La Masia: Barcelona's secret to football success

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Associated Press

Posted on January 8, 2011 at 6:01 PM

Updated Saturday, Jan 8 at 6:04 PM

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi will win FIFA's Ballon d'Or trophy as the world's best player on Monday, and much of the teammates' success can be attributed to Barcelona's La Masia youth academy.

Within the club's Camp Nou grounds, La Masia is in a typical Catalonian farmhouse built in 1702 but converted more than 30 years ago into a residence for young football players from all over the world.

Messi, Iniesta and Xavi represent a golden generation of talent that has led the club to eight major trophies over the last two seasons.

Regardless of who emerges with the Ballon d'Or in Zurich, the award will remain in Barcelona after Messi won last year. But the significance of having three players from the same club reach the shortlist is rare, with only AC Milan having all three players on the Golden Ball podium in successive years in 1988 and '89.

Barcelona's attractive style of football and ability to develop homegrown talent deserves celebration.

"We've got a generation of football players that will be difficult to reproduce," Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said after his three players were named. "When Xavi, Leo and Andres came out of the youth ranks they weren't Ballon d'Ors. They managed to achieve it through a process, and thanks to the patience the club showed in them.

"It's an incredible achievement of incalculable dimensions."

Seven of the 11 Barcelona players who started 2009's 2-0 Champions League final win over Manchester United came from La Masia, as well as Guardiola. Nine of World Cup champion Spain's 23 players came up the club's ranks, including English Premier League stars Cesc Fabregas and Pepe Reina.

South American clubs like Santos of Brazil and River Plate of Argentina produce excellent homegrown talents like European teams such as AC Milan, Real Madrid and Liverpool, but the ability of Barcelona to produce its own squad and a unique generation of talent without wavering from its philosophy can be seen as a phenomenon.

"Just the fact that three players developed by our academy are in the running is something the club should be proud of," Xavi said this week. "That is Barca's party."

Behind every Messi, Iniesta or Xavi is the work of dozens of anonymous people — from coaches to scouts to teachers — who are essential to the structure of an institution celebrated as "More than a club."

Is there a secret?

"Youngsters need opportunities — everyone needs time," former Barcelona player Guillermo Amor told The Associated Press. "With all conditions being equal, a homegrown player has a better chance than one who comes in from abroad. The Xavis and Iniestas took 10 years to get to where they are."

There are over 200 youth players from ages seven to 18 integrated into the 13 different age-group teams within the club. And they all practice the same system of possession play and quick touch passing that was developed over 30 years ago but polished by former player Johan Cruyff during his coaching stint from 1988 to 1996.

Amor, 43, spent nine years in Barcelona's system before making it in 1988 to the first team, for which he played for a decade. Last year he became the club's director of sport and youth football.

"There have always been a lot of players from the 'cantera' in the first team, but today there are so many more that play so well that we're working to make sure this continues," Amor said. "Barca is a club that bets on homegrown players. It's demonstrated that, it demonstrates that and it will continue demonstrating."

Landing players at the youngest possible age is the most important part of the process, according to Amor, and up to five different scouts will study a player before a decision is taken to sign him. While a player's ability is important, creating the best team is vital.

"We look for the best players, wherever they may be," Amor explained. "So if Messi arrives from Argentina as a 13-year-old because we know he's got talent, you have to give him a chance."

Still, only 10 to 15 percent of Barcelona's academy players actually ever make it to topflight football. With luck, 30 to 40 percent will go on to have professional careers with other teams. The rest will probably never make it.

That's why La Masia staff pay special attention to developing Barca's best. Though there are normally 60 players nestled inside its brick walls — from ages 11 to 17 — at the moment there are 48 football players, 11 basketball players and one ice hockey prospect. With 35 percent of the recruits coming from outside of Barcelona, they will live 10 months of the year here.

More than 500 players have come out of La Masia since 1979, including Guardiola.

"The player's footballing progress and development have to go together. Here, we all speak the same language," said Carles Folguera, who has been director of La Masia since 2001.

Folguera, 42, has the responsibility of being the nexus between the pupils and their coaches, teachers and own families. Players go to class in the morning, train in the afternoon and return to school — if need be — later. Topics such as sexual education, drugs, fame and celebrity, and the work ethic necessary to succeed are all part of the curriculum.

"We're talking about values that are — quote, unquote — not negotiable," Folguera told the AP. "We want to make them better players and better people by teaching them about respect, teamwork, humility, sacrifice, applying yourself and commitment. We want them to be happy just like the play of Barca, but they also must know when to put in effort, to respect the coach as much as the cook, to be an example."

Players can graduate from La Masia during the season if they exceed expectations. But — just as quickly — they can be sent home if they fail to meet their commitments.

At the end of the season, coaches decide which players will and won't continue. It's a difficult moment, but Barcelona considers La Masia an investment even if many times a player turns into an unsuccessful prospect.

"I'm proud of two things: Those players who make the first team and transmit a sense of being that you can be proud about," Folguera said. "And those who don't make it, who are in the majority, but know that at least their time at La Masia enabled them to help earn a living."

La Masia's doors will close in 2012 as the academy will be moving to a new, more modern residence with a capacity for 80 people at Barcelona's training ground complex on the edge of the Mediterranean coast city.

Times may be changing at Barcelona, but ideas are not.

"The idea is clear: Sign young players based on a particular football idea while not signing already established players with an evident cost," Folguera said. "Producing a player out of a boy that becomes a symbol of your own identity is priceless."

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AP Sports Writer Paul Logothetis in Madrid contributed to this report.

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