We are all extremely thankful to Josep Guardiola i Sala, a man that changed and achieved so much at our club. But there is one group of people that might be a little more thankful than anyone else. A group of people whose lives and careers took a new turn when Josep Guardiola decided to let them make their debut for FC Barcelona. During his four years as coach of our beloved club, Pep gave no less than 22 youth team players their chance to make the dream of debuting for Fútbol Club Barcelona a reality. Five of these players also made their B team debuts under Pep.
Twenty-two players in four years is a large number, and it means many changed lives. In this series I will take a look at all 22 of these players, examine their career trajectories and how Pep and the chance to debut in the first team impacted their footballing careers and their lives.
We start at the beginning, with two boys who were the first youngsters to make their first team debuts under Josep Guardiola. They are well known to fans by now, Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcantara. They are also two players that had Guardiola as coach the longest, as both Busquets and Thiago made their B team debuts under this man we call Pep.
Born: July 16th 1988
Date of debut: September 13, 2008
Opponent: Racing Santander (home)
Competition: La Liga
One who will always be thankful to Josep Guardiola i Sala is Sergio Busquets, a boy who might have been more famous for being the son of “Busi” before he met Pep. Sergio grew up in Badia but spent part of his childhood around Camp Nou, as his father Carles Busquets was the reserve goalkeeper for the first team. But neither Sergio nor his brother Aitor would follow in their father’s footsteps to play in goal. When asked about this, Sergio once said, “Goalkeeper? Please, I want to play football.”
But being the son of a first team player doesn’t mean you will get an automatic spot at La Masia, and as a kid Sergio did not pass the Barça’s tests. He had to go a different route. He played his football at Badía, Barberà, Lleida and Jabac Terrassa. Sergio eventually made it into Barça as ex-blaugrana player and coach Rodri convinced the people at La Masia to see Busi’s son. Eventually they did and Sergio joined the club in 2005.
In 2007 Josep Guardiola arrived as coach of the B team, and he instantly saw a special talent in the boy who once wasn’t wanted. Sergio made his B team debut and ended up playing a total of 30 games for the reserves in his debut season, being a vital player in their promotion winning campaign. The coming year Josep Guardiola would be promoted to the first team and the new coach decided that Sergio should be promoted as well.
The 20 year old’s debut came soon thereafter, in the second league game of the season. At this point, Guardiola was still seen as inexperienced and was doubted by many, especially after starting the campaign with a 1-0 loss away to Numancia which put him under pressure. Still, in the second league match, he decided to play a 20 year old, who had spent the previous year appearing with the B team in the fourth division. Not many coaches would take that risk, but Pep did. The game ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw. But in the stands Johan Cruyff was smiling, his eyes were illuminated. Hours later, his article in the newspaper indicated something big was on the horizon. “Technically superior to Toure and Keita. Positionally, he seems like a veteran. With or without the ball. With the ball he made what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball. And all that while being young and inexperienced. The same sins as his coach.” Johan was talking about the boy no one except for Pep believed in back then, Sergio Busquets.
Four months after his debut for the Spanish U-21 team, six months after his debut for Barça’s first team, and eight months after he played in the Spanish fourth division, Sergio Busquets was given his debut with Spain’s senior team, regarded as the best national team in the world. It wasn’t the season the 20 year old boy had expected, as eight months earlier he had promised his uncle that he would help out as an assistant coach for the Juvenil team back in Badia. But Sergio couldn’t keep that promise, instead he was about to do something his father had never even come close to.
One would believe that a fairytale story couldn’t get much better than that. But Sergio’s fairytale is one of a very special kind. By the time his debut season in the first team was finished, Sergio had not only pushed Yaya Touré to the bench, taking the starting spot as defensive midfielder, he was also on his way to earning six titles out of six possible. The least we could say is that it was a good debut season for both Josep Guardiola and his pupil Sergio. One year later Sergio would again win the League with Barça, but even more impressive would be the 21 year old’s World Cup win with Spain. With five trophies gained the next two seasons, the now 23 year old once unwanted culé is only missing one trophy, the European Championship, and that prize could be obtained this summer in Poland and Ukraine.
Rinus Michels once said that if you don’t notice the defensive midfielder, then he is doing an excellent job. Thankfully for Busi and Barça, when no one noticed this fantastic defensive midfielder, a man with a special eye for talent returned to the club, Josep Guardiola. The rest, as we say, is history.
Guardiola says: “He’s the best defensive central midfielder in the world.”
Born: April 11, 1991
Date of debut: May 17, 2009
Opponent: RCD Mallorca (away)
Competition: La Liga
Another player who will be grateful to Pep is Thiago Alcantara. Just like Sergio, Thiago made his B team debut during Pep’s first season as a coach. Later, he would also earn his first team debut under the same man. Also like Sergio, Thiago Alcantara is the son of a professional footballer, the Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho. In Thiago’s case, this meant moving around a lot as a kid.
