x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Albert Benaiges has a Barcelona blueprint for success

The Spanish coach tells Osman Samiuddin why he swapped Catalunya and La Masia for Dubai, Al Wasl and the challenge of teaching the philosophy of beauty before results.

Albert Benaiges passes on advice to youngsters at Al Wasl’s academy. The Spanish coach has already noticed that the focus in UAE football is predominantly on results rather than style of play.
Albert Benaiges passes on advice to youngsters at Al Wasl’s academy. The Spanish coach has already noticed that the focus in UAE football is predominantly on results rather than style of play.

In the popular imagination, building sports dynasties has become a cold business. It requires clinical, unemotional, even difficult, men who are wedded only to the task at hand. Pragmatism reigns: win, be successful, again and again and again. The altar is at the end, not on the way.

The imagination is seldom accurate, of course. Dynasties are built by humans and so are not homogenous. And every so often, a team or individual comes along whose success emanates not cold, but warmth, whose success cuts across the imagination, across communities, cities and nations.

These are the ones that matter not only because they endure and succeed, but because they bring seismic shifts in landscape and thought, a philosophy: Pele's Brazil, the West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers.

It is really not the same as just being successful.

Barcelona have this warmth. When they play, we know this is the beautiful game. Watching them sometimes feels like returning home, for they provide comfort. They love to play good football and you can see their love so obviously. They are as ruthless as assassins but they have the heart of preachers.

Much of that can be seen in Albert Benaiges, one of the men responsible for this footballing philosophy.

Benaiges was the head of Barcelona's youth academy at La Masia for two decades, responsible not only for seven of the 11 that won the Champions League final this year (and Pep Guardiola, the coach) but for the Barcelona way.

"I pass and I move, I look, I open up the pitch," Xavi said earlier this year, as a tribute. "The one who has the ball is the master of the game. That's the school of ... Albert Benaiges ..."

Benaiges is now in a longish-term experiment, a significant one that asks central questions of sport.

Benaiges, it is easy to see, is a warm man.

In the coaching world of stereotypes, he is a father, not an autocrat, provocateur or rabble-rouser. Currently he is in Dubai, on a five-year mission at Al Wasl, one of the Emirates' traditional footballing powerhouses, as the head of the academy. He comes as an agent of change.

He is working one of the club's youth teams hard, not on the famed rondo (the piggy-in-the-middle simulation that treasures possession and quick passing) but an equally simple wing routine.

Ball to winger, first-time cross, three attackers, one goalkeeper. Over on the main pitch Diego Maradona, now the club coach and another former Barcelona star, is overseeing training.

In neon yellow, Benaiges smiles, banters, instructs and encourages his way through. There is authority but it is nestled within, clear to all but not on display. He is here, he begins, because of loss.

"I wanted a major change in my life. My mother passed away two years ago and I decided to move abroad. Al Wasl contacted me and convinced me that there is a lot I could bring to the Arab countries. It's a big challenge."

His arrival is potentially part of a broader exchange between the two clubs. Wasl officials say it came about after Marwan bin Bayat, the chairman, initiated a meeting with Barcelona earlier this year to discuss collaboration at all levels (not just the academy). Soon after they officially requested the services of Benaiges and a few months later the deal was sealed.

What Wasl have bought into, what everyone buys into Barcelona for, is the philosophy and the commitment to it. It has been built and refined over decades, drawn from many influences and not just the Dutch.

"At Barcelona, there has been a formation of historical players," says Benaiges. "When I was 18, a coach called Laureano Ruiz arrived in 1970. Later [Johan] Cryuff arrived. Then there was [Jose Ramon] Alexanko. The result of all those collaborations is what you see in today's Barcelona."

And that is not beauty at the cost of success. At Barcelona, beauty has become success has become beauty. This is what everyone wants to replicate.

When asked once how style and success go together, Xavi, the Barcelona midfielder, acknowledged: "If you go two years without winning, everything has to change. But you change names, not identity. The philosophy can't be lost."

It is a typical Benaiges-ism, as he himself deconstructs with deliberation.

"We have to teach kids how to win based on a few things," he said. "First, you have to be more athletic than the opponents. You can be a strong team focusing on contact but you must be athletic.

"Second is to understand that the fans enjoy watching a type of play that is attacking and active with many shots. That eventually results in a winning score."

Implanting ideas into minds is not an easy business. It has to be, for different cultures, almost like an infection, injected and allowed to grow and react.

It doesn't always work because it isn't just, as Benaiges foresees at Al Wasl for example, "certain changes in style, in the philosophy of playing.

"There are kids here who could be playing football for Barcelona but the mentality, everything to do with the behaviour which is what I'm here to open up, the temperament … there are many things in football besides just talent.

"What I've noticed so far is that trainers and administrations here care much more about results than inculcating the right style.

"One of the core principles taught at the Barcelona school is that results are secondary always."

If replication was simple then all football would be beautiful. It isn't. It can't be. Greatness is a conspiracy of nature too, bringing elements together at precisely the right time and place. That is the other thing about dynasties: their true value only emerges in the immediate aftermath of their demise.

How many great sides, for example, have crumbled the moment their greatest players departed? Too many to name.

Barcelona are great, the Barcelona way is great; but what happens when Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi (to name but three) are gone? Or if, as is overwhelmingly the case, a side doesn't have that quality? The philosophy must remain, Xavi says, but can the success?

Benaiges is acutely aware of this. At least twice during conversation he refers to it unprompted: "A working style has been achieved at Barcelona. It is a bit of a coincidence that you have three of the best players of the world there currently."

Or, "the type of training you give is one thing but it also depends on the market. Sometimes you have quality players available, other times you don't … it depends."

This feeds in to the other fascinating theme of the Benaiges mission: how much is it that players are born great and how much that they can be made great? Messi arguably would have been Messi anywhere, perhaps not with as many trophies but as he is with Argentina, still utterly unique. Wasl's coach is a case in point.

"Players who are extremely talented are born players," says Benaiges. "Then there are mediocre players who can become much better thanks to a lot of hard work. But there has to be some basic minimum of talent.

"It's true that the style of La Masia helped in making Xavi and Iniesta great players. When they were kids, neither Espanyol nor [Real] Madrid wanted them. You have to understand, Barcelona would not have the quality players if it were not for the style of playing. That ends up improving them."

It is on this that the work of Benaiges at Wasl will be judged, not just the discovery of great players, but players made great because of the academy. Patience will be an essential raw material, for Barcelona represent most the work of decades, not months, or five years.

After his stint Benaiges wants to see "75 per cent of the first-team players graduates from the academy." Eventually, as has happened with Barcelona and Spain, maybe Wasl can help shape an identity for the UAE side.

"After a month here, I believe so. The players today are coaches of the future and we are working with them. We have to provide the right platform to players and trainers to replicate the successes of Barcelona. In the mid to long term, this is possible."


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