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.”

To have so many players spend much of their careers together enhances team unity, Piqué said.

“It’s good for the atmosphere of the dressing room,” he said. “And there’s a lot of confidence. We can help each other as a friend, not only as a teammate. You can see this on the pitch — when we are in trouble that we work as a team and we fight to win.”

Approximately 210 boys between the ages 7 and 18 are enrolled in Barcelona’s youth academy. A dozen players between 11 and 14 live in dormitory rooms at La Masia, which also includes a dining room, library, playroom and computer center. Forty-eight players between 15 and 18 live in rooms across the street at Camp Nou. Those who are from Barcelona live at home with their parents. So do some players who travel from other countries with their families.

An 11-year-old, Ben Lederman from Southern California, has caught Barcelona’s attention. Some soccer Web sites have reported that Lederman is the first American accepted to the academy, but Amor said that not all details had been completed.

Late next month, La Masia will close its dormitory, and all youth academy activities will be moved to Barcelona’s training center in the nearby village of Sant Joan Despi. The daily routine, though, will likely remain for the academy’s residents: During the week, they rise at 6:45 a.m., eat breakfast and leave for regular school in the city at 7:30. They attend classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., return to La Masia to eat, rest and attend mandatory study groups. Training is held from 7 to 8:45 p.m., followed by dinner and some free time. Lights out for the younger players is 10:30 p.m., 11 for older players.

“Parents are giving us something they consider most valuable — their children — at a vulnerable age,” Folguera said. “It is important to show them the value of effort and humility. Talent alone does not work. You must be humble and a normal person, something that each parent of a certain level of dignity would be proud of.”

Each player living at the academy is provided a laptop computer, Folguera said. On staff are cooks, nutritionists, a doctor, a psychologist, tutors and social directors who take the players on outings around the city. It can be an exhilarating but jarring experience for the boys to be separated from their families at a young age. Iniesta has talked about his homesickness upon arriving at La Masiaat age 12 and of jostling with others to use a phone to call his parents. The pressure to succeed at such a young age can also be overwhelming. Piqué said he did not let himself think about playing for Barcelona’s first team until he turned 17.

“It’s a really bad feeling when one day they say to you, ‘You have to leave,’ ” Piqué said. “So maybe it’s better not to think about it a lot. I saw a lot of friends of mine who were thinking to play in the first team, and then one day the club just says, ‘You don’t have the level to stay here.’ It’s a really difficult shock because you are really young.”

From an economic standpoint, growing your own players is not so different from growing your own vegetables. It saves money at the market.

In Barcelona’s case, this strategy has allowed it to be judicious in spending tens of millions of dollars in transfer fees, paid apart from salaries, to sign players from other teams. In 2009, Real Madrid spent $132 million just for the rights to forward Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United and another $94 million for the rights to the Brazilian playmaker Kaká from A.C. Milan. Since then, Madrid has failed to win the Spanish league, much less the Champions League.

For Barcelona to have to pay transfer fees for such stars as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta at about the same time “would be impossible,” Folguera said.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Barcelona grooms 8- and 9-year-old players to play its mesmerizing style of short, rhythmic passes. Especially for its younger players, learning to play with the ball is more important than winning. This is the opposite of the way many children in the United States learn soccer.

In America, “the games are do or die,” said Claudio Reyna, a former captain of the United States national team who is now the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, the national governing body. “At Barcelona, they are about educating players, and winning takes care of itself. I believe it makes an impact when players can develop in a calm and proper environment, not being judged on whether you win games all the time. They are just looking for players with soccer brains.”

Patience has its rewards. In the end, though, Barcelona demands titles, not merely beautiful soccer. Young players must develop according to the club’s lofty standards, or they will be replaced. So while Xavi and Iniesta have spent their careers at Barcelona since boyhood, the average time spent living at the youth academy is three years, officials said. The majority of players must find another team or another pursuit.

“Karl Malone and John Stockton played beautifully,” Folguera said, referring to the former stars of the Utah Jazz basketball team. “But they never won anything.”

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