Gràcies Pep, Part 3: Abraham, Fontàs and Gai Assulin

Gràcies Pep, Part 3: Abraham, Fontàs and Gai Assulin

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.

After covering Xavi Torres, Muniesa and Botía in the last post, it’s time to look into the stories of Abraham, who since leaving Barça has come to know the feeling of getting relegated more than once; Andreu Fontàs, who received offers from “everyone” except the club he was ready to pay to play for, Barça; and Gai Asulin, the superstar that never was.

Abraham González
Born: 16 July 1985
Date of debut: May 30, 2009
Opponent: Deportivo La Coruna (away)
Result: 1-1
Competition: La Liga

Born in Barcelona, Abraham started playing football at Ferran Martorell, his football school before joining Terrassa FC in 2002 at the age of 17. At Terrassa, Abraham made his professional debut in the second division during the 2004-05 season. Though the team was relegated during his debut season, Abraham would stay at the club until 2007, when Josep Guardiola showed interest in the local boy.

When Guardiola arrived to take over FC Barcelona B, it was a reserve team in crisis, having been relegated to the “hell” of the fourth division. It was a team without a soul or a future, without concrete and measurable objectives, a team compromised for the directive staff that had put all of its interest into the successes of the first team. Pure shortsightedness. Guardiola and his staff’s mission was to change this and they did so by making a plan, not just for one season but for the general future. Their plan included dividing the players into two categories: pearls and backbone players.

Abraham was like Xavi Torres, brought to the club by Pep as a so called “backbone player”. The backbone players were generally a bit older, between 21 and 26, experienced, restrained and without excess, strategically placed to maintain the competitive rhythm of the squad without holding back the growth of the other category, the pearls. The backbone players would spend two seasons playing for Barça B, being the stable players of the team, making the transition for the younger “pearls” easier. Their individual objective would be to shine in the second team of the “Barça brand” to later achieve a relevant professional exit. In other words, they knew when they were signed that they had come for something other than moving up to the first team of Barça.

As the plan dictated, Abraham would stay for two seasons at Barça B. He played a total of 67 games for the reserve team, 38 under Josep Guardiola and 29 under Luis Enriqué. These were two seasons that he declared had “marked him forever”. Playing for one of the “best outfits out there”, Abraham admitted that he learned a lot. During his second and last season at the club, he was given some first team experience, as Josep Guardiola gave him his La Liga debut at the end of the season in a 1-1 away draw with Deportivo La Coruña. This wasn’t his first experience with the first team, as Guardiola had also picked Abraham to be among the youngsters joining the first team for their preseason in Scotland ahead of the 08/09 season. Abraham had also seen some minutes in a 1-0 cup win over Benidorm. These are days he’ll never forget, in which he gained confidence and experience.

After the two seasons had passed, it was time for Abraham to move on. His next club was second division side Cadiz, where he stayed for one season, playing 32 games. At the end of the season, the Andalusian side was relegated and Abraham decided to return to Catalonia, playing for Gimnàstic de Tarragona. He failed to impress in Tarragona, and ended the season with only 4 games played. The following year, the 2011-12 season, he spent on loan at Ponferradina  where he played in 17 games for the second division club, though once again Abraham’s team was relegated. For this coming season a new club awaits the man born in Barcelona, one that brings fond memories for Barça fans: Alcorcon.

Even though almost three years have passed since Abraham left Barça, it’s not unusual to spot him in the stands at the  MiniEstadi watching his old team, or to see him hanging out with the friends he met there, such as Oier and Fontàs. Even though his career hasn’t brought him to first division football yet, the seasons he spent at Barça and the time he spent with Pep surely had an impact on Abraham. He has not yet lost sight of one day playing in the Spanish first division.

Andreu Fontàs
Born: 14 November 1989
Date of debut: August 31, 2009
Opponent: Sporting Gijón (home)
Result: 3-0
Competition: La Liga

Andreu Fontàs was born in Banyoles, where he spent his early years playing for CD Banyoles from the age of six until he was 16. As soon as the bell would ring at the Baldri Reixac Banyoles school, little Andreu would pick up his ball and run outside. It wouldn’t take long for his classmates to form a ring around the 11 year old as he kicked the ball. When the bell rang again and it was time to go back in, the ball had yet to touch the ground, but that was nothing new to his classmates. The strange thing was that no one would take notice of the boy at Pla de l’Estany, where he played his football for Banyoles, until at 16 he left to play in the Division of Honour at Girona.

After seeing Andreu play in only two games, his new coach Ricardo Rodríquez, today sporting director at Malaga, declared to him, “Fontàs, you will be making a living at this”. It was a dream that shortly thereafter started to become reality, as Andreu was picked to play for the youth levels of the Catalan national team. It was there that he soon caught the attention of Atletico, Real Madrid, Osasuna, Valencia, Levante, Zaragoza, Mallorca, Liverpool, Deportivo and Espanyol. There was one problem, however. After sitting for many years in the grandstand of Camp Nou with his father, Andreu was a diehard Barça fan. This was the club he wanted to play for. When he was asked about signing for Barça, the boy answered, “I would pay to play for Barça”, but they were not one of the clubs showing any interest in the Catalan boy. With his friends from Banyoles, Fontàs began to study at the University of Barcelona and it was soon after that Barça took notice of the player.

In 2007, at the age of 18, Andreu finally arrived at Barça, playing for the club’s Juvenil team coached by Alex García. Like Ricardo Rodríguez, García saw Fontàs’ qualities and knew that he would soon take off. It did not take long for Fontàs to become a starter in the team. More surprising though was the decision by the coaches to hand him the captain’s armband, ignoring many of the other players who had been in the cantera for years. The personality showed by Fontàs on the field has also helped him to continue his physical education studies.

