At the turn of the century, three young and exciting talents emerged from the world’s famous football nurseries. But in a cruel twist of fate, Mourinho’s Madrid would sell Marcos Tebar to a lower-division club for a meagre $100, Pitu waited for 10 years for a 30-minute cameo for Barcelona while Gustavo Oberman would hope in vain of replicating his youth days’ success with Argentina’s national team. Mihir Vasavda profiles the players who swallowed the disappointment of their unfulfilled careers and took a flight to India to keep doing what they love the most: play football
Marcos Tebar- Youngest to make Real Madrid ‘debut’
Marcos Tebar spent more than a decade graduating through multiple Real Madrid teams. But his most memorable moment came in the 26th minute – not on the football field, though.
A young Marcos was at school when his father turned up unannounced. “They want you at the training ground,” his father told him, as he recalls. ‘They’ were Real Madrid. The drive to the club’s ground was a quick one. “When we reached, the only person I saw was Zinedine Zidane apart from a few cameramen,” Tebar, who was 15 back then, says.
A documentary on Zidane was being shot. It is titled Como un Sueño, roughly translated to ‘Like a dream.’ For Tebar, it was just that. His role was to make Zidane’s balletic grace look effortless in cinema – a few keepy-uppies, dribbles and also a little bit of show-boating. “Easily my most memorable moment,” he says, getting goosebumps even after 15 years since that morning.
Tebar had already been at Real Madrid for three years, having joined the club in 1998. A young Juan Mata and Alvaro Negredo were his batch-mates. But there was something about Tebar back then that mesmerised the club hierarchy. The club’s chief scout, Paco de Gracia, went a step ahead and compared his playing style to Zidane, as per an archival report in Spanish sports daily AS.
At just 16, Tebar became one of the youngest to wear the famous white jersey. During a pre-season friendly in 2002, the defensive midfielder came on as a like-for-like substitute for Albert Celades (who had 72 Barcelona appearances) in the first-half against Seville in a pre-season friendly at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. Real lost the game 1-0.
Tebar’s career, though, was looking up. In 2003, he played in every match of the U-17 World Cup alongside David Silva, Fabregas, Javi Garcia and the rest. So talented was the bunch that no team came close to challenging them as they were crowned junior world champions. Como un Sueño.
Then, the Galacticos happened. Real’s flamboyant president Florentino Perez hand-picked the greatest talents on the planet. Ronaldo, Carlos, Zidane, Figo, Raul, Beckham, Casillas… “Those were surreal moments. It was like a dream,” he says.
But as a collateral, the club’s academy products suffered. The dream turned sour for the homegrown products and Tebar’s career plateaued. “It’s hard to play for Real. They sign the best players in the world,” he confesses. “I played for Real Madrid Castilla (second division side) along with Negredo and Mata.”
Just when his hopes were fading, Tebar got a first-team call-up in November 2005. Then Real manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo included him in the squad for the home match against Real Zaragoza. But he wasn’t used. It would be another three years before he got a first-team call again, this time by Juande Ramos and – 10 years after he joined Real – Tebar finally made his debut in the final game of the 2008-09 season against Osasuna.
In July 2010, three days after the newly-appointed manager Jose Mourinho bought Angel di Maria for $25 million from Benfica, Tebar was ‘sold’ to second division Girona for just $100. Tebar smiles embarrassingly upon mentioning that. “Many operations in Spain are like that. You have to put a small amount to make a transfer official. Mine just made it to social media,” he says.
Ever since he joined La Fabrica (The Factory, Real’s youth academy), Tebar had held just one dream – to play for ‘his’ club. But after spending 12 years there, he managed just 32 minutes of playing time for the first team. It was a dream gone awry.
He tries to forget the chapter (“that’s Real Madrid, they sign best in the world,” he says again) but the disappointment of not being able to play for his childhood club is apparent even today. “It wasn’t my decision (to leave the club). It’s always like that when you are with Real Madrid. You always want to be there for as long as possible,” he says. “My dream was to play for Real. But if not, then another team in La Liga. Playing matters.”
In the three seasons with the Catalan side, Tebar played more matches than the fees the club paid for him. After a stint in England with Championship side Brentford, Tebar decided to accept the Delhi Dynamos offer after ‘hearing some good things about ISL from (Goa’s Spanish midfielder) Jofre’.
But the Madrista in him never left. “When you’re in Real, you live in another world. It is not the real football world. Other teams are so, so different,” he says.
“You get used to certain big things and then you move to another club, everything is so… It is tough to adjust. But I enjoy it. You have to, because if not, your mind would…”
He tries to hide his disappointment. And midway through the sentence, the twinkle in his eye and an impish grin return. “It doesn’t matter. It’s Real Madrid. You’re just lucky to be there.”
The La Masia graduate
It’s an old, slightly grainy picture. In a fluorescent-green training kit, a leaner and much-younger Xavi is on the left. Samuel Eto’o, on the right, looks agitated for some reason. In the centre is Pitu, stroking his chin.
Flip to another old picture and in it, the Blaugranas are posing for a team picture just before the kick-off. All the usual suspects are there — Deco, Eto’o, Xavi, Messi… Our man Pitu is there, too. Standing right above Messi, in the corner of the frame.
Chances are you might have never heard of him. Not many in India had until he chose to sign for Pune City. But as he moved from centre of the photograph to the corner and ultimately out of it, one wonders what went on in Pitu’s mind when he saw those images again. Good old days? Or a case of what might have been; a career unfulfilled? We can’t say for sure.
But the modest, single-tiered stands of the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune are a far cry from the giant sports amphitheatre in Barcelona that Pitu once hoped he would grace. The midfielder was 13 when he walked through the La Masia gates. Like others with him, he daydreamed about playing for Barcelona. The ‘others’ in this case were Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Pique, no less. Briefly, they were coached by a young Pep Guardiola.
Pitu remembers his La Masia days fondly. “I lived at La Masia for nine long years and staying at the academy has taught me so many things that are beyond any explanation,” he says. “Messi was absolutely fantastic. We didn’t train together much as he was shifted to the next level in no time.” Unfortunately for Pitu, the transition wasn’t smooth for him. He got stuck with Barcelona’s ‘C’ team for three years before graduating to the ‘B’ team, where he spent another two years. But then, the midfielder had long made peace with the fact that stepping on the hallowed turf of the Nou Camp would remain a dream unfulfilled.
“It’s a tough life in Spain to be a footballer. You go through the grind like never seen anywhere. You are competing from the day you first kick the ball in life,” he says. “First to be the best in your community, in your family, school, youth club, college… like there is competition for being a good footballer everywhere. Simply put, only the best players in Spain can play for Real Madrid or Barcelona, and that too not all.”
At a club with an embarrassment of riches, Pitu couldn’t stand out. He had to compete with some of the best players of this generation for a place in the Barcelona midfield. He tried for close to a decade, including his academy days, but could manage just one appearance. He was brought on as a second-half substitute against Athletic Bilbao by Frank Rijkaard. By then, Barcelona were already crowned champions in 2005-06 season.
The following season, he was sold by the club to lower-league side Girona. “It was a sad moment. But I knew that I didn’t have a chance to play in the first team at Barcelona so it was better to move out of there,” he says. “If you are the only one who is sidelined then you feel bad. But then when you are amongst a bunch of other talented individuals, you realise it’s not because you are not good.”
Pitu continued to slog in the lower rungs of Spanish football as Barcelona, under Pep Guardiola, set a new benchmark in club football. There’s no regret or disappointment, however. “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t play for Barcelona. Yes, it would’ve been a dream come true. But not all dreams are meant to come true.”