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La Masia: The Pinnacle Of European Football Youth Academies – Fact Or Fiction?

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Eleven-year-old midfielder Xavier ‘Xavi’ Simons has reportedly rejected a huge offer from Chelsea in favour of staying at La Masia, arguably the pinnacle of European football youth academies. He is just one of many FC Barcelona youth players hoping to one day make it to the top.

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La Masia de Can Planes or La Masia, as it’s better known. First suggested to Barcelona by Johan Cruyff and created in 1979. It’s a place like no other, yet familiar to many others. The daily life in La Masia is both surreal and utterly relatable at the very same time. The students wake up early at 6:45 to shower and brush their teeth just in time for breakfast at 7:00. The school bus pick-up is then at 7:30. Unknown to many, a large amount of their time is spent studying. School is from around 8:00 to 14:00. It’s then lunch and free time until around 16:00. Then there’s added schooling and training, times differ depending on the age group, but training tends not to be any longer than 1 hour and 30 minutes. It’s then time for another shower and a coach journey back to La Masia. Dinner is at around 21:00 which is followed by TV/Internet until 22:45. The students brush their teeth and go to bed at 23:00 in order to rest sufficiently enough to repeat the process the following day.

FC Barcelona's vast amount of success is largely due to its academy, that there is no doubt. La Masia leaves the Barcelona DNA forever imprinted on its students. A philosophy as brilliant and simplistic as it is effective; to pressure, to keep possession and to attack. Yet there is a need to establish whether La Masia is as good as it is hyped up to be and if its current honour of being the pinnacle of European football youth academies is justified. This will be established using expert opinions, the recently published European Club Association (ECA) report on "Youth Academies in Europe" and the Centre International d'etude du Sport (CIES) study, amongst other things.

"We're always looking for a type of player who's not physical but a very good thinker, who's ready to take decisions, who has talent, technique and agility. Physical strength is not important." - Carles Folguera, La Masia director

At one corner of the Camp Nou, jammed in between the northern end of the stadium and the maternity hospital and dwarfed by the buildings around it, stands the former 18th century farmhouse, La Masia. Appearing small yet standing tall. Of course, no longer in use as the club’s academy centre since it was decommissioned in 2011 in favour of a big, tall and shiny building characterised by functionality and one that cost 8.8 million to build. Rooms are distributed over five floors rather than two at the heart of the Ciutat Esportiva with a capacity for 83 youngsters, thus giving the youngsters optimal conditions to succeed. No longer 600 square metres, but now an impressive 5,000. It’s big enough for personal space, yet small enough for personal interaction to take place. Indeed, the perfect mixture of tradition and modern times.

The technical aspects of La Masia are often neglected, yet so fascinating. FC Barcelona are never too far off finding the next Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova or Luis Enrique. Coaches are usually very young and do not necessarily have past experience, as per the ECA report. The position comes with rules and responsibilities. The famous one is of course that they must field a team with a 4-3-3 formation imposed by the club; cementing its identity (incidentally, Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, two of the most successful football academies in world football, have the same requirement). We are the only club that has trained and developed two World Players of the Year - Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo," says Diogo Matos, Head of Sporting's Youth Academy. Trophies are not the be-all and end-all. As Folguera put it: "The Dutch team of 1974 and the 1982 Brazilians did not win any titles. But we all remember them because of the way they played. Perhaps we should attach greater value to how we go about our work than the result at the end of the game."

La Masia focuses more on the holistic approach rather than just playing football. Whilst some academies train for over two hours per day, Barcelona is different. Matthias Krug of the BBC writes: "Scouted from across Spain, the young players who live at La Masia play surprisingly little football - just over one and a half hours per day. "Instead, there is a heightened emphasis on school work, with players expected to attend extra classes with tutors at La Masia once they return to the centre after a day at school. This way, the students who do not make it into professional football can opt for university or find employment."

"For many of our talented youngsters," explains Folguera, "studying at university has become something prestigious to aim for. It is no longer an obstacle, but instead part of developing a well-rounded sporting character."

Paul Ingendaay of The FOCUS Magazine provides some superb insight: "Not all the chosen ones will make it to the top, of course. Which is why dealing with failure is one of the academy's key areas of focus. The kids need to have a "Plan B," as Folguera puts it. The club's values code impresses the importance of patience, humility and hard work upon its pupils - and these are values the parents of the aspiring players also have to take on board. They need to be clear in their own minds; if you've given everything you can to attain your goals, there is no shame in failing to reach them."

Barcelona only know one way of playing, and that is with the ball. The training exercises at La Masia are therefore the same for every team, regardless of whether it is the U8 or U16 team. The ideology is strong and one for the purists. It involves always playing with the ball at a high rhythm as well as intercepting and passing drills. In addition, the club ethos is strong and there are strict appearance rules, La Masia have banned "tattoos, coloured hair, earrings or shirt out of shorts."

