The Catalan Way to Grow Players on Home Soil

The New York Times 26/5/2011

The stone farmhouse, built in the 18th century as a country estate, is now surrounded by modern stadiums, high-rise buildings and hotels in a leafy and upscale neighborhood here, but it continues to produce a bountiful harvest.

The house, known as La Masia, is the symbolic home of Barcelona’s youth soccer academy, which helped develop eight of the team’s projected starters for Saturday’s match in London against Manchester United in the final of the European Champions League, the world’s most prestigious club tournament.

Given Barcelona’s standing as one of soccer’s best and most attractive teams, La Masia has become an international model for the financial, athletic and social benefits of growing players on home soil.

It differs from the standard American model of youth sports development, which is generally based in schools. And it differs, too, from the typical European soccer model, in which the best players often quit school around the age of 15 to devote their full attention to the sport.

For instance, team officials said that a dozen players on Barcelona’s B team — as well as one of its stars, midfielder Andrés Iniesta — are taking college courses.

“This surprises people,” Carles Folguera, the director of the residence at La Masia, said through an interpreter. “They think the players are here to play football and not to study. We prepare them for sport, but also to have another future if sport does not work out.”

The success of Barcelona’s youth academy was never more evident than in 2010, when the graduates Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Iniesta were the three finalists for FIFA’s Golden Ball award as the world’s top player. (Messi won for a second consecutive year.) Xavi, Iniesta and seven other players who won the World Cup for Spain developed in the academy.

So did Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s manager, and Guillermo Amor, a former star midfielder who is now the technical director of the youth academy. For one Barcelona player, Gerard Piqué, a central defender, affiliation with the club has been nearly lifelong.

Piqué grew up five minutes from La Masia and Camp Nou, the Barcelona stadium. His grandfather was a member of Barcelona’s board of directors. After a stint with Manchester United, Piqué returned to his boyhood team in 2008.

“Since I was a kid, I was a fan; I went to the stadium every week,” Piqué said. “It was a dream to play for Barcelona.”

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