On his right arm, Thiago has a tattoo of a baby in diapers, playing in the waves with a sky full of stars and of course a football. He got the tattoo as soon as he turned 18, the drawing on his skin taken from an old photograph that his parents took of him in Italy when he was 14 months old. It helps him to remember where he comes from. Born in Italy in 1991, he moved to Spain as a three year old when his father changed clubs. And it was in Spain that the young Thiago would start to play football. His career began with Priegue, a small team in Vigo. At the age of six he was already playing with 8 year olds, as the boy already showed talent above his years. When Mazinho signed for Elche, that became Thiago’s next destination. After only 6 months there the family moved back “home” to Brazil, where Thiago started to play for Flamengo. After 3 years it was time to go back to Spain and he started to play for Ureca. It was there that the big clubs started to show interest in Mazinho’s oldest son. Valencia CF, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona began to follow the youngster’s progress. The 14-year old Thiago made his decision to move alone to La Masia. Although he was used to moving around, this time it would be harder as he was on his own for the first time.
Growing up Thiago always knew that he wanted to be just like his dad, a professional footballer, and at 14 he decided it was time to make some sacrifices to achieve his dream. He had to give up certain things. There would not be anymore football playing at school, which exhausted him by the time the important games at the weekend came, and there would also be no more hanging out late with friends. These were not decisions anyone else made for him, they were decisions Thiago made for himself. Having grown up in a house full of athletes, he knew what it would take. The hardest sacrifice was no doubt leaving his family for a life at La Masia. But at La Masia, Thiago would create a second family, as the other boys there became like his brothers, not least of all a Mexican called Jonathan Dos Santos. Later, Thiago’s little brother Rafinha would also arrive at La Masia, which helped.
At La Masia and Barça, Thiago would became a part of the famous ’91 generation, where he played with now well-known names like Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca, Marc Muniesa, Martin Montoya, and Marc Bartra, among others.
In 2007, when Thiago was 16, the then Barcelona B coach Josep Guardiola had his eye on the youngster. Together with his peer Gai Assulin, Thiago made his debut in a pre-season game for the B team. He then made his senior level debut in an official fourth division match, in the 7th round of the season. His debut game was a 1-1 draw against Igualada on the 12th of October in 2007. On the 1st of December, in his second game against Santboà, Thiago would make a great impact. Being so young at the time of his B team, only 16, the talk around Camp Nou started to center around the son of Mazinho. Pep, however, didn’t want to rush things with his diamond and Thiago played out the season with the Juvenil A team, playing a total of only 5 games with the B team.
After Josep Guardiola was promoted to the first team, Luis Enriqué took over Barcelona B for the 2008/09 season, and decided to promote Thiago. That season, Thiago played 25 games for Barça B, with first team coach Guardiola keeping an eye on his progress. On May 17, 2009, at only 18 years old, Pep gave Thiago his first team debut against Real Mallorca.
The next season, in 2010-11, Thiago stayed with the B team, with Guardiola still determined to not rush anything with the boy. Pep did have Thiago make two more first team appearances, and on the 20th of February, 2010, he scored his first goal for the team in their 4-0 win over Racing Santander. Thiago spent that season as normal with the reserves but as the season finished, even though his promotion was not yet announced, he was seen as more or less of a first team player. That season he had 17 first team appearances to his name, games in which he had performed at the highest level.
Many fans were afraid this huge talent would slip away as Guardiola waited, and waited, to promote Thiago to the first team. This was a well thought out decision by Pep, who was aware of the fact that Thiago was still only 19. But the good performances put in by Thiago were on too high of a level for Pep to let him stay in the B team. Thiago was promoted to the first team for the 2011-12 season, though Guardiola was still very cautious on not rushing the midfielder. Nevertheless, Thiago would show the coach that despite his very young age, he was more than ready for senior football. He ended his first season as a first team player with 45 games played.
It’s hard to say what would have happened with Thiago and how he would have developed if Guardiola had decided to promote him earlier. But it’s obvious that it could have gone another way, as we have seen with other players that debuted at a very young age, with the latest example being Bojan Krkic. With Thiago, Guardiola not only helped to develop an already fantastic talent, but he also helped develop a mentally stronger player. He showed Thiago that you have to work hard to get to the highest level, that when you score you do not run to your best friend on the bench, you go to celebrate with the player who gave you the assist and made the goal possible. Thanks to Pep, Thiago was not rushed in to the first team and avoided the risk of being ruined by too early of a leap. Instead, the process was done step by step, which has helped Thiago take a very secure place in the best team of the world, even at the age of 20.
Guardiola says: “Thiago is currently going through a phase where everything he touches turns into gold. Every shot he takes seems to end up in the net at the moment. But we have to go little by little with him. He’s a first team player so he must have quality. Nevertheless, he’s still young and has a large margin for improvement and is constantly getting better.”
Stay tuned for part 2 in which we’ll cover the stories of Xavi Torres, Marc Muniesa and Alberto Botía.