bigger full-backs appeared first on Football España.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply