Cantera, literally meaning "quarry" in Spanish, is a term used in Spain to refer to youth academies and farm teams organized by sports clubs. It is also used to refer to the geographical area that clubs recruit players from. The term is widely used in Spanish football, and is also applied to sports such as basketball.
Since 1912 Athletic Bilbao have employed a cantera policy. One of the main beneficiaries of the policy has been the Spain national football team. Athletic has provided numerous players for it, second only to Real Madrid.
During the early 1920s, the Basque Country was a breeding ground of great Spanish players. The influx of immigrants from all over Spain helped the region develop dozens of quality players. In 1920 the Spain national football team made their international debut, and entered a team in the Olympic Games. Of the 21 players in the squad, 14 were Basques.
Throughout their history Athletic Bilbao have continued to produce many notable Spanish players. Among them were Zarra, the all-time top goalscorer in La Liga, José Ángel Iribar, who made a record 622 La Liga appearances (466 with Athletic Bilbao) and was a member of the Spain team when they won the European Championship in 1964 and Andoni Zubizarreta the second most capped Spanish international player.
Real Sociedad operated a cantera policy until 1989.
FC Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla
Although Barcelona and Real Madrid regularly recruit foreign players, both are renowned worldwide for developing local players. Along with Athletic Bilbao, both clubs have notable reserve teams, predominantly made up of Spanish players. Numerous senior players have graduated through the ranks of Barcelona B, though it should be noted some were recruited from overseas before signing professional terms, so are not 'home-grown' in the traditional sense.
Similarly, numerous notable professional players have graduated Real Madrid's youth academy, known as "La Fábrica". Real Madrid won the European Cup 1965-66 with a team of eleven Spanish players and a Spanish coach. It was the first time a home-born team had won the competition. Many great home grown players have since passed through the ranks of Real Madrid Castilla.
As well as developing players from their own regions, both clubs have also recruited young players from throughout Spain and abroad. Recent examples include Argentine people Lionel Messi and Esteban Cambiasso.
Other important canteras include:
Ever since the early days of football in Spain, one issue for cantera clubs - as with any sports club worldwide - is the poaching or recruiting of 'their' players by other clubs. After the cantera has trained a player, another club will step in with a tempting offer and take them away.
Athletic Bilbao, however, have also been regularly accused of poaching. The Athletic policy of recruiting only Basque-players has seen them frequently recruit from the canteras of other Basque clubs. The legendary Athletic Bilbao player of the 1930s, Gorostiza, was actually signed from Arenas Club de Getxo. In 1995, Athletic signed Joseba Etxeberria from Real Sociedad, causing considerable bad feeling between the two clubs in those days.
Cantera vs Imports
During the 1990s, the poaching of players took on a new dimension. Real Madrid in particular have regularly produced quality players unable to establish themselves with their home club. Some critics have argued that this has partly arisen because these clubs continue to use imports at the expense of cantera players. This may be one reason why many graduates of canteras - just as in any worldwide sports club - look for greener pastures, and are willing to develop their careers with other clubs.
Initially, cantera players only moved to other La Liga clubs. However, in more recent times[when?], English Premiership clubs have begun to recognise the potential of the Spanish canteras. In 2003 Arsenal persuaded Cesc Fàbregas to leave FC Barcelona B, offering him a much higher salary, which FC Barcelona could not match due to Spanish contractual law; and more recently teenage star Fran Mérida also followed Fàbregas' footsteps and played some time for Arsenal's reserve team, before returning to La Liga in 2010 for Atlético Madrid.
Another emerging Barcelona B player, Gerard Piqué, signed for Manchester United, though subsequently returned to Barcelona. Since then Rafael Benítez, himself a product of the cantera, has recruited Luis García, Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres for Liverpool. Meanwhile, many Spanish players have joined foreign clubs.