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Nobody is admitting as much now, but more than a few Spanish eyebrows were raised last summer when Real Madrid spent œ47.2million on Zinedine Zidane yet failed to invest a single peseta in their suspect defence.

Now it seems Vicente Del Bosque had a more economic aceup his sleeve than media darlings Alessandro Nesta and Lilian Thuram.

Eleven years after enrolling at Real’s youth academy, Francisco Pavon made his League debut against Athletic Bilbao in October. A couple of weeks later, the local boy started his first game, against Celta. The tall, slim centre-half has been a fixture ever since.

“After working behind the scenes for so long, Del Bosque knows all Madrid’s apprentices perfectly,” says Pavon, who made his debut the same day as fellow youngsters Raul Bravo and Valdo. “Now he’s first-team coach, home-grown players definitely have more options.”

Pavon’s emergence has coincided with a marked improvement in Madrid’s defensive statistics. In the six League games before his debut, they shipped 12 goals. In the ensuing 16 fixtures, they conceded just another 12. Not surprisingly, Pavon has leapfrogged Aitor Karanka and Ivan Campo in the defensive pecking order.

The 22-year-old is a cool, unflustered presence, despite citing the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as his favourite band. “I don’t have time to get nervous on the pitch,” he says, “and Fernando Hierro gives me enormous security with his constant advice. What better mentor could I have than Europe’s best centre-back? Del Bosque is a big help, too. Before every game he’ll talk me through the characteristics of the opposing forwards.”

Finding a reliable partner for Hierro has long been a Madrid priority. “There’s been a couple of months without speculation about signing centre-halves,” says Pavon, who signed a three-year contract extension in December. “A couple of bad games and the rumours will start again. But I’ve been here since I was 10 and my idea is to stick around for as long as possible.”

The youngster, who like Raul hails from a family of Atletico fans on Madrid’s industrial outskirts, complements his feet-on-the-ground attitude with a lack of vanity. “The worst thing for a defender is conceding goals,” he insists. “I don’t care how many times an attacker nutmegs me as long as he doesn’t score!”

FACT FILE
Club Real Madrid
Country Spain
Born January 9, 1980, in Gandia

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