Amidst the blockbuster signings and managerial changes that have characterised FC Barcelona post-Pep Guardiola, La Masia, the Blaugrana’s famous youth academy, has seen its reputation take a hit. The narrative surrounding the former farmhouse has shifted from that of an all-star production line to something altogether more sinister. Thanks to recent developments involving the transfer of non-EU minors, effectively poached from abroad, Culés have watched in horror and disbelief as La Masia has gone from being paraded as the equivalent of football’s gold standard for youth development to being vilified by the very same footballing community that held it in such high regard.
The aftermath of the FIFA-imposed transfer ban has seen the Blaugrana shift ever further from its més que un club ideologies and seemingly transition away from the culture of youth development that brought so much success at the turn of the decade.
Yet not all hope is lost.
The arrival of former B team coach Luis Enrique appears to have stemmed the bleeding, enabling Barça to reconcile with some of their roots as he brings a renewed focus on the very principles that Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Guardiola championed in their heydays. Youth and development are back at the forefront of the discussion at the club and this preseason has heralded the emergence of a metaphorical saviour for La Masia: Munir el Haddadi.
A Prodigy Emerges
On 1 September 1995 in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, also known as El Escorial de Arriba, located 47 kilometres (29 miles) northwest from Madrid, Munir El Haddadi Mohamed was born. Of Moroccan descent -- his father is Moroccan while his mother is from Spain -- like many young boys, Munir also liked to kick the football around with his friends on the streets of his hometown and in local parks. There, his father noticed that his son was playing differently, better, compared to his peers so he enrolled him at local club C.D. Galapagar.
Playing organized football for the first time in his life, at the Infantil level, playing with boys of his age, 13-14 years old, Munir stood out like a sore thumb. Playing primarily as a striker, but available to play on either wing if necessary, Munir was the star of the team, according to the team’s sporting director he scored more than 90 goals in that season, and it didn’t take long for scouts to notice him. Atletico Madrid took note of his talents and after a successful trial in front of the club’s coaches they quickly signed up him to join their youth program.
The Rojiblancos decided to loan the promising youngster the following season to Rayo Majadahonda, another club based in the Community of Madrid. That transaction proved key for FC Barcelona as it was at that club that a Madrid-based Barça scout, José Luis Colomo, noticed the talented youngster, then playing with the club’s Cadet side. The scout sent glowing reports about Munir back to Barcelona, with the youngster’s goal-scoring ability one of the highlights of the reports.
Impressed with what they heard about the naturally left-footed striker, Barcelona sent one of their academy coaches, Francisco Javier García Pimienta, the coach of Barcelona’s Juvenil B team, to check if Munir really had what it takes to succeed at one of the biggest clubs in the world. And Pimienta was impressed. But it’s hard not to be impressed when the kid you’re watching scores a perfect hat-trick, a left-footed goal, a right-footed goal and a header, in the only game you see him play. Pimienta was so impressed by what he saw that he recommended the club sign Munir immediately.
But Barcelona were not the only club that had taken notice of the youngster’s talent -- a player who scored 32 goals in 29 games in the 2010-11 season with Rayo Majadahonda -- making him one of the hottest commodities in youth football. Barcelona still managed to secure Munir’s signature which began his La Masia career. In his first season in the Barcelona system, the 2011-12 season, Munir quite fittingly began training and playing with the Juvenil B side, coached by the man that Munir left such a mark on, García Pimienta.
Munir didn’t disappoint in his first campaign in Catalonia, quickly showing why so many top clubs in Europe wanted his signature. Munir promptly finished his first season in a new city and new system as the team’s top goal-scorer, finding the back of the net 22 times while helping his team to claim the league title.
Having the luxury not to force his development -- "seasoned" La Masia strikers like Jean-Marie Dongou, Antonio Sanabria and Sandro Ramirez ahead of him on the depth chart -- Munir was given another season under the tutelage of Pimienta with the Juvenil B side. It was another good year for the now 17-year-old who was once again a constant threat in front of the goal as he helped the team to reclaim the league crown. Throughout the season Munir was given a few cameo appearances with the Juvenil A side before he was eventually promoted to the team coached by Jordi Vinyals before the 2013-14 season.
Remember the Name
Munir quickly established himself as an important part of the Juvenil A side. Their league, the División de Honor Juvenil began in September 2013. By March 2014, Barcelona were cruising to first place. Munir's best goal was a shot from about three-quarters of the pitch into the top corner.
Impressed with the forward's continued progress, Barcelona extended Munir's contract until 2017. Munir turned down Arsenal, PSG and Bayern Munich in the process.
The youngster was set on getting some opportunities in Eusebio Sacristán's Barcelona B side. He made his debut in early March and continued to make appearances for the team, becoming more influential as the season progressed.
He also accepted a call-up from Spain's U19 team, rejecting Morocco, at least for the moment. He played qualifiers for the Euro U19 tournament.
Coincidentally, 2013-14 was the first season that the UEFA Youth League was played. Barcelona were drawn into a group with Ajax, Celtic and Milan (mirroring the first-team draw on purpose). Munir scored 5 goals in 6 games for the Catalans, as the team confidently topped the group unbeaten.
One of his goals against Milan in particular stood out, controlling a pass with his foot, chest, foot, and then chest again, letting the ball take a bounce, and smashing it on the half volley into the net.
The forward continued his rampage in the knockout phases, with a brace against Copenhagen in the round of 16. His first involved skipping past hapless defenders, nutmegging his last opponent, and poking it into the net. His second was the opposite in terms of subtlety: a sprint down the flank and a mighty whack to ping it into the post and in.
