Tuesday, 1 November 2011

La Masia - The serious case of the haves and have nots.

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When you think of the Football Factory, many of you will remember the very much mediocre film starring Danny Dyer as a Ray Winston wannabe. I, however, am talking in the literal sense. Every club in the top tiers around the globe have youth set ups worth millions and produce enough to get by. Whereas there is one youth system that is churning out players in abundance and the ones that don't make it are still top class. Here we take a deeper look into La Masia, the foundation to the greatest football team on the planet.

'The Farmhouse' you see above was erected in 1706 as an old country residence before FC Barcelona purchased it in 1954. You can probably tell that the building doesn't look like much but you'd be surprised. It was briefly closed down, (imagine if it stayed that way) before being renovated and turned into offices after the Camp Nou was built. It stayed like that until the Seventies when a great player, Johan Cruyff changed the game for good.

Cruyff joined Barcelona in 1973, and won the Ballon d'Or for the second time at the end of that season. A brilliant player though he 'only' won 1 league title and the Copa Del Rey in his five year stint at the club but he left a marked impression on the Barcelona President, Josep Núñez. He convinced him to create a youth set up similar to the system Ajax had in place in order to nurture talent in a way not many knew about. 

In 1979, a year after Cruyff left for pastures new, the doors to La Masia were opened to gifted young boys that lived outside of Barcelona. At first, it was the residence for these boys so that they could get to training easier and not just that, so that they could absorb what is needed to wear the shirt of the Blaugrana.

Ten years later, Cruyff returned to Barcelona after a glittering career however this time it was as their manager. A big reason for coming back was to check in on the youth system he once presented to Barcelona as an idea. His insight into how Ajax would nurture talent was vital in creating La Masia and the results were gratifying. Guillermo Amor was one of the first players to graduate to the first team and went on to win a plethora of accolades with the club. In 1992, 4 years into Cruyff's tenure at the club, Barcelona managed to win their fist European Cup and this time with 2 players from La Masia in the first eleven; Albert Ferrer and Josep Guardiola. (Amor missed the final through injury if you were wondering. Also on the bench was Carles Busquets, another graduate from La Masia and father of current player Sergio). It should not be overlooked that he brought in some of the greatest players to walk out at the Camp Nou; Romario and Stoichkov to win the trophy.

Now it is all well and good promoting youngsters from the youth team as this can be done anywhere. What is different about Barcelona is the philosophy, this is what sets them apart from the rest. It is the reason their motto is "Més que un club". 

More than a club

Cruyff didn't just bring assuredness to the club, he brought a complete footballing philosophy. Total Football played by the Dutch in the seventies is the most known among us and it is this brand of Total Football played at Barcelona that is widely attributed to Cruyff. It is this methodology that has moulded them into what they are today. 

Total Football can be explained as:  

"Any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team.  A player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal position is the goalkeeper."

Makes more sense now that you have seen Barcelona play right? Especially for the younger readers anyway. It was this fluidity blended with the one-touch style of Spain that made La Masia even more prominent and it was how we all know about tiki-taka.

Along with the footballing philosophy, La Masia teaches young boys how to be gracious in all walks of life and turns them into well-rounded men; a holistic approach. Boys as young as 7 come to La Masia to learn the right way to do things and I'm not talking about football. This can be corroborated by the fact little football is played on a daily basis, currently it stands at about an hour and a half. The majority of academic teaching is done outside the old farmhouse, with the boys transported to normal schools each morning – all part of the plan to keep them grounded before they spend the afternoons doing intense training back at camp. There is also a heightened emphasis on school work, with players expected to attend extra classes with tutors at La Masia once they return to the centre after a day at school. This way, the students who do not make it into professional football can opt for higher education or to get a job. Using these techniques breeds a player instilled with great humility and you can see that exuding from each current player. Players here grow up together, they spend 11 months of the year with each other and it is reasons such as this that they have such close bonds and why, most of the time, they seem telepathic. Close friendships are formed; Everton’s Mikel Arteta slept in the bunk above Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, while Iniesta graduated with Barca keeper Victor Valdes.

