x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

La Maisa: Where Barca's stars are produced

Barcelona's academy has produced three Ballon D'or nominees in 2010. Andy Mitten finds out the secret of its success.

Pedro, left, and Lionel Messi are two of Barcelona's first-team players who have been taught the
Pedro, left, and Lionel Messi are two of Barcelona's first-team players who have been taught the "Barca way" from an early age at La Maisa.

Xavi Hernandez, the world's finest midfielder, remembers the advice he received when, at age 10, he made a first tentative journey to La Masia, the 18th century farmhouse in the shadow of the Camp Nou where Barcelona school their youngsters.

"My coach said, 'Watch how Pep Guardiola plays. He is perfect in his position - your position.' And he was right. If Pep was still playing he'd be in the side ahead of any of us."

Xavi's progress meant he eventually played alongside Guardiola, now the first La Masia graduate to coach the first team.

"For three years I played with Pep in the first team and I kept on learning," he said.

"In the game and after the game. He's an obsessive, like me. We're both fans off the pitch. We still talk about teams, players and tactics every day."

Xavi, 30, is famed graduate of Barca's hugely successful youth system, which takes boys as young as seven and turns them into world-class footballers.

"FC Barcelona is a school and I've been privileged to be a student," he said. "It doesn't just educate you to be a good footballer, but a good person, too. It's a good environment which also teaches respect, a working mentality and discretion."

Xavi and Guardiola are not the only ones.

Barca's first team, generally considered to be the best in the world, regularly contains seven or eight players who came through La Masia. Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are just a few of the players who came through La Masia and did not cost Barca one euro in transfer fees, products of a system which produces more top-level footballers than any other and which takes as long as 15 years to develop a player.

"We don't tend to sign a player at 17 or 18 because it's almost impossible for them to make it," said Quique Costas, a Barca teammate of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s and an experienced youth coach. "They won't have been taught to play the Barca way."

The "Barca way" is not the stuff of myth, but a methodology inspired by Cruyff, the Dutch legend and Barca hero, which has delivered sustained success.

"Players have to think quickly and to play with intelligence, always knowing the next pass," Guardiola said. "It is how we have all been taught and how the public expects us to play."

Cruyff introduced the system when he became coach in 1988.

To this day foreign coaches are accommodated at Barca's new training ground on the southern fringes of the city to study the Cruyff-inspired training methods and philosophies. They watch the kids, the youth teams who live at La Masia, the reserves and the first team.

Tommy Wilson, coach of the reserve team for the Scottish club Rangers recently returned from studying Barcelona's methods.

"The Barca B team is fourth in the second division in Spain. That gives them flexibility. A player from the B team can go up and play in the first team and a first-team player can come down and play in the B."

Wilson would like to see a radical shake up of Scottish football so reserve teams can play against senior sides.

Guardiola, though proud of Barca's system, has a more prosaic view.

"Other youth academies in Spain are also doing a very good job but the difference is that we give our youth players a chance," he said.

But there are other key differences.

"We teach the young kids that winning is not everything," said the coach of the eight-year-old boys.

"First, they have to play fair, then play offensive, then they have to win. Winning is important but not before the first two are accomplished."

The Barca youngsters playing in front of him as he speaks are, however, demolishing their opponents, to the delight of admiring parents who hope their sons are the next Messi or Iniesta. Unlike in other countries where the biggest boys tend to excel at youth football, Barca's boys are not big for their age.

They exhibit all the virtues of the first team, with the vanquished opponents barely touching the ball.

Nor are the boys in the famous maroon-and-blue stripes arrogant or conceited.

At the final whistle they applaud their parents from a distance, much like Messi and Co do to supporters.

Then they speak to their coaches for a post-match analysis and an interview with a journalist from Barca's website. They are media-trained before they turn 10.

"Talent and hard work is important for these boys," the coach said, "but in the long term hard work is more important." Not every aspect is a success. La Masia has never, for example, produced a top striker. Not in 30 years.

"The way we play doesn't require a striker," Costas said.

"And when the club feel they need a striker they go out and buy the best. With so many players developed already, we can afford it."

Barca's current roaming front three of Messi, Pedro and David Villa are nominally wingers, and even Villa, the "striker" brought in from Valencia, often plays in a wide position. This ensures that the goals are spread through the side.

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Cruyff rightly gets much of the credit for Barca's vaunted academy, but Laureano Ruiz was the club's youth coach in the 1970s and introduced the 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 system for youth footballers. Barca won five Spanish youth titles under him.

Ruiz was promoted by Cruyff, the pair working together to develop Barca's "dream team" which would later win the 1992 European Cup.

Now 73 and in charge of his own coaching academy in northern Spain, Ruiz said: "There are two reasons why Barca had three Ballon d'Or nominees" in 2010 in Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.

"First, what happened in my time, which was later improved by Johan Cruyff. And then the Guardiola factor."

Several of Barca's current crop, the club's best yet, come from La Masia's class of 1987, the year of their birth.Despite being taught that winning was not everything, Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas would routinely win games by eight, nine or 10 goals.

"I have never come across a group as ambitious and competitive," said Alex Garcia, the long-serving coach of Barca's youth teams.

"Not just in matches, either, but almost more so in practice. Sometimes I had to apply the brakes.

"They treated practice sessions as if they were finals."

Much of Barca's strength resides in the shared experience from when they roomed and ate together at La Masia, their attitudes and lifestyles honed to that of professional sportsmen. They developed routines on and off the field, too, at a club whose institutional pride is tied up with the Catalan identity.

Not all the young players live in the dormitories of La Masia, which is like an upmarket youth hostel. Xavi, for example, commuted from his home in nearby Terrassa.

Typically, boys from outside Barcelona will move there at 14. Players like Iniesta recall being homesick. Thankfully, he soon settled.

By 14, players train for six hours a week and play one full 90-minute game at the weekend. A typical weekday begins with the players being bussed to a local school. They return at 2pm for lunch and a siesta, then train from 5pm to 6.30pm.

First-team players regularly drop by, heroes and inspirations on their doorstep. And with that solid foundation, Barca build for the future, always from the bottom, always upwards like the always popular human towers in Catalunya.

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