FC Barcelona has become synonymous with three things over the past few years: the team’s outrageously attractive style of football, a plethora of trophies, and the club’s youth academy, known simply as La Masia.
In early December of 2010, Barca became only the second club after Milan to provide all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or. But it’s the first time in history that the best three players of the year will come from the same club’s youth system.
La Masia as a youth academy as we know it today only existed from October 1979, when former player Johan Cruyff advised then-president Josep Nunez to start the club’s own footballing school as the Dutch master envisioned an Ajax Academy at Barcelona.
Before that, the 300-plus year-old La Masia building was used as a workshop for builders when the Camp Nou was being constructed. It then became the club’s office headquarters, before finally being turned into the Hogwarts of football, a school that produces and nurtures wizards and magicians of extraordinary talent.
Within the space of 10 years or so, La Masia had produced the likes of Guillermo Amor, Carles Busquets, Pep Guardiola and Sergi Barjuan. Quickly to follow were Ivan de la Pena, Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol. In the new millennium, Mikel Arteta, Andres Iniesta, Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique were all introduced to the world. Then of course there’s the most famous of graduates: Lionel Messi.
But how did La Masia overtake its blueprint, the Ajax Academy, so quickly and dramatically?
Barcelona’s philosophy combined the Cruyff influence of Dutch Totaalvoetbal and the Spanish tiki-taka… Totaaltiki-taka, if you like. It’s a lethal cocktail if you think about it: already technically gifted players who can roam all over the pitch slotting in at any position, adept at playing one-touch, quick passing football.
While the current Barcelona team and La Masia have almost always been linked back to Cruyff, there is another man who had a pivotal role to play in its development.
When Louis van Gaal took over as Blaugrana coach in 1997, he revised the youth academy and demanded that Barca permanently adopt a passing game, a style that he first introduced at Ajax which brought them the Champions League in 1995.
Xavi, who models his game after Guardiola, credits King Louis with influencing his familiar style of play that we see today. Van Gaal also gave Carles Puyol and Andres Iniesta their first team debuts and all three still keep in touch with the Dutchman today.
One of the greatest advantages that Barcelona and La Masia have over their counterparts is that their students as young as 13 will play the same brand of football as their seniors in the B team and the first team: sharing the same philosophy, playing and living alongside the same team-mates, working with coaches who have the same ideology and methods year after year.
Pep Guardiola is a prime example of how the Barca system works, not just in the talent that it develops, but the continuity that exists. He joined La Masia when he was 13 and spent six years there. By 20, he was already a first team regular with a league title to show. By 21, he had an Olympic gold medal. At 38, he became the youngest manager in football to win the Champions League. By his 39th birthday, he had lifted six trophies as a coach.
Pep also had a key part to play in the club’s youth football. When he was appointed as the B team coach in 2007, the reserve side had been relegated to the fourth tier. He restructured the team and allowed youngsters above the age of 21 to play in the side to create a more competitive environment.
When he was promoted to coach the senior team, replacing Frank Rijkaaard in 2008, he continually gave opportunities to youngsters, starting with Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Gerard Pique, to the latest batch of La Masia graduates such as Thiago Alcantara, Jeffren and Andreu Fontas
Barcelona’s official website released a list of their 10 most important achievements of 2010, not just from a football perspective. Two of the top five in the list included the club’s continuous emphasis on their youth system. At number three was Barca B’s promotion to the Segunda Division, just three years after they had been demoted to the Tercera (fourth tier) prior to Guardiola’s appointment. In fifth was a subtle reminder of how Spain won the World Cup with a squad that consisted of nine players who came through La Masia.
First on the list was their basketball and hockey teams’ triumphs as European champions.
Barca and Guardiola’s sudden rise and accomplishments over the past two years may seem like an overnight success, but they are anything but.
For every opponent that Messi dances past, for every Croqueta that Iniesta performs, for every tap of the ball from Xavi that splits barricades of defenders, years of hard work has gone into moulding the young neophytes that come through La Masia to turn them into the best players and hopefully one day the best coaches.
We can sit here and debate whether Wesley Sneijder deserves to be in the FIFA Ballon d’Or final three, whether another club’s youth academy has been more productive, whether Cruyff or Van Gaal made the bigger impact at La Masia, or whether Pep’s ‘Dream Team’ is the greatest side of all time.
But there can be no debate that in a world today where football is being dominated by billionaire takeovers, multi-million euro transfers, player rebellions and astronomical wages, that one club can produce three of the best players in the world straight from their own school gives us hope that this sport is not all about business and money.
There can be no debate that when one of Messi, Xavi or Iniesta is crowned the best player of 2010, it will give us all hope that there’s still much beauty in football. Theo