The lost boys of Barcelona

Messi is the Nou Camp's darling but the young star is alone in a galaxy of imports
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The Independent Football

A glittering example of that grass-roots success is the rocket-propelled arrival at the top level of Leo Messi, an 18-year-old Argentinian striker already lumbered with the "new Mara-dona" millstone. However, like Wayne Rooney, Messi soars above such stuff, a glorious talent to keep Barça, if not at the very peak of the world game, then at least ahead of hated rivals Real Madrid.

So well done, then, to La Masia, as Barcelona's youth academy is called after its headquarters, an 18th-century former farmhouse which perches in the very shadow of the Nou Camp's soaring tiers. Since its inception in 1979, La Masia has fed a stream of youthful talent towards the first team - starting with Josep Guardiola, arguably Barça's greatest ever, and continuing with the likes of Ivan de la Peña, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes.

But behind the cheerful shop- front and the flourishing sales of shirts celebrating Barça's championship-winning season, there lurks nervousness of an astonishing depth. Nou Camp is the sort of place where the slightest tremor is perceived as something high on the Richter scale.

For one thing, the uncertain and uninspiring start to the new season has got them in a right tizz and, though nothing so heretical is ever admitted, the club are increasingly victims of a classic Catch 22: the more success achieved through the skills of expensive foreigners, the more it is stifling the end product of La Masia.

The most glaring current example is Iniesta, a pure Barça-bred star, who spent six years at La Masia, made his first-team debut in 2002 and, last season, was the only squad member to play in every league game. Now, this once indispensable 21-year-old can't get into the starting line-up since Mark van Bommel was brought to the Nou Camp.

Talented youngsters have not been slow to spot that there exists a ceiling at Barça, a ceiling through which not many will manage to break and establish themselves alongside the big names from abroad. Nor did the situation long escape the eagle eyes of Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Liverpool's Spanish manager, Rafael Benitez.

To Barça's fury, Cesc Fabregas, a native Catalunyan, was persuaded a brighter and better-paid future lay at Arsenal, and so it has proved since he joined Wenger's squad as a 16-year-old in September 2003.

There have been other depart-ures or, as some at the Nou Camp regard them, desertions. Gerard Piquet has been snapped up by Manchester United, while Arsenal are hoping to capture Fran Nerida, brought to La Masia as an 11-year-old. Though no longer at the academy, Nerida is under contract to the club.

The case of Piquet undermines one of Barça's most trumpeted virtues - that it is a democratic institution, where every member gets a vote. Democracy is never very high on the agenda when it comes to the infighting for the coveted post of club president, and it was not much in evidence in the case of Piquet, whose grandfather was a friend of Jose Luis Nuñez, Barça's long-time president, who was succeeded first by Joan Gaspart and subsequently by Joan Laporta.

At the start of the Laporta regime, it was made clear, according to an associate of Piquet's, that, if Gerard himself was not persona non grata, then his name certainly was. Yet Piquet was that priceless asset, a defender who not only gets forward but scores.

Faced with the alternative of life on low wages with Barça's second and third teams, or good money in Old Trafford's waiting room and the glamour of a personal, promise-filled visit from Ferguson himself, Piquet upped and left.

Against such perceived treachery, however, Barça can parade Messi the Marvellous, a teenager around whose talents legends are already clustering. If you can believe it, Leo (real name Lionel) was playing for an Under-11 team in a humble suburb of his home town, Rosario, at the age of five, running the show and dazzling with his keepy-uppy skills.

By the time he had graduated to one of Argentina's bigger clubs, Newell's Old Boys, Barça's scouting system had bagged him, and he came to La Masia as a 13-year-old in 2000.

Despite a bone-hormone problem which was restricting his growth and which has now been cured, Messi scored five goals on his youth debut and has gone on lifting eyebrows ever since, captaining Argentina to success in last summer's Under-20 World Cup and finishing as top scorer and earning the player-of-the-tournament award.

Full caps for Argentina have followed, first in a friendly with Hungary in August and then against Paraguay and Peru in World Cup qualifiers.

Though he was safely under contract, a stunning performance in a pre-season friendly against Juventus had Barça's top brass scrambling to persuade Messi to put his name to a 10-year deal. The granting of a Spanish passport last month means he now has dual nationality and, theoretically, easier entry into life in La Liga, where he played six games last season and, against Albacete, became the youngest ever to score for Barcelona.

Already, of course, the rows are flaring: adidas, sponsors of Real Madrid, are desperate to sign Messi to a boot contract instead of Nike, one of Barça's sponsors, while Deportivo La Coruña have incensed the Nou Camp by complaining that Messi is not properly registered for La Liga, having signed after the 31 August deadline for the season.

The Spanish Football Federation are due to rule on Tuesday, but are unlikely to uphold Deportivo, not least because of the volume of support for Messi, including Miguel Angel Lotina, the coach of Barcelona's city rivals, Espanyol.

The paranoia at the Nou Camp is evident in Laporta's assertion that the whole registration row has been orchestrated by Real Madrid to prevent Messi playing. "Everyone is against Barcelona," Laporta complained.

Well, not quite. Messi is as much in love with his dream club as they and their supporters are with him. Nothing it seems can halt the rise of a genius who, like Rooney, seems to operate in an exclusion zone when he is on the ball.

In a new TV commercial, he says: "I am Leo Messi, remember my name." Back in the old farmhouse of La Masia, they are unlikely to forget.

ACADEMY LIFE: The boys who stayed at Barça

Founded in 1979 with 20 youngsters, La Masia now has 60. Ninety per cent are Spanish and more than 50 per cent of those Catalans. In addition to coaches and medical staff provided by the club, there is a full-time care team of 13.

JOSEP GUARDIOLA

Academy years 1984-90

The Academy's greatest product. A midfielder who won 43 caps for Spain and a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Given his club debut by Johan Cruyff in 1990. Guardiola led the club to six league titles, a European Cup in 1992 and two Spanish Cups. A move to Brescia in 2002 was unhappy and he ended his career in Qatar last season.

CARLES PUYOL

1994-98: A native of Catalunya, he has been solidly loyal to Barcelona, his only club, and is heading towards his 250th game. He played 83 times for Barcelona B before making his first-team debut in October 1999. Puyol has been a linchpin in defence and a Spanish international for the past four seasons. His defensive skills anchored Barça's title win last season.

ANDRES INIESTA

1996-2001: Joined Academy as a 12-year-old from his Albacete junior club and has been at the Nou Camp ever since. Was a vital component in Spain's wins in the Uefa Under-16 and Under-19 competitions, as well as captaining his country's Under-21s. First-team debut in October 2002 and was only squad member to play in all Barça's title-winning league games last season.

VICTOR VALDES

1996-2000: This native of the Catalunya town of Hospitalet kept goal for Spain in the Uefa Under-18 championship in 2001 and made his first-team debut the following year against Atletico Madrid. Came into favour when Frank Rijkaard took over as manager, missing only five games in 2003-04 and last season was Spain's most successful keeper, conceding only 25 goals.

IVAN DE LA PENA

1991-94: Tipped for great things, he has taken a roundabout route to success. Made his debut for Barcelona at 19 but after a fall-out with Louis van Gaal moved to Lazio and then Marseille before resurrecting his career with Barça's neighbours Espanyol to such effect that the "Little Buddha" gained his first cap for Spain last year at 28.

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