Oriol Tort was on the sidelines again. He was always there. Every weekend, without fail, without stopping to rest. He was not seen, just another old man amongst the spectators, but he saw everything, and everyone.
It was on a day just like any other that Tort’s eyes were drawn to a skinny, young midfielder. He had left work – by day he was a pharmaceutical representative – and, as always, headed straight to a football match. The game he chose to attend proved significant.
At Gimnàstic Manresa, one boy stood out above all others. He was technically gifted and intelligent. He had an eye for a pass and an uncanny ability to position himself perfectly. Tort only needed to watch him once; he was convinced. He had discovered a player with all the required attributes to excel in a Barcelona team that prided itself on its Dutch, total footballing ethos. He had discovered Pep Guardiola.
Some, however, were unconvinced. There were concerns that Guardiola was too frail, that he would not be physically capable of dealing with step up into Barcelona’s youth setup. Tort, though, was insistent. “He has to stay,” he said. “He has a head for the game.”
Tort, as always seemed to be the case, had demonstrated a prescience unlike anyone else at the club. In 40 influential years with Barcelona, he was credited with unearthing players such as Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Víctor Valdés and Cesc Fàbregas, amongst countless others. Here was a scout who dedicated himself entirely to the profession, who worked tirelessly for the benefit of his club and the players he discovered without plaudits and with very little recognition.
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Even today, Tort is not a household name outside of Catalonia. In 2011, Barcelona’s new youth training centre was named after him: La Masia: Centro de Formación Oriol Tort. Aside from that, though, few will have heard mention of his name. He worked in the shadows, an unassuming, modest figure whose aim was not personal glory. His story is largely untold, but he played an undeniably significant part in Barcelona’s incomparable success of recent years.
Tort’s career as a player was brief and curtailed by an injury. He had played at youth level for Barcelona, joining the club in 1946, but the majority of his time was spent at an amateur level. By 1956, he had been forced into retirement, an untreatable hip problem leaving him unable to play.
Two years later, he began coaching Barcelona’s youth teams. It appeared he had found his calling; Tort was at his best not when playing the game, but when nurturing nascent talent. It was in 1979, however, that Tort was offered the role that would come to define his time at Barcelona.
President Josep Lluis Nunez, following the advice of Johan Cruyff, announced the opening of a new academy. It was to be named La Masia – The Farmhouse – after the 18th-century building near to the Camp Nou which would house only the best young players.
Tort was tasked with finding them, and did so with unerring consistency. He would drive to games after work and spent almost every hour of his weekends searching for talent. Journalist Genís Sinca claimed that sometimes, in mid-season, he attended between 15 to 20 football matches a day.
The work required a keen, observant eye, and a ruthless nature. Tort watched thousands of young players but only a select few were deemed good enough to join La Masia. None were aware, either, that the scout was in attendance; it seemed he was almost invisible, able to blend in with the crowd and assess the proceedings unnoticed. “Oriol Tort represents that anonymous person who nevertheless is crucial to all clubs,” said former Spain coach Vicente del Bosque years later.
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Tort was conscious too of the important part he played in the formative years of Barcelona’s youngsters. He did not simply select the players: he monitored their development, helped those that were shy or nervous settle in and acted predominantly as a mentor. He had lunch with them in La Masia’s dining room. He laughed and joked. He took the time to get to know the people, not just the players, and embraced Barcelona’s motto ‘més que un club’.
“He had a lot of love for his profession,” said Tort’s daughter, Marta, in a 2011 interview with Goal. “He didn’t share it much at home. He enjoyed it so much but he didn’t instil that in us. I always joked that he spent as much time with the boys at La Masia as he did with his biological children, so sometimes when they came over to the house, I would call them ‘my little brothers’. La Masia was his other woman. There was his wife, us, and La Masia was his mistress, but we all put up with it. He did something he loved for a job. What more can you ask for?”
Tort did not work alone. By 1980 he was joined by Joan Martínez Vilaseca, a scout who later worked for FIFA. They immediately formed an effective partnership and quickly became known as the dream team. The two worked together in a small office – the despatxet, as Martínez called it. They spent hours establishing a portfolio of players, making calls and writing everything down. The work was incessant, unglamorous and without instant reward.
Tort and Martínez kept things simple. Their process was by no means highly technical. In their office was a phone, an old typewriter and piles of paper. There were no computers, no videos or detailed documents. Both trusted in their instincts, in their ability to make the correct judgement often only from one viewing. Watching football regularly, and watching it with observance and meticulousness, was essential.
By the 1990s, the work of Tort and Martinez was beginning to earn recognition at Barcelona. For various coaches – the likes of César Luis Menotti, Terry Venables and Cruyff – the scouts were invaluable. Tort had even earned an affectionate nickname: The Professor. He was certainly studious, and equally cerebral. He exuded a quiet confidence, an air of self-assurance. The other scouts and coaches at Barcelona admired Tort and watched him closely as he stood on the sidelines, observing, assessing and concluding.
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It was said that Tort’s body language often proved instructive. If he took a puff of his cigarette and after it inhaled deeply, it was a sign that he had witnessed a potential star. Occasionally, Tort did not even deem it necessary to watch a player before making a decision. This was the case with Iniesta, who had caught the eye as a boy at Albacete. Tort’s colleagues brought him effusive reports, and the youngster was invited to La Masia.
“The Professor used to say, ‘It is the first impression that counts, because afterwards, the more you see a player the more defects you see,’” Barcelona’s head of youth football at the time, Jaume Olivé, is quoted as saying in Iniesta’s book, The Artist. “’You have to go back to your thoughts when you first saw him. Did you think: He has something, I like him.’”
If Tort had a weakness, it was perhaps a reluctance to embrace football’s increasing modernity. As scouting in the game became increasingly focused on exhaustive reports, technological advancements and detailed analysis of footage, Tort was, to an extent, left behind.
He had never written a scouting report. He still had his typewriter and his scraps of paper. Towards the end of the last decade of the 20th century, Tort acknowledged the end of his era was approaching. But he had made an indelible mark on Barcelona. Here was a scout the club’s young players could trust, a man they could approach with any problem. At a time of abuse of power in certain positions at football clubs, the life and career of Oriol Tort should be celebrated.
He died in 1999, Barcelona’s centenary year, at the age of 79. He had battled bone cancer. At his funeral, it was the boy Tort had discovered playing at Gimnàstic Manresa who spoke most poignantly. “Oriol Tort was a wise man,” said Pep Guardiola. “There aren’t any more left like him. He would come to the club and work for hours until he had done what he needed to. Because of people like him we are where we are today.”
By Callum Rice-Coates @callumrc96