Nestled in the complex that houses Barcelona’s 99,000-seat Camp Nou stadium, its 15,300-seat little brother Mini-Estadi, club offices and training facilities is an 18th-century farmhouse called “La Masia.” It’s a stunning setting with palm trees out front, mountains in the background and the modern architecture of the surrounding neighborhood contrasting nicely with the masonry of the building itself.
No structure in soccer has received as much hype in recent years as La Masia, the catch-all term for Barcelona’s youth academy. Part of it is its reputation for producing graduates who are skillful, creative and pleasing to the eye. Much of it is the success of Barcelona, which is packed with La Masia graduates. Seven of the 11 players who beat Manchester United in last season’s Champions League final came through La Masia, and if an injury hadn’t cost Carles Puyol his starting spot, that number would have been eight.
People love big new ideas in all walks of life—soccer is no different—and the sport’s buzzword in recent years has been replicating the “Barcelona model” and “growing” your own stars rather than acquiring them from elsewhere. The advantages are obvious. Homegrown players tend to be more loyal. They have a better sense of the identity of the club and fit more easily into its style and philosophy.
Best of all, it’s a much cheaper way of building a team. Homegrown players usually earn less—the hometown discount also applies in soccer—and they don’t cost a fortune to buy in the first place.
Most top-flight clubs will spend anywhere from $1 million to $15 million a year to run their youth systems. Some field one team per age group and some many more. Much of the costs are traveling, scouting and even housing youngsters. The idea is not just to develop kids who can one day play for the first team but also to produce players who can be sold to other clubs. With costs escalating and UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations—which limit a club’s annual losses—on the horizon, it makes sense to invest in youth.
So far, so good. What could be more wholesome than kindly youth coaches taking local kids and, thanks to innate pedagogical qualities, turning them into superstars? La Masia is the gold standard in that sense—and rightly so.
Except a closer look reveals that things aren’t quite that simple. Contrary to what some believe, it’s not as straightforward as a 10-year-old prodigy walking into La Masia and emerging eight years later as a full-fledged superstar.
For starters, it’s tricky to define homegrown players. Pedro is often referred to as a La Masia product, but he joined at 17, as did Puyol and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets.
It’s a classic nature vs. nurture argument. All three spent time in Barcelona’s youth teams. But is that what turned them into bona fide Barcelonistas? Or is it fair to say that they developed their soccer skill set elsewhere and it just so happened that it matched Barcelona’s, which is why the club signed them?
If you buy the first argument—that they still count as homegrown because the year or two they spent with the youth teams was sufficiently formative—then you have a problem when it comes to two other La Masia products in defender Gerard Pique and midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Both joined Barcelona at 10, but both left at 16 to join Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively.
The two English clubs exploited a well-worn loophole that prevents players from signing binding contracts until they turn 16. Effectively, this means players become free agents on their 16th birthdays, allowing them to join other teams with little or no compensation to the club that developed them.
Pique returned to Barcelona at 21 and Fabregas at 24. If you’re going to count them as La Masia products, you can’t really count Pedro, Puyol and Busquets, as well.
The reality is that running a successful youth academy is as much about scouting and attracting talent as it is about teaching the game. We like the romantic notion of plucking youngsters off the street in the shadow of the stadium and developing them into star players. But cases like Xavi, who joined Barcelona at 11, rose through the ranks and became a club legend, are exceptionally rare.
Most of the players we consider homegrown products are actually cherrypicked from other clubs. Two of the most illustrious La Masia alumni fall into this category. Lionel Messi, who set a club scoring record this week, left Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys at 13 to join Barcelona, while Andres Iniesta traveled some 320 miles from Albacete as a 12 year old. In fact, plenty of players for top youth clubs were picked up from other parts of the country or even abroad—much like the stars of the first team.
When youth academies work—and Barcelona is a case in point—it’s not really about producing talent. What’s most important is acquiring talent and preparing those players to fit seamlessly into the club’s style of play. For all the romanticism of La Masia, its coaches aren’t modern day alchemists. Their potion is finding kids who are already talented and molding them into useful pieces for the best soccer team in the world.
— by Gabriele Marcotti, a world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC