Justin Bajek had a stellar performance at the right place during the best time with the perfect person watching.
A little more than a year later, the St. Elizabeth High sophomore and Glasgow area resident was training and playing games at one of the world’s storied soccer clubs – Real Madrid in Spain.
“It was funny how that happened,” said Bajek, a blue Real Madrid bag slung over his shoulder after a recent St. E game at the Kirkwood Soccer Club. “It’s a dream. It kind of blew my mind that I actually trained there, where so many legends were.”
Bajek’s journey to Spain began in the summer of 2012 while playing for his Kirkwood Roma club team. Roma had won the under-14 state title and was playing at the U.S. Youth Soccer Association’s Region I Championships in Lancaster, Pa.
Bajek was in goal for a game against TSF Academy of Lincoln Park, N.J., typically one of the region’s stronger sides. He held TSF scoreless in a 0-0 tie, making many difficult saves in the process, said his father, John. TSF had scored five goals in its other two games, including three against eventual regional champion Bethesda (Md.).
TSF Academy director of coaching Luis Mendoza took notice. Every summer since 2008, Mendoza has taken 26 U15 and U16 players to Real Madrid for high-level training and competition with top Spanish players in the same age groups.
“It’s a huge achievement for any player to be selected to take part in this program,” said Mendoza.
Bajek had to submit a video résumé before finally being chosen. On Aug. 18, he flew to Spain. Just being on the airplane, Bajek said, was an intimidating experience. Some of the other players came from Major League Soccer academy teams or had played for U.S. national teams.
“I saw some of the teams guys were playing for, and one of the other goalies was even bigger than me,” said Bajek, who is 6-foot-1 and still sprouting.
Bajek had been a field player before switching to goalie seven years ago. As a result, he feels quite adept with his feet as well as his hands.
In that regard, he felt quite comfortable once he and his teammates began training sessions on Real Madrid’s plush grounds. Opened in 2005, the facility has offices, medical and athletic training facilities and 13 fields with both grass and artificial surfaces. Real Madrid’s first team, which features Cristiano Ronaldo, was there, but trained in a separate isolated area, Bajek said.
“In Spain, their philosophy is the goalkeepers should have the ability of the field players,” Bajek said. “So we didn’t do much goalkeeper training. They stuck us in with the field players. We did one- or two-touch and whatever the field players did, so I felt like I had an advantage going in. I wasn’t at their [field players’] level, of course, but I feel like I’m better with my feet than most goalies.
“The first couple days I was like ‘Do I fit in?’ During the rest of the week I gained confidence in myself and felt like I belonged there.”
That all led to friendlies against corresponding age-group academy teams from Real Madrid, a 2-0 loss, as well as its crosstown La Liga counterpart Rayo Vallecano, a 2-1 loss.
“When they called me up to play I was like, all right. I was kind of nervous. But I when I stepped in I was fine,” said Bajek, who played a half against Rayo Vallecano and allowed just one goal on a breakaway. “I feel I did all right. I made one big save. There was a scramble in the middle and the guy just burst out and he had a dipping shot and I dove to my right and got it.”
Highlights of the visit included attending Real Madrid’s La Liga match with Real Betis and also seeing a Spanish Super Cup match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona.
“I think my foot skills got a lot better from all those drills and my confidence went up 100 percent from just being there,” said Bajek, who hopes to be selected for a similar excursion next summer to Ajax Amsterdam in Holland. “When I came out I definitely said I want to go further in my career.”
His father, who played at Kean College in New Jersey, joined Justin on the trip to Spain. But players were lodged in a hotel separate from their families and the only interaction came during the friendlies and when they attended the professional games.
“I just think it’s great for the state,” John Bajek said of his son’s endeavor. “It was so beneficial for Justin to get that kind of training and that type of interaction. He came home with all these drills in his head. Everything they do there is two-touch soccer. When they played that friendly against Real Madrid’s youth academy team, it was the best 15 minutes of soccer I’d ever seen. They receive, they distribute. “
Bajek also learned that he has to be more vocal in directing his defense. He returned just in time for the start of the high school season. St. Elizabeth takes a 3-1 record into today’s match against Conrad.
“You get a little nervous when you hear another guy was offered a chance to stay over there [with the Real Madrid youth academy],” St. E coach Ed Gibbons said, “so it was nice to have him come back and bring that experience with him. The maturity is there. The presence is there. It was an eye-opening experience for him. But he is still a sophomore and we have to remember that.”