La Masia: The Prodigy Factory

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La Masia is the fabled academy of FC Barcelona. Of course, it actually refers to Barca’s training facilities, but is mostly used in reference to the revered youth system.

It has come into the limelight multiple times in the recent past, and why not, considering some of its alumni are amongst the best players in the world, including, as many would argue, the very best, Lionel Messi.

Before we jump in to what makes this academy so successful, let’s look into its history.

La Masia was founded by Johan Cryuff in 1979. He proposed the idea to club chiefs, who went ahead with it. His main inspiration was the Ajax Academy.

The Dutch powerhouse was known all across Europe for its production of world-beaters and Cryuff wanted to set up something of the sort in Catalonia.

He wanted to borrow the free flowing total football from the Dutch and integrate it with the silky and high tempo passing of Barcelona, also known as tiki-taka.

La Masia is the highest producer of European talent, followed closely by Manchester United and Real Madrid.

A staggering 44 of its graduates are playing across Europe in the ‘big five’ leagues (Spain, England, Italy, France and Germany).

If all of Europe is to be considered, then they have 57 players playing across the top 31 divisions. and are only behind the legendary Ajax Academy, and Partizan Belgrade in this comparison.

But their class really shows when one knows that they have the most players playing in the best leagues in the world.

The academy mostly recruits from local regions, with almost 70-80% of its players coming from Catalonia. The rest are either from other parts of Spain or abroad.

The players should have that sense of belonging when they play, and the fans also appreciate talent that has come through the academy.

Moving on to the working of this prestigious school, La Masia has roughly 270 players across 16 teams if we include the FC Barcelona B and U-19 sides.

To cater to these players, it has a budget of almost 20 million Euros per year. It is the highest that any club spends on its academy.

La Masia’s guidelines for development also demands its students go through formal education.

In fact, some of the Barca B players are pursuing undergraduate degrees.

Training usually begins after school, and lasts for around 90 minutes.

The success of this academy can be attributed to various factors.

Obviously, one of the main ones is the highly selective scout, who only select the best talent from across the world. Scouts look for technical ability, vision and quick thinking. These are in-built traits that can never be coached completely.

This scouting network is global, where Barca has affiliations with other clubs and schools, for example, Samuel Eto’o’s academy in Cameroon.

The chosen ones are then given world class training from coaches who have played the game professionally and are reputable football educators.

The fact that the academy starts training them from ages as young as eight shows Barca’s commitment to youth and how much faith the club puts in La Masia.

Enjoyment is  a key facet of education, which ensures student engagement. Along with this, they are taught discipline, respect and humility.

These are the values that add to the talent improving as footballers as well as people.

La Masia’s most successful graduate is Lionel Messi.

A player scourged from the narrow lanes of Argentina and brought to Spain knowing that he had a growth hormone deficiency.

The club paid for his treatment and developed him to become a global superstar and the arguably the best player in the world.

He, along with Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, makes up the famous class of 1987. Other world renowned graduates include Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin.

n 2010, all three of the Ballon d’Or finalists were La Masia graduates (Xavi, Iniesta and Messi), a feat that had never been achieved together.

In Spain’s triumphant World Cup team in 2010, the team included eight graduates of the renowned academy.

In fact, Spain’s success on the international level is often credited to the high-class training of La Masia’s local talent.

In 2000, former Barcelona manager Louis van Gaal famously said he wanted to win the Champions League with 11 home-grown players.

Nine years later, the Catalan outfit won the 2009 Champions League final with eight home-grown players in the starting line up.

In November 2012, history was made.

In a match against Levante, Dani Alves’ 14th minute injury saw him replaced by Martin Montoya. From the 13th to 75th minute of that match, all eleven players were La Masia graduates.

Best prospects

Sergi Samper (21): Being a central midfielder at Barcelona is not easy, but Samper’s impact has been felt. However, his slow progress up the ladder might see him move away to see game time.

Seung Woo Lee (18): Dubbed the ‘Korean Messi’, this starlet was unable to play for Barca for a while due to FIFA restrictions, but is now set to make an impact.

Alen Halilovic (19): On loan at Sporting de Gijon this season, and said to be the next Modric, he looks like an absolute sensation and could be an important cog in Barca’s first team in the years to come.

Munir El Haddadi (20): This pacey striker has already made an impact by scoring on his first-team debut. He could be a great force in the future.

So that’s the story of La Masia.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows as it seems to be. With various controversies with respect to recruitments in the last few years (one of which resulted in a transfer ban), many say that La Masia is in a slow decline.

Valid criticism? It could be, especially seeing as we haven’t seen a Messi or an Iniesta come through in a long time.

And slowly, many players have begun look for other clubs, tired of waiting for their chance in the first team.

First hand examples are Jean Marie Dongou and Adama Traore, who are already out.

Once promised to be world beaters, they seem to have fizzled out into run-of-the-mill talent.

A player like the aforementioned Samper, who is one of the best players at Barca B, needs first-team football to reach his potential.

With so many heavyweights in the team already, a conundrum is presented to academy graduates.

Players like Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Bojan Krkic have moved away in pursuit of more first team football.

With extra pressure from big spending clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, world class players have to brought into the club every year.

In today’s frenetic world of football, patience is a virtue.

Fans demand success, club bosses also want immediate results and youth does not yield such results as quickly as desired.

So is investing in youth really sustainable these days?In the short run, probably not. In the long run, yes.

After all, legends aren’t made overnight.

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