La Masia: dilemmas from inside the world’s most famous academy

La Masia: dilemmas from inside the world’s most famous academy

FC BARCELONA’S LA MASIA ACADEMY has been amongst the most efficient of youth systems over the past 25 years. Following Johan Cruyff’s reconstruction that dates back to 1988 (his original idea was pitched to the club nine years prior) – where coaching and education guidelines were rebuilt completely – the Blaugrana have been responsible for rocketing an extortionate amount world-class stars into the game.

However, as many believe that all is rosy around the Cuitat Esportiva Joan Gamper training grounds, there are deep-lying issues and pressures, leading to many questions that remain to be answered.

A fresh Sunday morning in January below the Mediterranean sun, sunglasses and scarves are the favourable accessories as parents watch on from the sidelines, filled with pride as their darling children represent the European champions in the most distinguished academy on the planet.

The doting families are surrounded by onlooking coaches from various corners of the globe, notepads in hands and pens at the ready, all hopeful to catch even the slightest glimpse of a strategy, set-piece or even a warm-up routine that they can take back to their clubs.

Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas, Victor Valdés, Pepe Reina, Pedro, Xavi and Carles Puyol were all La Masia students amongst Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning team. Lionel Messi is another player that you may have heard of that came through the famed institute. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner upped sticks to leave family and friends behind in Argentina at the age of 13, putting his dreams into the hands of Barcelona’s youth coaches.

However, sparing the odd cameo appearance from the likes of Sergi Samper, Gerard Gumbau or Cameroonian Wilfrid Kaptoum, it has been an extreme rarity to see aspiring starlets break into the Blaugrana first team of late. The latter of the three accomplished prodigies joined Barça’s youth ranks in 2008 having been picked up from Samuel Eto’o’s foundation.

Club legend Eto’o bagged over 100 goals for the Catalan giants, holding the record of most appearances by an African player in LaLiga (287 games) and the prolific hitman opened the foundation in 2006, offering opportunities of free football in an organised environment to underprivileged African children. Following the all-time Cameroon top scorer’s departure from the Camp Nou in 2009, Eto’o has maintained a strong relationship with the club and several young players from his academy have made the move over to Southern Europe, donning the blue and red of Barça in search of an education and keys to more benign paths.

Nevertheless, as the red tape surrounding the wellbeing of young people is becoming tighter by the day, legality issues saw the club hit with a 14-month transfer ban as they were found guilty on three fronts. Of the 10 children’s names that were released from the scandal, two of them were acquired from Eto’o’s foundation, and since the unfortunate fiasco the club have been highly attentive and somewhat sceptical over the signatures of budding foreign prospects.

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With the news of the club being made an example of and any transfer activity forbidden, youth team players rubbed their hands together with glee as their aspirations of being called upon to play regularly in Europe’s biggest football arena suddenly seemed a lot more realistic. As both local papers printed and Catalan lips discussed which minors could take the plunge into the fire of top-level football, the new boss had other ideas.

Former head coach Luis Enrique wasted no time in sealing the deals before the transfer ban was in place, bringing Rafinha home with him from Celta Vigo as well as two new goalkeepers in Marc-André ter Stegan and Claudio Bravo alongside Ivan Rakitić, Jérémy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Douglas and of course Luis Suárez.

In a dazzling first season, ‘Lucho’ guided Barcelona back to the optimum of world football, winning every competition in sight and destroying goalscoring records along the way to a historic treble. Credit must be given as the Asturian coach found a way to reinvent the club’s style following a four-year transition period when the rest of Europe caught them up, even if it meant the ‘Mes que un club’ philosophy came second to instantaneous success at times.

Madrid-born with Moroccan parents, Munir El Haddadi was entrusted to accompany the strike partnership of Messi and Neymar in the absence of Luis Suárez, however the Spanish under-21 winger barely featured once the Uruguayan returned. Sandro Ramírez joined La Masia at the age of 14 and although he got the nod for first team duties, the 21-year-old still only made seven LaLiga appearances during the 2014/15 season, netting twice. He now finds himself at Everton via a stint at Málaga.

