Kids To Kings: The Barca Way
La Masia is widely imitated so Rory Smith talked to those responsible to learn the method of the magic
Nobody in Spain calls them the golden generation.
Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and the rest have more claim than most to that most hubristic of sobriquets: world and European champions, they are the all-conquering force which has united a fractious nation as they etch their names in history. On their mantlepieces, in safety deposit boxes or, in David Silva's case, looked after by his mother, are the medals, the gilded spoils of wars won.
Most have tasted domestic success, for Barcelona and Real Madrid, and many have claimed victory in the Champions League, too. For their country, too, they have known every glory: youth level successes translated into senior triumphs. Few groups of players have reached El Dorado quite so definitively, but to their fans they are, simply, La Roja. That should not be a surprise. After all, under first Luis Aragones and now Vicente del Bosque, Spain have been far too busy acquiring titles to worry about epithets.
Besides, such a label would suggest that this team is the zenith of what might be achieved. That is not how Spain see their dominance. "We have plenty of good players coming through the ranks," said Iker Casillas yesterday. "We can sustain our success." This is a team, an era, built to last. This is a nation which unveiled the shirt to be worn by Del Bosque's players in Poland and the Ukraine next summer under the slogan: "The past means nothing. Everything starts again." Over the last four years, Spain have joined football's superpowers. The challenge now is to stay there.
"The production line is almost infinite," says Albert Benaiges. More than most, he should know. For 20 years, he ran Barcelona's famed La Masia Academy. More than most, he can claim to be the alchemist who turned his country's base metal into gold. "There are players of high quality for the next five years at least, just at Barcelona.
"Look at Isaac Cuenca, who made his debut for [Pep] Guardiola's senior team a few weeks ago. Then there are players like Sergi Roberto in the B team. And below them, there are players who can reach the same level. The system will keep producing."
There could be few better judges of talent. It was Benaiges who brought Cesc Fabregas into Barcelona's youth set-up, having seen him play as an 11-year-old in a tournament in Arenys-del-Mar, a small town on the Catalan coast.
He negotiated with the player's parents, arranged a taxi to take him every day to and from La Masia, the traditional, Catalan-style farmhouse incongruously nestled in downtown Barcelona which, for three decades, quietly forged greatness.
His first experience of Iniesta was of a crushingly shy, ghostly pale boy of 12 who was so homesick upon joining Barcelona's Academy that he had to stay at Benaiges's home. Victor Valdes, Pepe Reina, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and, of course, Xavi, all passed through La Masia's doors, as well as Pedro, omitted from Del Bosque's squad for Wembley.
"But they are all of different ages," he says. "Puyol was born in 1978, Xavi in 1980, Valdes in 1982, right through to Cesc, Pedro and Pique in 1987 and Busquets in 1988. This is not just one generation."
Not that you would know it. It is often said of Barcelona, and by proxy of Spain, that their style is rooted in years of playing together, but that is ostensibly untrue: when Xavi, that epitome of Catalan sophistication, and his grizzled consigliere Puyol were graduating summa cum laude, Pedro and Fabregas and the rest were barely entering their teens. Instead, the uniformity of approach says far more about the school than the students.
"The Barcelona principle is that you do not work to create players, you work to create a style," says Pep Segura, veteran of almost a decade as technical director of La Masia and now tasked with implementing his expertise at Liverpool's Academy at Kirkby.
"If you come to watch us play, you will see the same approach in our under-12s as you do in our reserve team. That way, when players arrive in the first team, they know the style, and they know what they have to do. It is the same at Barcelona. It does not change from coach to coach and from year to year. You have to have a consistent line of work. The most important thing is creating that line."
That is the abiding principle of La Masia. Benaiges describes it as "the key". Segura has brought that philosophy with him to Merseyside, where he holds weekly meetings instructing his coaches what to emphasise in the coming days, and training sessions are now run on similar lines from the under-fives to the reserves.
"Every exercise is age-specific, of course, but there is a holistic approach," says Frank MacParland, Liverpool's Academy director. "When players step up an age group, they know what is expected of them."
That is the experience described by Pepe Reina, currently at Anfield but an alumnus of La Masia. The goalkeeper, who moved from the family home in Madrid to Catalunya as a teenager, remembers a "tiny old house, nothing luxurious about it, each room with 25 beds the same size". Nights were punctuated with whimpers from corners, "with people crying because they were lonely", helping to forge a sense of togetherness among the pupils.
Days, meanwhile, followed a regular pattern. "There is uniformity between the age groups, so there is no culture shock for a player as he develops," Reina writes in his autobiography. "It is a very simple strategy, but very effective."
Such is the romance of La Masia, the homestead where the greats became friends and then the friends became greats. "That is a huge part of it," says Segura, "but without the players, nothing can happen. You have to have the right players. Scouting is crucial to any academy."
Barcelona, and by extension Spain, got lucky, he insists: "To have the three best players in the world on the same side – as Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi are at Barcelona – is unprecedented. It will never happen again."
That is not stopping the rest of the world attempting to replicate that success. As Segura is proselytising the gospel according to La Masia on Merseyside, so is Benaiges in the United Arab Emirates with Dubai's Al Wasl FC. The Barcelona model, writ large, is being adapted to fit into the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), due to be introduced as the salvation of English football next year. Segura, unsurprisingly, cannot wait.
"The advantage they have in Spain is that all of the best young players can play together," he explains. "There is no restriction on where you can recruit young players from, and they do not cost nearly so much. That means you can have a class of players all improving together."
So Reina, brought up in Madrid, could move to Barcelona, as his father – the former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Miguel – assured him it was the finest place to continue his education. So too Iniesta, from Albacete. And David Silva, who left his home in the fishing village of Arguineguin, on the Canary Islands, for Valencia as a 14-year-old. "It was really hard," says the Manchester City player. "Especially being away from my parents, because I was so young and so small. I had some really hard times, but you get used to it. It forces you to mature. It was good for me."
The reaction in English football to the introduction of a Spanish-style model has been ambivalent, to say the least. In some quarters, it has been projected as an exercise in oppression by the ruling elite, the Premier League forcing the turkeys of the Football League to vote for Christmas.
"It is a selfish response," says Segura. "If you have a really gifted student, and you put him in a really bad school, then his results suffer. But if you surround him with other good students, then he will improve, and improve others with him. At the moment, even if a smaller club feels they have a great player in their youth system, that player may not develop as he could. In many cases, talent is lost to the game completely."
That does not happen in Spain. There, it is cherished, protected, indulged. "Vicente del Bosque is a very intelligent manager," says Benaiges. "He knows that he does not have a choice but to use the Barcelona style with the national team. There are so many players there who have grown up using that style. The lessons they learned as children taught them how to win the World Cup."
And it makes them favourites for the European Championship next summer. And the World Cup in 2014; and, if Casillas is correct, to rule the world for years to come. In Spain, nobody calls them the golden generation. That is far too short-term a view.
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