Barcelona won last night’s Champions League final with seven home-grown players from their academy, a phenomenal achievement by anyone’s standards – even theirs.
Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodriguez all graduated through La Cantera, Barcelona’s prestigious youth academy.
As is evident with their play, Barcelona train their players to grace the pitch so elegantly, constantly creating space to receive and then give the ball to one another with an unerring accuracy.
Anyone who saw last night’s final will not be unfamiliar to this. Barcelona destroyed Manchester United with their brand of undeniable quality. Alex Ferguson described them as “The best team I have ever faced,” and all the evidence suggests that this Barca team could be the best the planet has ever seen.
Clubs from all around Europe will spend millions and millions of pounds on quality, but Barcelona just grow their quality as a farmer grows his crops. Not only do they produce quality for their own club, but the national side benefit from this stream of talent as well. All the players mentioned above starting for Barcelona last night, except one Lionel Messi, represent Spain and have turned them into world champions.
The academy is poetically named “La Cantera,” meaning “The Quarry,” and it’s no wonder as the talent keeps coming and coming.
It’s not only the current players that have made Barcelona’s academy so famous. It’s alumni goes all over the world, and even if they didn’t start for Barcelona last night, you could make a totally unbeatable team out of the rest of this alumni.
Cesc Fabregas, Mikel Arteta, Jordi Cruyff, Carles Puyol, Pepe Reina, Bojan, Josep Guardiola, Albert Ferrer and Thiago Motta all came from La Cantera and have made themselves reputations as some of the world’s best, or in Bojan’s case, having the potential to join the world’s best.
From the age of 13 or 14, kids that do not live in Barcelona are given housing in order to become as involved with the club and coaches as much as possible. They are prevented from becoming tired from travelling, in order to give themselves the best chance of performing when it matters. This process costs a lot of money, but when the results save you buying a £40million striker, it’s certainly all worth it.
Education is an important part of many youth academies nowadays. If the player suffers a career-threatening injury or they just simply don’t make the cut, they at least have some academic qualifications to fall back on so they become a success in life. Each morning, the academy’s players are piled on to coaches and sent to the best local schools. They return at 2pm for lunch before training in the evening from 5pm to 6.30pm. The boys are then given some time to themselves and some time to relaxed before an early bedtime.
The world’s best player at the moment, Lionel Messi, was sent to La Cantera at the age of 13 after no Argentinian club would pay for drugs to make him grow bigger. Now characterised by his tiny size but huge ability, Barcelona had faith in the youngster despite the fact he was half a foot shorter than everyone else. English academies seem to focus on size and strength and release players that possess neither of these qualities, but Barcelona have a very different approach and focus on talent rather than physical attributes.
In recent years in England, Middlesbrough once fielded a team with 15 out of 16 players graduating from their youth team and living within 25 miles of the stadium. There’s also the notable West Ham United who have probably produced half the current England side. Manchester United used to be the most prominent example of academy graduation as they produced David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt, described as the class of ’92. But since then United’s academy has lacked any real talent. After lifting the FA Youth Cup, their current crop are tipped for big things, but only time will tell.
It seems confusing why this prestigious Spanish academy can produce world-beaters whilst English sides simply cannot come anywhere close. English sides are bound by a rule that means players can only play for a club within 90 minutes of their hometown. This means you don’t have a lot of hope if you’re living in Devon!
Having so many quality talents coming from the academy, some must insist that it is simply down to luck, but Barcelona insist that luck plays no part. Albert Capellas, the club’s senior youth coordinator says ”It’s work. It’s our model, which has been honed over many years by lots of people providing specialist skills and all working in the same direction, with the same objective: to prepare players for the first team,”
The post-match analysis of the Champions League final, no matter what channel you watched it on, contained one common question “What now for Barcelona?” Can they just keep on winning again and again, producing these wonderkids again and again? As is the same with any bright youngster or promising academy – only time will tell.