Mining a rich seam at the Cantera

Sat, May 28, 2011, 01:00

SOCCER: RICHARD FITZPATRICKpays a visit to Barcelona’s famed academy La Masia and finds out that some very good things come in small packages

SPAIN’S FOOTBALL academies are called Canteras. Cantera is the Spanish word for quarry. The players of Barcelona’s cantera, La Masia, train at Sant Joan Despí, a new complex on the outskirts of the city. It is also where the first team trains. It is big and spacious like any modern training campus.

The gate into it is surprisingly wide – it’s about 100 feet, like you might find at a factory, which is apt. Barcelona’s production line is the envy of the world.

Eight of the 11 Barcelona players likely to start tonight’s Champions League final – Victor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro and Leo Messi – were carved from the stone of Barcelona’s cantera.

Only Ryan Giggs from Manchester United’s likely starting team came through its youth system. Liverpool’s goalkeeper Pepe Reina and Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas are also graduates of La Masia. Fabregas is from the famous class of ’87, which also included Piqué and Messi.

Albert Puig, who has been technical director at La Masia for the last couple of years, says the most impressive thing about Barca’s operation is their consistency. Trainers come and go, but the style of football they teach has remained the same since Pep Guardiola’s time there as a teenager during the 1980s.

This differs, for example, to Manchester United, where coaches at its youth academy impose their own vision. All of Barca’s teams, from the seven-year-olds to the first team, play the same way.

Barca takes its recruitment serious. It spends €15 million a year on scouting its players. This compares, for instance, to €5 million that Manchester United forks out.

Neither is Barcelona restricted geographically – unlike the 90-mile radius that applies to British clubs – in netting players.

Messi, most famously, was found playing in Argentinean fields. The fact that he had family roots in Catalonia helped, of course, with his decision to move to Barcelona.

Each year, La Masia takes in 60 pupils, 12 of whom are basketball players, the rest footballers. One or two of these will make it as professional athletes. Barcelona looks after their academy stars around the clock, looking after education and accommodation, like at a boarding school.

Their education is through Catalan, in keeping with the separatist ideology of the club.

Next year will be the first that Barcelona won’t have trainees living in the Masia building, the 18th-century stone farmhouse on the grounds of the Camp Nou which acts as a hall of residence. It is where Barcelona’s football academy originated in 1979.

La Masia’s walls are draped with school year-type photographs of its players when they were kids. Puyol, Barcelona’s long-term captain, had the same shaggy-haired mullet at 16 as he has today. Puyol is famous for his competitiveness. He often shouts “Geri! Geri!” during matches just to make sure Piqué, his central defensive partner, is alert.

Puyol is from La Pobla de Segur, a Catalan village of a few thousand inhabitants close to the French border.

“When he was dropped off here by his father for a few days’ trial,” says Carles Folguera, the academy director at La Masia, “he said to him, ‘if you come back to this town, it won’t be because you didn’t give everything’.”

Barca’s players don’t do physical training until they are 16 years of age. It is all ball work.

“Running is for cowards,” as Charly Rexach, Barca’s former player and manager says. Rondos, a piggy-in-the-middle ball exercise, are the fulcrum of Barcelona’s philosophy.

When you wander around Catalonia, you’ll see kids in dusty parks or wherever there’s a bit of concrete playing variations of the game. Girls mixed in with the boys. Whoever’s in the middle is the subject of derision.

Every Barca match you watch is an extended game of rondos. Johan Cruyff is credited with introducing the practice to the club. It has become a staple of training sessions for teams – whether Sunday League or Champions League – the world over. Most Spanish premier division clubs do rondos for warm-ups before kick-off in matches; Barcelona, curiously, do not.

If there is an exemplar of rondos, it is Xavi. Guardiola calls him maqui, the machine. This season he completed more passes than any other player in the Spanish league, almost twice as many as Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid’s playmaker. He has a mathematician’s appreciation for the geometry of a pitch.

Somebody calculated that the gematria values of “Xavi” (56) and “pass” (55) are almost identical.

Barcelona’s idea is simple, says Puig. They try to keep the ball until the opposition make a mistake. They even use the ball to defend – by tiring the opposition out. The training mantra at La Masia is “receive, pass, offer”.

They try to think of where they will make a pass before the ball arrives at their feet. Dani Alves once quipped that Xavi plays “in the future”.

Historically, Barca used to buy galácticos – such as László Kubala in the 1950s and Diego Maradona in the ’80s – and adapt the team to their style. Periko Alonso, Xabi Alonso’s father who played with Barcelona in the early 1980s said they were ordered to give the ball to Maradona.

Now Barca players do the opposite. Not all of their stars can adjust. According to Michael Robinson, the former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland striker turned Spanish TV pundit, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic “looked clumsy” while playing in Barcelona’s colours.

The most distinctive thing about Barcelona’s La Masia graduates is their size. When Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Pedro – or Pedrito, little Pedro – line up alongside David Villa, who joined the club from Valencia last summer, to form the club’s Famous Five attacking line, they average 5ft 7in in height.

Every team Barca plays in Europe is taller than them. In a 2011 study by The Professional Football Players Observatory of the top-flight leagues from 36 national associations, Barcelonas squad registered as the smallest in height.

Being short, however, doesn’t guarantee being good. The next shortest team after Barca is Shamrock Rovers. But Barcelona is happy that their players are short. It’s part of their distinct football philosophy.

