Original article @ Dailymail.co.uk
Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique…all forged in Barcelona’s hothouse of champions
By Alex Kay
La Masia produces geniuses; footballing geniuses with diplomas in tiki-taka, a Spanish noun meaning an attractive style of football, using short one or two-touch passes. It is the reason Barcelona is the European champions.
A look around the dining room of the 18th-century country house tells you everything you need to know. The walls are adorned with photographs showing the cheeky grins of boys who have graduated from here to become stars: Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique are among them.
The one who got away: Cesc Fabregas was groomed for Barca, but Arsene Wenger took him off to Arsenal.
And that’s just a start. More than 500 boys have spent their teenage years at La Masia since the club’s social hub in the shadow of the Nou Camp was transformed into a factory for brilliant young footballers in 1979 [picture above]. Here you get the full works: 70 staff taking care of a maximum intake of 75 boys, aged between 11 and 18. Included among the staff are coaches, doctors, nutritionists, cooks, physios and psychologists. Some of the boys sleep there in four spacious dormitories.
They do not lack attention and there’s a reason for that. Barca wants to produce well-rounded individuals who have something to fall back on if they don’t make it in football. Above all, they want to produce outstanding players, which is where the tiki-taka comes in: short, sharp passing, with quick interchanging movements.
Top class: former Manchester United defender Pique (back row, left), Arsenal’s Fabregas (back right) and Messi (front right) during their time at La Masia (below), the academy that produces humble football geniuses
It works. Johan Cruyff, who was Barca coach between 1988 and 1996, built his ‘Dream Team’ around La Masia products Pep Guardiola, Luis Milla, Guillermo Amor, Sergi Barjuan and Ivan de la Pena. Today Guardiola, now the side’s manager, has probably the two best passers in the world in Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Their football is fast, successful, mesmerising.
“The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest,” explains Guardiola, perhaps the academy’s greatest success, having won 16 trophies as a player and six so far as a manager with the club.
“It’s something that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from childhood. It is vital for the club. It is the cheapest long-term investment that the club can make. You just have to see that Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi cost the club very little. I arrived at 13 and they helped me to grow up. I have great memories. I remember the first day, when my parents left me there, and how they gave me really good food.”
Representatives from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, Wigan, Birmingham, Stuttgart and Bordeaux are among those to have visited the academy in the past few years to see how it works.
Of great importance to the boys and their families is that it costs them nothing.
“The players are all given scholarships,” explains academy director Carles Folguera. “The club pays for everything: food, board, teachers, teaching materials and also pays them a minimum wage so they can buy refreshments in their breaks each day.”
It costs the club about £5million a year to run. That’s peanuts when you look at the end product.
The majority of academic teaching is done outside the old farmhouse, with the boys transported to normal schools each morning – all part of the plan to keep them grounded before they spend the afternoons doing intense training back at camp.
“I think the two most important qualities for the boys are comradeship and humility,” adds Folguera.
“These guys might have been chosen to be part of Barca but it is humility that earns you respect. We don’t want them to go around talking about huge amounts of money. You can be humble if your surroundings are, but it’s tough. But take Iniesta – he is not arrogant, he more or less goes unnoticed.”
For Iniesta, who is from the small town of Fuentealbilla in central Spain, leaving his parents and moving to La Masia at the age of 12 was a stressful time. “It was like the world was coming to an end. It was a new life and the impact was very hard. Being separated from my parents at such a young age was such an abrupt change. My father and grandfather dropped me off on the first night and I came to have dinner but I couldn’t eat a thing. But they treated me very well. There were two telephones and we used to argue about who could use them to phone home. I didn’t want to spend a night without calling my parents. But they see you’re so young, that you lack affection and they help you.”
Helping the boys adapt and develop is a large part of what La Masia is about. When Messi arrived as a 13-year-old in 2000, a bone hormone problem meant that he was just 4ft 6in – the average boy that age is 5ft 5in. The specialists soon sorted that, Messi went on to score five goals on his youth-team debut and the rest is history.
“As a kid they teach you not to play to win but to grow in ability as a player,” says Messi, who shared a room with a basketball player – that’s because Barca is more than just a football club and La Masia brings through players for their handball, hockey and basketball teams too.
Close friendships are formed; Everton’s Mikel Arteta slept in the bunk above Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, while Iniesta graduated with Barca keeper Victor Valdes. It’s only natural, as the players spend 11 months of the year together.
“We used to spend hours in the hall,” says Iniesta. “We’d play football, using the doorways as goal. It was banned so when the director heard the noise, we’d all run off into our rooms.”
“You feel the colours, the club and its badge,” says Pique, who returned to Barcelona after a spell with Manchester United. “Above all it’s about values, not only in football but on a personal level. I think the fans feel more connected to the team because of all the homegrown players.”
That’s why La Masia is so special.
DAY IN THE LIFE
7am: Get up.
7.30am: Communal breakfast.
8am: Minibus takes them to school in the city.
2pm: Return from school and have a communal lunch.
2.30pm: Some boys have a siesta while others do homework.
4pm-6pm: Intense training sessions.
6.30pm: Fit players head to the gym, while those carrying knocks or injuries have physio.
9pm: Communal dinner.
10pm: Bed time. Some players go straight to sleep but they are allowed to read, listen to music or do homework before lights out.
NEXT OFF LA MASIA’S PRODUCTION LINE
THIAGO ALCANTARA: The 18-year-old central midfielder is the son of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winner Mazinho. He has Spanish and Brazilian citizenship, despite being born in Italy. Chelsea tried to sign him two years ago. Made his Barca debut at the end of last season.
GAI ASSULIN: Dubbed the next Messi, 18-year-old midfielder Assulin also turned down Chelsea. The Israeli, who arrived at La Masia aged 12, is eligible to play for Spain, made his debut against Tottenham at the Wembley Cup last summer and is being chased by Arsenal.
MARC MUNIESA: Centre back who made his youth-team debut aged 15 two years ago in a team of 17-year-olds. Has already played in La Liga and was in the Champions League final squad for last season’s victory over Manchester United.
MARC BARTRA: Struggling to establish himself in Barca side because of Pique and Puyol but is a massive talent. The 19-year-old can play centre-back or full back and has been linked with a move to Barcelona’s bitter rivals Real Madrid.