He scored the first goal in the 4-2 win over Arsenal in almost comical fashion: blocking a clearance and sending into the net. While it was a mistake on the defender's part for sure, it showcased Munir's willingness to press and his sheer ruthlessness in front of goal.
Munir was not only scoring in bunches, but at decisive moments.
In the semi-final against Schalke 04, Munir scored the only goal of the match. And in the final, he buried Benfica with a double to make the scoreboard read 3-0.
His first was traditional center-forward stuff, the kind of killer instinct the Barcelona first team need in addition to Lionel Messi. But the second was sensational. It's fair to say Munir was saving the best for last.
He collected the ball around the halfway line, dribbled into the center circle, and looked up. The ball was nearing the kickoff spot when Munir gave it a thump. It sailed clear of everyone's heads and into the back of the net.
It was mark of supreme confidence and quick-thinking, but post-match, Munir was humble. "I always try to shoot from the halfway line," he mused. "I saw one of my teammates breaking forward. I looked at their goalkeeper and then just had a go. It's something that will be very difficult to repeat."
He finished the tournament scoring 1.41 goals per 90 minutes against the top academy players in Europe. Not only was he the top scorer with 11 goals, but he was in front by a wide margin. The next-best haul was 6 goals
And not only was Munir scoring for fun, he also finished the tournament as the #1 assist man, giving out 5.
Meanwhile, the Juvenil side wrapped up their divisional title. And a few days after becoming European champion, Munir scored his first for the B team. A pretty perfect April.
Barcelona B finished the season in good form and in 3rd place. Were it not for the fact that they are a B team, Barcelona B would have played a playoff to be promoted from Segunda to the top category of Spanish football. Munir finished with 4 goals in 11 appearances.
In late May, Barcelona B defeated Espanyol B in the Copa Catalunya final. After a goalless draw in normal time, Munir scored the decisive penalty in the shootout.
In the 2013-14 season, Munir started as a promise but finished as a warning, to everyone else. Sure, Barcelona's youth setup is stacked with talent, particularly at the forward position. But his breakthrough into the first team seemed inevitable. The question was simply when? Would new coach Luis Enrique Martinez give him the opportunity?
A Star is Born
Gifted, hard-working, yet ruthless; Munir may have been inexperienced but in so many ways, he was the quintessential "Luis Enrique player". Building on his time with García Pimienta and Vinyals, Munir continued to demonstrate those three key traits during training with the first team, and it soon became evident that Enrique liked what he saw from the talented young forward.
Saturday 9th August 2014; remember the date, remember the name: Munir el Haddadi.(Getty Images)
Before long, Munir had usurped both Gerard Deulofeu and Cristian Tello in the pecking order, establishing himself as an early regular in Barça’s preseason campaign. Despite a somewhat subdued start to life with the senior squad during his debut against Recreativo de Huelva, Munir kept working, stuck to his principles and before long his persistence began to pay dividends.
Endearing himself to the travelling Culés with an insatiable work ethic and appetite for the game, Munir’s introduction at half-time against OGC Nice marked a turning point in Barcelona’s preseason, and given time, it may even go down as a significant milestone in the club’s history. With 45 minutes against Recre under his belt, Munir seized his latest opportunity with both hands, exhibiting quick thinking and even quicker feet to first force a save and later win a crucial penalty in an eventual 1-1 draw.
Even a step-up in quality couldn’t faze Munir; in a memorable hour against UEFA Champions League qualifiers SSC Napoli, Munir was arguably Barcelona’s most potent threat, twice calling Rafael Cabral into action. His movement had been exemplary, his passing superb; all that was missing was the final product – and then it all came together.
Saturday 9th August 2014; remember the date, remember the name: Munir el Haddadi.
Against Finnish champions and UEFA Champions League hopefuls HJK, Munir stole the show in a Barça side stacked with international talent, taking just five minutes to announce his arrival in Helsinki.
Ghosting behind the defense with a perfectly-timed run, Munir found the time and space to caress Andrés Iniesta’s lofted pass into the far corner of the net with a sweeping left-footed volley. Just minutes later, he turned creator for Barcelona’s second in selfless fashion, feigning a similar run before checking back to create a window for a one-two with Sergi Roberto, who now had the space to apply the finish.
Before long, Munir had his second of the night as he drifted away from his marker to convert Rafinha’s sumptuous cross with a strong header, echoing the all-round performance that prompted such rave reviews from García Pimienta.
In the next match, his Camp Nou debut against Club Leon, Munir again stole the headlines in Barcelona’s resounding 6-0 win against the Mexican champions. Scoring twice off the bench in another memorable cameo appearance, Munir ended preseason as the club’s leading goalscorer and with first-team regulars Pedro and Neymar both facing a spell on the sidelines, the stage was now set: he was ready to make his competitive debut.
Named a starter for Barça’s opening day fixture against Elche, this was a watershed moment for the young star, and true to form, he didn’t disappoint. In a debut to remember, Munir threatened greatness early on with a rapturous left-footed drive that rattled the frame of Przemyslaw Tyton’s goal and in an all-action display Munir deservedly scored the game’s second, and decisive, goal with an intelligent poke of that now infamous left boot.
For those who had discovered his talent, and for those who nurtured him through the ranks, the maturity and poise of his performance and finish came as no real surprise. All of it, from the bending run between the two centre-halves to the brutally impudent chip past the keeper, had simply become second-nature.
The Camp Nou rose to its feet, Luis Enrique embraced his staff on the touchline and as the world reacted to the arrival of the latest La Masia sensation, Munir celebrated in a typically under-stated fashion.