The philosophy of treating everyone equally is very important at Barcelona, this is simply because they understand that the students could be future first team players and therefore deserve to be treated in this way. However, weight training does not start until the age of 17, and this is because physical preparation is considered to be of secondary importance at La Masia, as confirmed by the ECA report. In contrast, clubs such as Sporting Lisbon and Arsenal start weight training at the age of 15, the latter with an added emphasis on physicality and strength. There is therefore a fundamental difference in strategy between La Masia and other academies. Another example is La Masia youngsters only start playing 11:11 at the age of 13, yet the likes of Arsenal and Bayern Munich start at 11 and Ajax even earlier at 10; on the face of it subtle differences, but in the long run fundamental ones.

Arguably no one epitomizes La Masia as Andres Iniesta does. Yet he was homesick at first and thought very hard about leaving La Masia. The rest though, is history. Paul Ingendaay writes: "Iniesta made his debut for the Spanish national team at the age of 22, shortly before the World Cup in Germany. And under club coach Guardiola he blossomed. In 2009 he hit the winning goal in the Champions League semi-final victory against Chelsea; a year later it was his strike that decided the World Cup final against a physically imposing Dutch team in Johannesburg. Iniesta was also Spain's outstanding performer in the European Championship - fleet of foot, all x-ray vision and irresistible dribbling."

"Success has not changed him," says Folguera, and indeed, show-stealing gestures of triumph or displays of ego are not the 30-year-old's style. "Andrés Iniesta has always remained humble. And he's always keen to learn."

The cost of running the academy comes at around €10 million per year excluding the U19 and Barcelona B teams. This really says it all about the levels of commitment (financial and otherwise) from all involved. Ajax and Bayern Munich, two clubs rightly praised for their fantastic youth academies only spend €3 million yearly. Inter spend €6 million. Unrivalled (facts obtained from ECA report). It raises the question as to why more top clubs do not invest more in their youth academies. After all, €10 million per year is a drop in the ocean for these football clubs. Have a read of the ECA report for an overview.

"The first mission of coaches is to help boys with their behaviour, and only the second is to show them how to be good players." - Albert Puig, Head of the Youth Academy

Barcelona's famous La Masia youth academy is on the whole brilliant and needs little introduction, it has nurtured some of the best world's top talent.  It was highlighted in 2008-2011 when an all-conquering team blew away all before them on the way to winning 12 out of 15 possible competitions. This was best illustrated both against Manchester United in Rome during the Champions League Final and away to Levante.

Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, a triumvirate of desire, skill and success. The "holy trinity". They may not be the tallest or the strongest, although as Sir Alex Ferguson said: "They get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy." In November 2012, when after a Dani Alves injury, Barcelona fielded an entirely homegrown eleven for the first time ever. Indeed, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Martin Montoya, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Lionel Messi made up the eleven on the field in the Ciutat de Valencia stadium that night.

Yet a closer look reveals everything is not so black and white. A solitary Spain cap is evidence of the progress that the likes of Munir El Haddadi and Deulofeu have made already, but they look no further than a handful of former Barcelona "wonderkids" who never kicked on to realise that a single international appearance means, essentially, nothing. Indeed, this hints at a much deeper issue. Far too many "wonderkids" have become unknowns to even the most avid football fan. Far too many have slipped through the cracks. This is by no means a problem exclusive to Barcelona. Other clubs have the same, or an even worse problem, but Barcelona are so highly praised (and by the same token criticised) because of La Masia.

There is the argument that the players who have become unknown were simply not good enough to begin with, but hindsight is a great thing, and with many youth coaches and experts praising them to the skies, maybe saying they were not good enough is too simplistic. Injuries and bad luck often play a part, but not always.

Further to this, there is the argument that the players who have slipped through the cracks are simply not talented, but make no mistake about it, some of the players clearly are. The mentality and work-rate may be less than extraordinary, but it can be worked on, if the player is willing. Perhaps this "wonderkids" dubbing culture is detrimental to a player's development. On the other hand, it can be argued that such high praise is needed for confidence purposes. Either way, it's a fine balancing act.

Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello were both initially touted as big prospects but have never looked like Barcelona regulars in the making once they reached senior level, which is really unfortunate, since they clearly had the potential.

Even more pertinently, forward Bojan Krkic was a first-team regular often dubbed the ‘new Messi' before his career hit the rails. Bojan was just 18 when he won his one Spanish cap; he is now aged 24 and embarking on his career with Stoke City, after a string of unsuccessful loan-spells elsewhere. Also, add the likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Jeffren, Vazquez, Nano, Falque, Fran Merida, Toni Calvo and Gai Assulin to the list of those going from the most promising La Masia players to flops of varying degrees... The list is endless. This suggests that La Masia's place at the pinnacle of European football youth academies is mere fiction.

