You simply walk in off the street. Football’s best youth academy is housed in an old brick farmhouse in downtown Barcelona. Inside you are given a coffee and a friendly welcome at the bar. The Masía – FC Barcelona’s academy, named for the Catalan word for farmhouse – recalls AC Milan’s legendary training ground, Milanello. Both places feel like neighbourhood canteens, simple clubhouses where men gather for fellowship and coffee. Yet the Masía is unique. It has produced half the world’s best team, Barcelona, which plays next door in the Nou Camp stadium. Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol come from this farmhouse. So do Liverpool’s Pep Reina, Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Everton’s Mikel Arteta. Together they would be a competitive World XI. Luckily, three of the academy’s staff – Albert Capellas, Ruben Bonastre and chief scout Pep Boade – are happy to gather around a little table and divulge the Masía’s secrets.
The farmhouse took off in 1990, when the Dutchman Johan Cruijff was managing Barcelona. Cruijff had been a great footballer, but perhaps his true gift was for raising young players. He created two of the three best youth academies in football, Ajax Amsterdam’s and Barca’s (FC Sao Paulo’s is an autonomous phenomenon). At Barca, Cruijff led brief training sessions in which players mostly just did passing exercises. Football, to Cruijff, was about making passing “triangles” on the pitch. If a player could do that, Cruijff picked him. That remains Barca’s principle. Capellas recites the mantra: “Always the players must find triangles.”
But the Masía doesn’t just produce good footballers. It aims to raise good boys, too. “We treat our 50 boys like our family,” says Boade, and this doesn’t appear to be cant. Many youth academies are ruled by militaristic brutes, but Barca’s coaches talk like traditional Catholic mothers. In this family, the sons eat home cooking, study hard, and behave. When a boy is cut from the club, sometimes his rival will cry from guilt at having been better.
Even after boys become stars, they still come home. Boade says: “Messi and Iniesta drop by to eat. They come to us with problems, as they would to their mother and father.” Bonastre adds: “Messi, Iniesta, Victor Valdes are normal boys. We know their glories, we know their miseries.”
The first team is extended family. On the whitewashed wall of the Masía’s dining room hangs a photo of the academy’s intake of 1988: 20 teenage boys with long hair. The skinniest boy, Josep Guardiola, is now Barca’s head coach. Two of the others – Aureli Altimira and “Tito” Vilanova – are his assistants. “The circle is round,” says Capellas. Men raised in the Masía now recruit from it. Guardiola, adds Capellas, knows the quality of every Masía player. Already he’s thinking about who could join the first team three years from now. “The academy’s coaches have open doors to Guardiola’s office,” Capellas says. The connection pays off. Any coach would have put Messi in the first team, because he’s a genius. But, says Capellas: “Pedro was not a star. He had the luck that Guardiola knew him well and brought him in.” Barca’s internal target is to recruit half the first team from the Masía, but it may soon raise that to 60 per cent.
When a youngster joins the first team, the coaches might tell a Masía old boy like Iniesta: “Andres, treat him well,” and Iniesta will reply: “Don’t worry, we treat them the best.” Bonastre says: “Our players find the first team easy because it’s easier to play with Xavi or Iniesta than with academy players.” Perhaps it helps that the Masía boys already know the Nou Camp intimately: their dormitories are in the stadium.
Few other big clubs dare blood their young players, say the coaches. When Barca’s youth teams play Real Madrid’s, they are equally good, yet Real’s players seldom make the first team. All this may sound like pious propaganda, except that it works.
The proof is in the Nou Camp every week: triangles and victory with nice homegrown boys.