The lack of opportunities at the elite level was a sign of things to come.

As rainbows and sun shone over the 99,000 all-seater stadium, dark, doomed rain clouds hovered above the Mini Estadi that sits across the road. Picking up only 36 points from 42 games with a minus 28 goal difference, Barcelona B plummeted down to the Segunda B (Spanish third division), leaving a stain on the club’s reputation of having the most prosperous of academies in the land.

Eusebio Sacristán was the man at the helm of Barça’s reserve team for the disastrous term. It was his third spell at the club having spent seven years playing and five more as assistant to first-team manager Frank Rijkaard between 2003 and 2008. It is said that any team spirit and togetherness was lost completely to big characters in a horrific season where heated arguments between players were witnessed and dressing room unrest was the talk of the town. Problems that rooted as far back as 2011 when Luis Enrique left his post as the shot-caller at the Mini Estadi to take the Roma job were now out in the open for the world’s judgement.

Although it was clear to see that many of the raw players were far from ready for the demands of the professional game, a handful of individuals stood out. Traoré, Grimaldo, Halilović and Kaptoum were amongst the names that still impressed in difficult situations and Sergi Samper’s was at the top of the list. Born just blocks away from the first team stadium, Samper joined Barcelona’s setup in 2006 at the age of just six.

An overhaul has taken place within the B team that included Gerard López being appointed as manager. Adama Traoré and Álex Grimaldo fled with aspirations of finding breaks to further their progress in England and Portugal respectively. Sergi Palencia is now the captain, flying the flag for La Masia as he looks to have a fan in López. First-team manager Ernesto Valverde has awarded the right-back the opening to take the initiative by commonly inviting him to train with the first team squad while giving Carles Aleñá further hope of becoming a senior star.

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Controversially, January 2016 saw the outgoings of 10 players that came through the youth ranks of the club. This was a statement made by the club, holding both hands in the air in admittance that many of the recent batches of kids lacked the qualities required to represent Barcelona, whether it be in the footballing ability department or in the character of the individual.

The new face of the team has caused uproar amongst many that stand by the idea of the Barcelona B squad being a group of players that have moved through the ranks together, with the make-up of Barça’s Mes que un club ethos in their mannerisms and instincts. Whilst the heated debates continue, the performances have picked up dramatically with the likes of Anthony Lozano joining after a loan at Tenerife from parent club Olimpia.

Many idealists forget that Barcelona B is a professional team with paying fans that follow them weekly, not only a reserve to the first team. Results are important and whilst people lose their jobs over bad ones, they are bound to take action if players aren’t up to the task at hand.

When playing in a winning side, a player is often at the height of their game, taking chances to establish themselves and moving without worries shackling them. Even with old faces from before Christmas, to watch the new B side is to watch a new team completely and this can only be a good thing for the development of Barça’s tenderfoot players. Indeed, results aren’t only of great importance at the B team level.

Back to the Sunday morning at the Cuitat Esportiva Joan Gamper, an all-new, state of the art complex that was opened in 2006 beside the B-23 highway after the club moved from the original ‘Farmhouse’ that literally lays in the shadow the Camp Nou stadium in 2009. Juvenil B team (under-18s) are entertaining local team Cornella.

As the scores are locked at 1-1, Barça winger Jordi Mboula beats the offside trap to latch onto a Ricard Puig through ball. The number 7 rounds the outrushing goalkeeper via a step-over before losing his footing. The visitors clear from danger and score a smash-and-grab winner on the break with two minutes remaining.

The Spanish under-19 international, with Congolese heritage, had a feature video of his skills on the Barcelona fan page that morning; just hours later he was dragged off by coach Quique Álvarez as onlookers groaned and berated. The boy is 16-years-old. Since then, as a sign of the times, he has been left to join Monaco, where he joins a youth revolution that looks distinctly similar to that of Barcelona’s not long ago.

Typically, a young man will not leave the home of his parents until his mid-to-late 20s in the Spanish culture. However, the mentality around football is completely contrasting to life at home. As soon as the youngsters are at the age of 12 and into high school, they are spoken to, looked at and treated like adults by their coach, teammates, referees and even parents on the sidelines.

