The last ten years have seen some of the most successful seasons unfold at Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona. Barcelona is a football city, where every boy dreams of playing for the city’s all-conquering club. FC Barcelona are the defending Spanish champions, and have won a whopping seven trophies in the last two years.
One of the key reasons for their continued success, has been their cantera, known as ’La Masia’, which is arguably the best in the world. Barcelona has always been associated with a free flowing style of football ever since the pioneers of Total Football arrived at the club in the early 1970’s. They gave the club a new identity by merging the concept of ‘Total Football’ and with the one-touch Latin style game played in Spain, giving birth to that most persistent of footballing styles, ‘Tiki-Taka’.
But how does a club maintain this style and philosophy amidst changing times? The answer lies in La Masia. This football factory exists solely to produce players, almost as if on an assembly line, who can play the tiki-taka way. It was the Ajax academy that once had this distinction of producing such technically superior players, but that mantle must now fall to La Masia.
Merely producing such talents may not be enough in itself to win titles, but to keep their special footballing identity alive, Barca needed a way to produce such players who truly understand this style of playing football from the day they don the club’s colors.
A bit of a history
Barca’s previous home ground of Camp de Les Corts, commonly referred to as Les Corts didn’t have enough space to accommodate the growing number of fans. The ground where, during a game the Spanish National anthem was jeered and ‘God Saved the Queen’ was cheered leading to the expulsion of Gamper from Spain, was not good enough for this enormous club. Plans were drawn up to build a home which could serve the masses. Finally Barcelona had their new home, The Camp Nou built to seat more than 98,000 fans.
La Masia, an old country house built in 1702 was bought by the club to serve as a place where the architect of the Camp Nou could work. It was here the plans for Camp Nou were made. The Camp Nou was inaugurated on 24th September 1957 and La Masia found no purpose. La Masia was closed down after the inauguration. It was then re-modeled and re-opened in 1966 and was used as the office for the club’s headquarters.
In 1979, La Masia was remodeled to house young academy players who came from afar to join FC Barcelona.
La Masia near the Camp Nou.
The early 1970’s marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the club, the dawn of a new philosophy. The concept of Total Football was introduced to Barcelona from Ajax. The man who perfected the concept of Total Football, Rinus Michels and the man who was the finest exponent of that art, Johan Cruyff, came to Barcelona and installed their version of football in Spain. It was Cruyff’s idea to set up such an academy. He proposed this idea to club president Núñez and thus gave birth to La Masia, the Youth Academy of Barcelona.
Cruyff knew that for the Total-Football concept to succeed, he would need players with the mindset and the skills to play the way the system demands them to. The Total-Football system relies on players to interchange their position on the field without compromising the structural integrity of the team. Frequent interchanges would mean that a player who plays in central midfield ought to be capable of playing in the wings with the same efficiency.
The best way to develop players for this system is to breed them within. Players who are brought up with this mindset from an early age can easily be integrated into the system. This was the vision behind La Masia as a youth academy.
Johan Cruyff – The man who gave Barca its identity.
Keeping the system alive
Every year thousands of young boys between the ages of 6 to 8 years try out to get into this famous academy. Barca provides accommodation for 60 young boys in the La Masia and the rooms are mostly reserved for boys hailing from outside the city. It’s one of the most expensive academies with an operating cost of about 5 Million Euros a year. Barca pays for everything including the player’s education, food, accommodation, and training and even provides them a small amount for them to spend.
Besides the first team, FC Barcelona, the youth teams are organized into various teams of various levels. Immediately below the first team is the FC Barcelona B team, which currently plays in the second division. There are 19 youth teams of various age groups and every level is coached by someone associated with Barca, ensuring the club’s philosophy stays intact.
Re-structuring the cantera
Even though the cantera produced truckloads of talent for the first team, the B team formerly known as Futbol Club Barcelona Atlètic seemed doomed to remain in the second division. Their ignominy only worsened when they fell to the Tercera División, the 3rd division below La Liga in the 2007-08 season.
Guardiola who was made the B team coach then, decided to restructure the youth teams. He made an elaborate plan to progressively develop players and restructure how the B team functioned. He made the youth team more professional and brought in many ex-players to aid the organization and development of youth team.
He organized the B team as a separate team and made them compete like the first team instead of seeing themselves as just a platform for moving into first team. He categorized players as either backbone players or pearls – the backbone players, as the name suggests, are those who hold the team together. Usually between the age group of 21 to 26 years, they are present to support the growth of the pearls. Their individual objective will be to shine in the second team of the ‘Barça brand’ so as to achieve later a relevant professional exit. Such backbone players tend not to be permanent as they constantly try to get a professional contract to get into the top tier.
The pearls are the bastion of precocious talent who go through different phases like Reserve-Rotation, Rotation-Maturation before finally becoming Key-Players who are often called to the first team. Players like Bojan, Jonathan Dos Santos, Thiago Alcantra, Fontas, Bartra are just some of the players who fall under the category of ‘pearls’.
Currently FC Barcelona B play in the Segunda División with Luis Enrique as their coach.
The dreams of the cantera
La Masia have been training footballers ever since 1979. It was however during the days when Cruyff was Barca’s manager that the true power of the academy began to show. He nurtured players like Guardiola and was instrumental in the success of ‘The Dream Team’. A 21 year old Guardiola was picked from the cantera and was given the daunting task of anchoring the midfield in the 1992 European Cup’s Final. That showed Cruyff’s faith in this academy and he was not disappointed. Guardiola went on to become one of the greatest players in Spain. Players like Guillermo Amor and Albert Ferrer along with Guardiola were some of the first wave of players to come out of La Masia and reach the top. Since then there has been a steady supply of great talent coming through. Van Gaal once predicted that the day was not far when Barca could hope to win the Champions League with 11 home grown players.
Well, that has not happened yet. But during the 2009 Champions League winning season, Barca had an astounding 8 home grown players in their lineup. Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Busquets, Pique, Valdes all represent the success of La Masia. Other talents who have made their mark with other teams include Cesc Fabregas, Mikel Arteta and Pepe Reina to name a few.
Some Pearls of La Masia.
Players like Pedro and Busquets don’t come along every year. They both came from the B team to win everything that is to be won in football in just 2 years (including the FIFA World Cup) with Spain. Not everyone in B team gets such a chance and not every player in the academy makes it to such giddying heights.
Millions go into the youth development program every year, but with the quality of the product this academy produces, this amount spent is actually quite a bargain saving the club from having to fork out millions more in transfer fees. With Guardiola in-charge, there is no doubt that more academy players would fulfill their dream of first-team action someday.
Barca is building a new and bigger place for its cantera to accommodate more youngsters than the current capacity. While the new building that is expected to replace La Masia, is expected to be bigger and feature cutting-edge technology to aid in the development of young players, one thing will remain unchanged – the philosophy of football that sets FC Barcelona apart.
– Aaron Schweitzer S