On the flip side, you have some of the best La Masia graduates who got away. Luis Milla is one. Thiago Motta is another. Others include Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Mauro Icardi, Mikel Arteta and Luis Garcia. One of the biggest names in recent history is certainly Thiago Alcantara. The midfield playmaker, once described as the human epitome of Barcelona's La Masia academy was last season sold to Bayern Munich after not getting enough opportunities to play. Add the fact that the likes of Martin Montoya are struggling to get a game just goes to show that La Masia graduates may often thrive even though it may be at Barcelona's expense. The CIES study has unsurprisingly confirmed that there are more La Masia graduates playing in Europe's top five leagues than any other academy. Manchester United came second with Real Madrid third. Yet far more graduates of the three aforementioned clubs play for other clubs in the world rather than becoming superstars for Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid, respectively.

"From the outset, the boys learn not to be afraid of having possession. In fact they learn to love the ball." - Guillermo Amor, former Barcelona technical director of youth football

This article wouldn't be complete without a mention of Real Madrid's La Fábrica or Athletic Bilbao's Lezama. Dani Carvajal said: "The Real Madrid youth academy is the best in the world. They teach you the core fundamentals of the game when you are young, then they build as you grow into a professional player." They also have the highly impressive Jese waiting to become the next Real Madrid superstar. Similarly, Lezama rightly takes a lot of plaudits. It has been noted as a "reference point" for other youth programs across the continent with ECA stating that Athletic "is a very special club at work with youth development and that Lezama is a great place to learn, share information, and study how things should be done." It has in recent years produced an endless of supply of certain gems as well as potential ones. This includes Iker Muniain, Aymeric Laporte, Jon Aurtenetxe, Markel Susaeta, Oscar de Marcos, Ibai Gomez, Mikel San Jose, Unai Lopez, Ander Iturraspe and Jonas Ramalho, all of whom are currently contracted to the club.

There is the issue which led to the transfer ban with FIFA finding that a few signings of minors violated rules designed to prevent child trafficking. Bartomeu said: "We agree with the regulations, what we want is for clubs like Barca to be an exception."The punishment is against a model of 35 years which is the essence of our club, an exemplary model which has been praised by FIFA. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi... we look after the kids, their education. Maybe in their country they would not receive this education. In our youth system we have 230 children from 18 different countries, 40 of these are not Spanish. The message is that you cannot touch La Masia."

Is the regulation flawed? Are FIFA right? It's a difficult situation and there are two arguments. The first is that youngsters such as Lee Seung-Woo would benefit enormously from going to La Masia. In addition, had Fifa's current rules been in place, Barcelona would have been prevented from signing a 13-year-old Lionel Messi from Argentina in 1999. On the other hand, you have Sepp Blatter arguing that clubs are "tricking underprivileged kids with false promises of a professional career in Europe." The problem with FIFA is that they need to be more consistent in applying the regulation and when dishing out punishment. Further to this, they need to get off their moral high horse, especially since they are currently being embroiled in scandal after scandal. I know where I stand on the issue.

To its credit, La Masia never ceases to produce top class players, and now is no different. The La Masia products of the first team are well-known. Rafinha will be expected to play a big part after a very successful loan spell at Celta Vigo last season. Marc Bartra will get more and more minutes as the season goes on. The likes of Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez seem to have impressed Luis Enrique and the rest of the coaching team a lot so far this season. Others have impressed too, including, Sergi Samper, Adama Traore, Alex Grimaldo and Edgar Ie. Not to mention the whole Barcelona B team that could have been promoted last season after finishing third in Liga Adelante, but for them, understandably, being ineligible for promotion to La Liga. Even younger, you have eleven-year-old Xavier ‘Xavi' Simons who has reportedly rejected a huge offer from Chelsea in favour of staying at La Masia. He has tremendous vision and leadership skills; combine it with intelligence and it's easy to see why he is so highly rated. On top of that, he knows that the grass is not always greener on the other side. The future looks bright for Barcelona and La Masia graduates.

Fact or fiction? With questions such as these, the answer is usually something in between but I think the evidence is pretty clear here in favour of fact. It's truly a youth academy like no other. Of course it's by no means perfect. There are quite a few issues, including the fact that only about 1 in 10 La Masia graduates make it to the Barcelona senior teams. Yet it's ‘mes que un club' for a reason - The identity and spirit is super strong and education provides more than a safety net. As per the ECA report, there is a strong belief that players will only succeed if sports training, education and a strong family unit are part of the players' lives. The competition is strong among the academies both worldwide as well as in Spain. Others are slowly learning but have much to go before eclipsing La Masia. It's the perfect imperfection. "At La Masia we set out to produce both excellent football players and good people," says Guillermo Amor. "After all, one day your career as a footballer ends. But your life goes on."