“In Barca, we look first for talent. When Messi was 11 years of age, he was this height,” says Folguera, resting his fingers on the edge of a big oak table in one of the meeting rooms in La Masia, “but it was obvious Messi had talent. If he was going to grow up or stay small nobody knew for sure. The physical part of a player like Messi is important, but it’s not the most important thing.

“If I have two players with the same technical skill, one big and one small, I will keep the small one because the small one will overcome the big one. He will have to work harder and he will be more resourceful.

“He will need to come up with clever strategies to compensate for his lack of size. The bigger guy won’t try as hard. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Bojan are all like this.”

They might be on to something at La Masia. In that demographic study of Europe’s football leagues, it was found that the most picked players in a squad tend to be shorter than their team-mates.

This wasn’t always the case.

There is a shortage of room in football today. Players are fitter than they used to be. They close down space very quickly.

In a 90-minute match, players will run almost three times further than their counterparts 30 years ago. Most of the frenetic running in football is done in the middle of the pitch. Midfield, as Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid’s technical director put it, is “a good place to meet people”.

Until a few years ago, big, hulking players with boundless reserves of stamina were prized assets in this hunting ground.

Men like Patrick Vieira, Michael Essien and Yaya Touré stalked the midfields of the Champions League like human wrecking balls. It was all about knockdowns and rebounds.

But in a short space of time, Barca has introduced a corrective to the ideal notion of a football player. Their game is played on the ground. In short, it moves the ball amongst its players so rapidly that big, strapping opponents can’t get at it.

Other teams in Spain, like Villarreal, and around Europe, like Arsenal, try to emulate Barcelona’s style. Barca’s success, the result of over 30 years indoctrination at La Masia, has also filtered through to the Spanish national team, where at underage and senior level its teams are peppered with Barcelona’s short players.

Spanish teams practice their tiki taka technique with unrivalled results for a European country. Fernando Hierro, one of Real Madrid’s great dogs of war, works as a sporting director for the Spanish Football Federation. He looks with a withering eye on those who have come lately to herald the rise of the short player.

“People used to think that the Spanish type of player – small, skillful, technically good – at the professional stage would not make it. However, now that we’ve won Euro 2008 and the World Cup, the world loves these types of players and says, ‘look how well these people play football!’”

There is something very admirable about the project at La Masia – the production of home-grown players who adhere to an aesthetically pleasing type of football. It is applauded by Michel Platini, the Uefa chief. You can see the continuity at work.

The playmaker on Barca teams is revered. Guardiola directed traffic for a decade. Xavi took over from him. Iniesta is waiting to do the job once Xavi passes on. Guardiola had a premonition about this when he first took a proper look at the pale-faced Iniesta. He said as much to Xavi.

“You’ve seen that? You’ll push me towards the exit, but that guy will send us both into retirement.”

It would be naive, however, to think that Barcelona is a frugal, homespun operation. It spent €700 million on players over the last decade. With the exception of Real Madrid, its annual budget is four times more than any other Spanish league team.

This season, it will rake in three times more money than Manchester United in domestic TV revenue. It can afford to pay its players more than anyone else.

The 2011 Global Sports Salaries Survey noted it surpassed the New York Yankees as the best-paid team in the world. The average wage of a Barcelona first-team footballer is €109,000 a week.

It pays well to be miserly with possession of a football.

Small . . . But Beautiful

LEO Messi, two-times Fifa Ballon dOr winner, is 5ft 6in.

He wasnt always so tall.

When he arrived in Barcelona as a 13-year-old from Argentina in 2000, he was 4ft 6in. The average height for a boy of that age is 5ft 5in. He had a bone hormone problem which medical specialists in Barcelona corrected. His family moved with him to Barcelona. They knew so little about their new city that it came as a surprise to them that it was by the sea.

In his early days, Messi nearly lost the run of himself. He used to traipse after Ronaldinho when the Brazilian hit the town. He was pulled aside by his trainer.

“You’ve two options,” said Pep Guardiola, who was manager of Barcelona’s B Team at the time. “Either you keep on partying, and you’ll be out of here in days.

“Or you start eating properly, quit the alcohol, go to bed early and come to practice on time. Only then might you become the best in the world.”

Priestly Pep

THERE is a priestly quality to Pep Guardiola. He can be quite serene. Born in 1971, he grew up in the shadow of a religious retreat – a Franciscan hermitage towers over Santpedor, his hometown in the flatlands of central Catalonia.

Football became his vocation. He entered La Masia at 13 years of age where he stayed for six years before his ordination with Barca’s first team in 1990. He likes to dress in smart, sombre, usually black clothes; he hails from a family of tailors.

He is pessimistic about this world, once writing in an article, while still a player, that he shared the view of a friend: “I arrived to try to change the world. Now, all I hope for is that the world will not change me.”

He feels comfortable using religious metaphors, once suggesting that Johan Cruyff painted Barca’s chapel; subsequent managers must merely restore and add to it.

His players, however, do not address him as “Father”; instead – in a practice which owes its roots to the influx of British coaches in the early days of Spanish football – they call him “Mister”.

Day in the Life . . .

7am Wake up.

7.30am Communal breakfast.

8am Minibus takes them to an affiliated school in the city.

2pm Return from school and have a communal lunch.

2.30pm Siesta.

4:30pm Training.

6pm Homework.

9pm Communal dinner.

10pm Free time, where players are allowed to read, listen to music or do extra homework.

11pm Lights out.