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From the ages of eight, after the full-time whistle of a game, the players will surround their coach to hear a three-minute debrief and then applaud and thank their parents, family and friends for the support before retiring to the dressing room to shower and sometimes eat together before finding their loved ones waiting outside the stadium.

Every month, selected Spanish players from the ages of 14 are taken to a camp in Madrid and spend days together. There they will eat, study, interact and train together as a team. Ginés Meléndez has been in charge of youth development at the Spanish Football Federation for 14 years. “In Spain we are almost further ahead than the other nations when it comes to spotting the cream of youth talent. There are tournaments where the best teams in the 19 regions compete from under-12s and we select players from there. Those same boys will be in the same Spain under-15 side in three years.”

He continues: “The key research work is done by 57 scouts nationwide, who work voluntarily. They’re elected by regional federations and are paid nothing – they do it for the love of the game. We all meet up once a year in December and I explain precisely what I’m looking for. Then, they call me weekly with information which is input into a database which I set up when I arrived in 2001.

“I compiled a list of 10 rules which are presented to the lads in book form. They focus on things like punctuality, respect and friendship. The dressing room has to be left in perfect condition and hotel rooms should be treated with respect. The boys must also show respect to the kit man, the masseur, their opponents and the referee.

“Rules are important. I remember a player who had an argument with the referee and we wouldn’t allow him back until he made an apology. On another occasion, I sent two lads home just for chatting in the corridor when they should’ve been resting in their rooms. This meant that they didn’t make it to Europe with us and lost out on a medal. Later they came to me and said ‘that decision meant that we missed winning our medals; but it made us better people’. They all learn.”

When the Spanish under-21 team played England’s in 2015, the starting 11 of Spain had already clocked-up 944 first team appearances for their clubs. Though England’s had a similar number of professional appearances, a great percentage of them had been picked up whilst out on loan to lower league clubs. Spain’s players were starters for Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Club, both domestically and on the European stage.

Although many academies have feeder teams, which are used to lessen the blow to players that are released from the club’s youth system, there is still a major gap and fall from grace for youngsters who didn’t make the cut. Thousands of hopefuls find their lives tipped upside down when they have to go from the luxurious comfort of academy football to the local, amateur football league environment, which can be soul destroying. These years often shape a young person’s appetite and interest in the game for the rest of their days.

Many clubs in Spain have a B team or another local academy project that accommodates to players who are believed to be late bloomers. For example, in an English academy, if a player is not ready by the age of 18, that’s often it and their professional football dreams are over. In Spain, the magic number is 23.

Original Series  |  The Academy Way

A youngster will be educated, have their talent caressed and be moulded in an academy system or B team until the age of 23. If the opportunity comes from another club to take the player on and supply the opportunity of first-team football at a high level, the player can go, given that the club, player and player’s family believe it is all in the best interests of the young talent.

Cubs loan young players out, so long as they will be playing regularly and in the highest league. Others are willing to sell the player, but it is very common to see a buy-back clause in the deal. Barcelona are a great example of this. The theory was exercised with young talents such as Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas, Denis Suárez and Jordi Alba. All three were allowed to go and ply their trade elsewhere as Barça understood that they had technical talent but their body or mind was not sufficiently developed or at the level required to play regularly in the Camp Nou.

After the three impressed at Manchester United, Arsenal, Villarreal and Valencia respectively, the Catalan giants were in like a shot to bring La Masia’s late bloomers home and turn them into European and world champions. Martín Montoya, Cristian Tello and Alen Halilović have all left the Camp Nou – for varying reasons – whilst Barca are reported to have buy-back clauses in the contracts of a number of other youngsters, including Mboula.

With an ever-growing worldwide interest in the game and its development, social media now plays a crucial role in the future and news travels fast. During the 2015 LaLiga Promise competition that was held in Miami, Barça’s sensation Xavi Simons – a talent they’ve attempted to keep under wraps – won player of the tournament, capturing both the attention and imagination of big-hitters worldwide.