Although he often played as a pivot in front of a three man defense in the Juvenil team, Guardiola changed Andreu into a central defender. This was a normal transition seen at Barça, from the days when Johan Cruyff adapted Ronald Koeman’s position on the pitch. Even though he came late into Luis Enriqué’s Barça B in the 2008-09 season, Andreu quickly earned a starting spot in the team, and he featured in 72 games over three seasons.

Impressing in the B team, Andreu was called by Josep Guardiola to take part in the first team’s preseason for the 2009-10 season. His debut came soon after, in a home game against Sporting Gijon in the league which ended in a 3-0 win. After featuring in one more game during the 2009-10 season, Fontàs was promoted to the first team on a permanent basis in March of 2011 to replace Éric Abidal, who had been diagnosed with a liver tumor. Fontàs ended that season with 8 games played for the first team, mostly at left back. The next season, during a Copa Del Rey game against Osasuna, Fontàs suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury which sidelined him for several months.

Although he was promoted to the first team more than a year ago, Fontàs didn’t see much playing time under Guardiola. Discussion about whether the boy was really ready was fueled when injury problems troubled the back-line, as Pep still chose not to use Andreu. However, as a part of his dream club’s first team, Andreu hasn’t complained and is nothing but thankful to Josep Guardiola, who above all has showed trust in promoting the boy from Banyoles.

Gai Assulin
Born: 9 April 1991
Date of debut: October 28 2009
Opponent: Cultural Leonesa
Result: 0-2 (away)
Competition: Copa del Rey

Gai Assulin was born in Nahariya, where he started his football career at the Hapoel Haifain school in 1999 at the age of 7. As a 12 year old, he moved to Beitar Tubruk’s youth ranks. While there, his coach Shlomo Scharf proposed to Gai’s parents that the boy should go to Spain to try-out for FC Barcelona, as the Barça coaches would be impressed. At 13, the Israeli player, together with his parents, moved to Barcelona where Gai started playing with the magic generation of ’91 at La Masia.

At Barça, Gai’s first coach was Fran Sánchez, who was so impressed by the boy that he compared him to Lionel Messi. The comparisons didn’t stop there. As Gai moved up the youth system at Barça, talk about the wonderboy spread around the world. Top English clubs would soon stand in line to sign Barça’s 14 year old, who chose to stay with the blaugrana. Meanwhile, in his home country of Israel, the dream of having a top footballer started to grow. In less than three years, Gai had climbed through the youth teams at Barça and made his B team debut under Josep Guardiola during the 2007-08 season, when he was only 16 years old. Big things were expected as Gai was said to be the best player coming through La Masia since a certain Lionel Messi.

Gai soon made his debut for Israel’s National team at the age of 16, becoming the youngest player to ever do so, while still only playing with Barça’s reserves in the forth division. His future looked like it couldn’t be anything other than bright.

Though Gai didn’t complain about his life at Barça, there were other problems that sat heavily on the shoulders of the young boy. Trouble in his home country of Israel brought concerns about his family, and one can understand that concentrating on football was not the easiest thing for Gai to do. His teammates and coaches took time to understand what was going on, to help him, and at times the player managed to forget his troubles for 90 minutes and play football.

More problems arose when Gai turned 18, as he was obligated to join the Israeli army. Traveling home to work a way around his two years of military service, Gai missed the start of the 2008-09 preseason with Barça’s reserves. This had an impact on the player’s career, as bad preparation for the season later saw him get seriously injured, and he missed  nearly the entire season.

Guardiola, who had promoted Gai to the B team and worked with him there for a season, had big hopes for the youngster and called him to spend the 2009-10 preseason with the first team, after his return from injury. Later in 2009, Guardiola gave Gai Assulin his first team debut in a Cup clash against Cultural Leonese, which ended in a 2-0 win for the blaugrana. That was the only game Gai Asulin featured in for Barça’s first team. Back in the reserves, Gai struggled to regain his old form and the development of the youngster that had before looked unstoppable had ground to a halt. When his contract expired in 2010, the club decided not to renew it.

After leaving Barça, Gai trained on his own for a few months as he looked for a new club, and eventually he got a try-out with Manchester City. The following months saw Assulin in and out of the City training ground as the club attempted to agree on compensation with Barça, who were legally entitled to a development fee for raising the player at La Masia. Gai’s signing for the Manchester club became more complicated as a repetitive injury caused him to fail his medical exam, therefore making him legally incapable of signing a contract. Despite this, Gai did see some playing time with Manchester City’s academy team. Eventually, on the 13th of September, Assulin was finally able to sign for the Manchester club.

Gai’s fitness and injury problems would continue to create problems for the player. Set to be loaned out to Championship side Barnsley in November 2011, the loan deal fell through as injury and fitness concerns prevented the arrangement. At City, Gai was too old to play for the club’s elite youth team and competition in the reserves slowed his development even more. In February 2012, a loan deal was agreed for Gai to play for Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion, where he saw 7 games during the end of the 2011-12 season.

Guardiola can’t be blamed for Gai Assulin’s failure at Barça, as from the very start, the coach placed his trust in the Israeli, giving him his B team debut and later his first team debut. Guardiola gave him the chances. In the end though, a failed preseason and injury woes would stop the “new Messi” from becoming a new Messi.

Stay tuned for part 4 where we’ll cover the stories of  Jonathan Soriano, Jonathan Dos Santos, and Marc Bartra.