 Let's go through a succinct version of a day-in-the-life:

- 6:45am - Get up and make bed
- 7:00am - Breakfast
- 7:30am - School bus arrives
- 8:00 - 14:00 - School
- 14:15 - Lunch
- 15:00 - Free time
- 16:00 - 18:00 - Time spent with personal tutors
- 19:00 - 20:30 - Training
- 21:00 - Arrive back at La Masia
- 21:30 - Dinner
- 22:00 - TV or internet before bed

Helping the boys develop is paramount at La Masia. When Lionel Messi arrived in 2000 as a young teenager, he had a bone hormone problem meant that he was just 4ft 6in tall when the average boy of his age is 5ft 5in. Barcelona were the only team that would give him the time of day and they soon sorted that out. Messi then  went on to score five goals on his youth team début and the rest is history.

When it comes to exact training techniques, a lot of detail is not known for obvious reasons but there have been quotes from coaches over the years that paint a great picture. Up to the age of 16 the boys do not partake in any fitness training, just practice with the ball and fitness will come later. Ball control and passing are the two things practised for 8 years and from looking at the current team, you can see why. Also a lot of emphasis is placed on tactics and this is taught at a very young age. They need to understand the style of play so that it isn't an issue later on in their lives. 

Players that shaped the nation

When Cruyff left the club as manager, many others came and went but forgot about La Masia and it wasn't a good time to be a youth player at the club. It was at this time when many players were poached, the most famous being Cesc Fabregas and another being Gerard Pique. Try with ease to find them below looking classy along with a certain Lionel Messi.

However, normality was restored again when Frank Rijkaard took over as manager in 2002. He won the Champions League final in 2006, the second time for Barcelona, with 3 products of La Masia in the starting eleven; Victor Valdés, Oleguer Presas and Carles Puyol. Now also take into account that Albert Joquera, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta were all on the bench.

After five years in charge of Barcelona, Rijkaard left in 2008 to muted applause and was replaced by Barcelona B coach Josep Guardiola. As a graduate of La Masia, Guardiola recognised that what the club needed was a return to it's roots of the system he himself had come through. Meaning out of the door went under performing foreign stars such as Ronaldinho, Deco, Zambrotta and Edmilson and in came Gerard Piqué with promotions for Sergio Busquets, Jeffrén Suárez and Pedro Rordríguez. The impact was very much instant with Barcelona winning a historic treble, including their third Champions League title. This time they won it with seven players from La Masia in their starting eleven and three on the bench. Thirty years after Cruyff suggested the idea to Núñez, La Masia proved a shrewd move considering it only costs £8million a year to run.

This time Xavi and Iniesta were pioneers of this treble and they cost nothing. Barcelona have developed a system that any youngster in Europe would want to be a part of. They put a lot of emphasis on boys from Catalonia, this can be seen with having 15 scouts in that area. That is the same amount of scouts that they have in the rest of Spain so it speaks volumes. Talking of Spain, the World and European champions had 7 players out of the first 11 from Barcelona. How long will it be before the first 11 are products of La Masia? 

The same year, the greatest footballer of our generation was named the Ballon d'Or winner. The three nominees for the prize were all products of La Masia and that can only be a good thing. The three best players on the planet all grew up together, all play for the same club and are all wondrous talents. 

The Next Generation

Earlier this year, the doors to La Masia closed after Barcelona won the League and Champions League again. It is to be replaced with brand new facilities in the Ciudad Deportiva in Sant Joan Despi. It has been quoted as a necessary move as modern facilities are needed but without forgetting the essence of La Masia. The new building will increase from 600 sq meters to more than 5000. More room for world class talent.

Looking forward, I would have named Thiago Alcantara as one to watch but he's already taken the world by storm in helping Spain win the U21 championships and deputising for Xavi in the league for Barcelona. However here are a couple more players to look out for that have come off of the La Masia conveyorbelt:

- Marc Muniesa - was in the Champions League Final squad when they beat Manchester United last season and won his debut as a 15 year old in a team of 17 year olds

- Marc Bartra - a 19 year old versatile defender waiting in the wings. Struggling to get into the team with Piqué and Puyol around but will get his chance.

They keep on churning out fantastically gifted players and along with many of you, I have a lot of time for Barcelona and will continue to do so.


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