The 15-year-old’s father Regillio told the Daily Mail: “Agents are everywhere offering shoes and money like you can’t imagine. That’s the world of football now. You can’t stop for it. For a lot of parents it must be difficult. It happens fast and if you’re looking for money and clubs are offering it in large amounts, it makes sense to say yes.”

Luckily for Simons, his father is an ex-professional in the Eredivisie and knows the game and bags of money aren’t of such high priority to the family. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of pressure on these young boys, some of which that haven’t even reached puberty, yet carry their family’s contentment and fantasies on their shoulders.

Another young man who is tipped to go to the top is Juvenil A’s Oriol Busquets. The 18-year-old of the Costa Brava has been a rare bright spark in Barça’s eldest academy team that have failed to set the world alight of late. Similar to his namesake Sergio, Oriol is a defensive midfielder that is calm in possession and has a meticulous football brain.

The name Carles Aleñá has also been buzzing around the complex that both houses and schools 60-plus young athletes and costs over €6.5 million to run yearly, making it one of the most expensive in Europe. The 20-year-old Catalan joined the academy from his local club Maristes de Mataro. Aleñá is one more individual with the world at his feet, yet his nonchalant ways hide any tension as this kid breezes through Juvenil games, controlling the tempo frequently. He fired himself into the public eye in November 2015 following a 40-yard dribble leading to a wonder goal seen by thousands in the UEFA Youth League.

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Following a game in 2010, the then-first team manager Pep Guardiola stated: “There is no bigger victory than being able to debut a player from La Masia.” A whopping total of 28 La Masia graduates were given their first team debuts under the club’s most successful coach. However, following his decision to step away from the club in 2012, any rapid progressions from academy football to the first team have stalled.

Although Pep’s successor Tito Vilanova once fielded 11 La Masia players in a game against Levante in November 2012, he awarded only one debut throughout his year in charge, Carles Planas being the lucky individual.

One of the greatest mysteries in the club’s fruitful history took place under Tito’s reign. The sale of Thiago Alcântara to Bayern Munich raised eyebrows around the football world as the creative midfield general with pinpoint passing and footwork that belongs on a Brazilian beach was expected to receive the torch to be passed down by Xavi and steer the club into the next generation of success. Instead, he was sold at a snippet of his worth.

Josep Bartomeu gained club presidency from Sandro Rosell and has sworn that La Masia won’t be touched, yet the latest events prove that his faith does not lay with the youth system that he recently referred to as a ‘House of Dreams’ completely. The training ground was ordered to open their doors as media were sent in like the cavalry to shoot footage of club captains and arguably the two most famous of La Masia alumni, Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta, were required to take time out after sessions to chat with young prospects from the club’s academy, answering questions and giving guidance and advice to the hopeful scholars in videos that were posted all-over the club’s official social media outlets. Make of this what you will.

With quality players on their way through, the question is, will they reach the summit of their potential by playing at the top of the game or will their route be blocked by the short-sightedness of those that at the top? Arda Turan was signed from Atlético Madrid in the summer of 2015. The Turkish international is a talent, but was his addition to the team the correct thing to do when they had the likes of Sergi Roberto, Kaptoum and Sergi Samper coming through? Will someone like Paulinho hinder Aleñá’s chances today?

A combined total of €38 million was spent on central defenders Jérémy Mathieu (aged 32) and Thomas Vermaelen (aged 30) in 2014 whilst a 25-year old Marc Bartra ended up leaving to join Borussia Dortmund as his game time was limited. Why were players such as the two Brazilians, Adriano and Douglas, allowed to hang onto contracts at the club when there were players out on loan coming towards their peak years, having played minimal football for La Blaugrana?

Why aren’t the one-time academy projects put out of their misery and sold instead of wasting away their best years? Is it because of the club’s image being held at stake? Do enough Barcelona fans really care about the blatant negligence towards their young players; resulting in long-term goals being harmed and the destruction of the walls that the great Cruyff built, all at the expense of short-term triumphs?

These are tricky times for La Masia and the image that Barcelona spent decades building as a club of the community, one that believes in youth and looks inwards for talent. Ernesto Valverde has the future prospects of a generation of stars in his hands.

By Alex Clapham  

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