La Masia is world renowned for being the best football academy on Earth, but at times the FC Barcelona academy’s status comes under threat as more and more teams and organisations around the world copy the winning formula and apply it meticulously. Of course, the best way to dispel any doubts is by doing so on the pitch. Barcelona’s U12 side (Infantil B) have been doing just that over the past three days in Tenerife, where they have been dazzling the crowds at the annual La Liga Promises tournament. As a bonus for their play, Sergi Milà’s side returned home with a wholly deserved winner’s medals.
The 2016 La Liga Promises tournament signified the return to Spain of the annual youth tournament organised by the LFP (Spanish professional league), and the lineup of teams in Tenerife’s Puerto de la Cruz was impressive to say the least. Apart from La Liga heavyweights Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, Spain was represented by other top flight sides in Sporting Gijón, Betis, Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal. The Spanish teams were joined by Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Middlesbrough and Paris Saint Germain.
Barcelona were represented in Tenerife by the Infantil B side, which is coached by Sergi Milà. The team’s coach, who is currently the longest serving La Masia coach despite being one the youngest, had a difficult task picking the squad for the tournament, given that the rules only allowed for each team to have a squad of 12 while he normally commands a 23 player squad. 11 youngsters had to face the disappointment of having to stay in Barcelona, but the 12 boys Milà picked for the journey to the Canary Islands fully justified the coach’s final call up.
The Blaugranas though did not have a road laid with roses on their way to the trophy. Milà’s side came only third in the group stages, behind Sevilla and Villarreal and only won once, beating Middlesbrough 8-0 in a game that saw Toni Caravaca star with a hat-trick.
With the group stages past them though, Milà’s boys rediscovered their true self in the knockout rounds. With some players taking a while to find their feet, Infantil B only managed to start putting their best football on display in the quarter finals, breezing past Group B winners PSG with a 4-0 win. In the semi-finals, the Blaugranas came up against the team they beat in last year’s final in Miami, Real Madrid. In the Miniclásico, Barça’s boys showed that they are still top of the pile. They were superior in game, in terms of chances, and ultimately, in terms of goals, with little magician Gavi (Pablo Páez Gavira) scoring a brace past the Blancos.
In the grand finale, Barcelona came up against Atlético Madrid, a team that showed their metal to go past Villarreal and the tournament’s surprise package Sporting. Once the game started though, it soon became clear that the Rojiblancos were no match for Sergi Milà’s boys. The score was 4-0 at halftime, and anyone present at the stadium would be able to tell that it was fully reflective of the pattern of play. Just four minutes in, Barça’s imposing forward Xavi Planas made it 1-0 with a great solo run, and on 10 minutes, substitute Pol Muñoz doubled his team’s lead with his first touch of the ball.
Four minutes later, marauding fullback Juan Larios had a very inviting cross turned into the net by an unfortunate Atleti defender to make it three for the Blaugranas. The best goal of the night though came just before halftime, with Xavi Planas firing a true rocket into the bottom corner from just a couple of metres north of the halfway line.
Barcelona brought the tempo down in the second half, but still managed to add another two goals. Atlético’s Joao scored in the wrong net after a great pass by Adrià Capdevila split open the defence, before Toni Caravaca made it 6-0 with his fourth goal of the tournament. Atlético managed to grab a consolation goal from a set piece late on, but things hardly changed and the Blaugranas lifted the trophy in the end.
The winner’s celebrations were an example of the values La Masia teaches its pupils. The Barcelona players consoled their rivals, and never went over the top with their celebrations. For the trophy presentation, team captain and tournament MVP Adrià Capdevila handed the armband to his teammate Diego Almeida. The little midfield puppet master later explained to journalists that his teammate had “a phenomenal tournament and deserved it.” In his short interview, Capdevila also remembered those players who had to stay behind, dedicating the trophy to them.
Of this talented united bunch of talented youngsters though, some naturally stand out. Captain Capdevila is small in size, but looks enormous when on the pitch, pulling the strings in true Xavi fashion. On the wings, fullback Juan Larios is a joy to watch, and was called the best youth left back in Spain by Sport. In central defence, Diego Almeida is a true Kaiser, with a body that has developed beyond his years and the mentality of a leader. Up front, the imposing Xavi Planas and the diminutive Toni Caravaca make the perfect forward pairing. With four goals apiece, they shared the tournament’s golden boot. To this list of course we have to add Gavi, who doesn’t always consistently deliver, but may always pop up with a moment or two of pure magic.
This great team of youngsters though is backed by a team of technical staff who are just fantastic at what they are doing. At the forefront of the effort are coach Sergi Milà, a silent but gifted coach, and his right hand man Óscar Hernández. Hernández is very much like Juan Carlos Unzué and takes care of all the tactics. Rumours say he turned down Barcelona’s offer of a place as head coach in a 7-a-side team to work as Milà’s assistant in 11-a-side grassroots football.
Infantil B’s win in Tenerife serves to cement La Masia’s place as the top football academy on the globe. Barcelona’s academy sides have won a total of 14 summer and winter tournaments, compared to 8 won by Real Madrid Fabrica sides, and have always dazzled the crowds with their play. Great players, like Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta, have played in the Blaugrana shirt in these tournaments, and Blaugrana youngsters have always caught the eye. Last year, the Tarzan Xavi, Xavi Simons, won the MVP award, emulating Iago Falqué (2002) and Gerard Deulofeu (2006).
With such a talented bunch of youngsters coming through, Barcelona should not be worried in the long term. All that has to be done is to ensure that all of this talent finds the Camp Nou door wide open.