x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Man who nurtured Messi, Xavi and Iniesta into world beaters at Barcelona heads to Dubai club

The man credited with schooling Barcelona's Ballon d'or nominees will join Pro League club Al Wasl in July.

Albert Benaiges, left, helped nurture youngsters such as Andres Iniesta into world-class players through Barcelona's famed youth system.
Albert Benaiges, left, helped nurture youngsters such as Andres Iniesta into world-class players through Barcelona's famed youth system.

With three of their players shortlisted for the Ballon d'Or (the World Player of the Year) in Zurich recently, Barcelona decided it was time to enjoy the moment.

Barcelona players being nominated for football's top individual honours is nothing new, but they usually travel with a friend, wife or agent to accept the award.

This time, Barca booked a private plane for the people who had been most important to the success of the three players - Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Pep Guardiola travelled with his players along with Sandro Rosell, the club president. As a measure of the esteem in which he is held by the players he helped develop, Albert Benaiges was also invited.

Although not a household name outside Spain, the 50-year-old had a key position at Camp Nou, that of technical director of the club's famed youth system. Benaiges was vital to the progression of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol, and many more.

There cannot be a higher accolade for any youth coach than seeing three of his former players voted first, second and third in world football.

Benaiges is often asked what potential talents he recognised in the 13-year-old Messi, Iniesta and Xavi.

"I saw different things in all of them," he said. "They were all excellent. Iniesta was elegant, intelligent and could beat a player one on one.

"Xavi's control of the ball is better than anyone I've seen in youth football.

"Messi? His imagination and speed running at goal. He's the best player in the world without doubt, as good as Pele or [the Barca legend Laszlo] Kubala."

The ability of Benaiges to spot a young player has become the stuff of local legend. After just 30 minutes of seeing the 10-year-old Pique play, he signed him for Barca, impressed by the young defender's vision, touch and discipline, plus the fact that he was a Barca fan who understood what the club was about.

Once with Barca, Pique began his real football education that would take him to the top of the game.

Benaiges has always maintained that Barca have not been lucky like some rivals have claimed, but their success in developing players owed everything to a model honed over the years.

Many people contributed to this process, providing specialist skills and all working in the same direction, with the same objective: to prepare players for the first team.

Unearthing and developing emerging talent will be the cornerstone of Benaiges's work when he starts at Pro League club Al Wasl in July.

News of his departure was met by raised eyebrows in Catalonia, but he will join fellow Spaniard Francisco Yeste at the Dubai club, where his role will be to oversee the club's youth system and structure of the coaching programmes.

"I hope to transfer the La Masia philosophy and the way we work to here," Benaiges said.

"Barca's success has been fundamental in making them [Wasl] interested in me. This is a very interesting sporting challenge at a club that has some excellent facilities."

He goes with Barca's best wishes and has a job waiting back at the club when his contract comes to an end.

Benaiges joined Barca in 1990 when Johan Cruyff was in charge at Camp Nou and has worked at the club in two spells - always with the youth sides. He was renowned for allowing ability to flourish. In one season, he let Messi play for five different age group teams at Barca.

"Messi was a kid to whom you could say: 'Look, there's the ball, let's play a match'," Benaiges said.

"He just loved playing football. He didn't mind what level he played at, he just wanted the ball at his feet. Some kids play in the A team, but when you ask them to play for the B team they pull a face. With Messi, he always gave everything and he was always the best."

Fundamental to Benaiges's success has been building the character of the young players. Egos are kept firmly in check by the calm and focused Benaiges, pushy parents encouraged to keep their distance.

Recently, the father of a 12-year-old from Messi's hometown of Rosario was given short shrift from Benaiges after demanding too much money from Barca. The father had been leaking information to the Argentina media. Communication through the media is not Barca's style when it comes to youth players.

The famed Masia (a converted 17th-century farmhouse) where the young players live, will soon close and the potential stars of the future will follow the first team to the new training ground on the outskirts of Barcelona. With that, a chapter in Barca's history will close.

Having achieved the highest standards and with La Masia closing, it is perhaps an appropriate time for Benaiges to seek fresh pastures, but his contribution to Barca will never be forgotten, not least by his former pupils.

"When I play, I pass and move," Xavi said.

"I look for a player, I stop, I raise my head. I open up the pitch. The one who has the ball is the master of the game.

"That was the philosophy of Johan Cruyff, what I tried to follow from Pep Guardiola. That was the school of Albert Benaiges."

sports@thenational.ae

 

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