One massive upshot of supporting a team whose alumni is a Who’s Who of the sport’s inner-circle legends is that, well, you spend a significant portion of your time cheering for, and marveling at, the sport’s inner-circle legends. At few clubs is this phenomenon as pronounced as it is at FC Barcelona, where, over the past twenty years, La Masia has served as the definitive wellspring of home-grown, world-class talent.
A brainchild of Johan Cruyff, subsequently nurtured by fellow Blaugrana legend – and La Masia alum – Pep Guardiola, between 1998 and 2010, the academy laid the foundation for one of the most iconic eras in club football history, graduating Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Sergi Roberto, Pedro, Victor Valdes and, of course, Lionel Messi.
One drawback of supporting a team whose alumni is a Who’s Who of the sport’s inner-circle legends is that, in times of transition, you spend a significant portion of your time reading about, if not personally seeking out, the “next” iterations of those generation-defining greats. You begin to see cosmic anomaly first as proof of concept, and then as a well, from which once-in-a-lifetime talents can be collected, as needed. No one around here needs reminding that, with the departures of Xavi and Iniesta, this Barcelona squad has suffered midfield losses over the past three-and-a-half years on par with any club in history.
Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
Look no further than the examples of Sergi Samper, Marc Muniesa, and Bojan Krkić – known at various points in the past as “the Next Xavi”, “the Next Puyol” and “the Next Messi”. A Barcelona native, Samper joined the Barça setup at six years of age and, by the time he was a teenager, was drawing comparisons to not only Xavi, but Guardiola as well. He made 103 appearances for Barça B from 2013 to 2016, by which point he’d already been linked with a move to Manchester City. In the years since he’s taken the field 41 times with top flight sides – thirteen with Barcelona, twenty-three with Granada in 2016-17 (on loan), and five in 2017-18 on loan with Las Palmas, the last spell truncated by a serious ankle injury. Sadly, though he’s still a month shy of his 24th birthday, injury and unspectacular form when healthy have conspired to make the current season probably the last of Samper’s career with Barcelona.
Muniesa, meanwhile, was thought to be the heir to Carles Puyol as the anchor of the back line. In 2009, just two months after his seventeenth birthday – and before he’d taken the field at all for Barça B – he made his first team debut. Less than a week later, he was named in the matchday squad for Barcelona’s Champions League final showdown with Manchester United. He’d go on to appear 81 times for Barça B between 2009 and 2013, with an additional three first team appearances in the 2011-12 season. Sadly, however, he was thrown off the fast track to stardom following a devastating knee injury in the summer of 2012. After a final partial season with the B-side, he moved to England in 2013, joining Stoke City on a free transfer. After four seasons with Stoke a 2017 loan (since made permanent) returned him to his hometown of Girona, for whom is now a fairly regular contributor.
Like Muniesa, Bojan ultimately found his way to Stoke, though, unlike his “Next” brethren, he enjoyed a fair bit of success with the Blaugrana. Through a combination of shared physical appearance, blinding progress up the ranks, and 850 goals for Barcelona’s youth teams, Bojan was tipped to follow Leo’s lead in setting the world alight. In September 2007, he dethroned Messi as the youngest Barcelona player to ever feature in league play (17 years, 22 days), and went on make 48 appearances in 2007-08, scoring 12 goals. He remained with the club for another three seasons, before departing in summer of 2011. In all, Bojan took the field 163 times for Barcelona, scoring 41 times, and collected three La Liga and two Champions League winners’ medals. Hardly a failure, though never convincing enough to supplant the world-class attackers employed by the club during those years.
His circuitous route initially took him to Roma for a season, followed by a pair of campaigns on loan with AC Milan and Ajax. In the summer of 2014 he moved to Stoke City on a four-year deal – during which he’s been loaned out to German side Mainz and Alavés. Somehow still just 28 years-old, Bojan’s since returned to England, and continues to ply his trade for Stoke in the Championship. He never became the next Messi, nor – individually and from a team perspective – has he recaptured the glory of his Barcelona days. He has, however, seemingly carved out a peaceful niche for himself in Staffordshire.
The lessons here are apt in light of the recent successes of La Masia’s latest prodigies – a duo of “Next Iniestas” – Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig. Less than month shy of his 21st birthday, Aleñá is a Barça lifer. He joined La Masia at the age of seven, is a veteran of 90 games over four seasons with Barça B, and has a dozen appearances with the big boys in the past two-plus seasons. It is in the past two weeks, however, that the whirlwind has truly descended on young Carles. On December 2, having come on as a substitute against Villarreal, he ran onto the end of a characteristically perfect pass from Messi and proceeded to perfectly dink the ball over the keeper to seal a 2-0 win, in the process securing his first-ever La Liga goal and, every bit as importantly, his first goal at Camp Nou. A mere two days later the announcement was made that he’d been officially promoted to the first team for the remainder of the season, and would now be wearing the #21 shirt. Not too shabby.
Puig, meanwhile, who turned nineteen over the summer, made the first of his (thus far) twelve appearances for Barça B on February 24, 2018, and subsequently helped the side capture its second-ever UEFA Youth League title. His efforts, combined with some injuries and post-World Cup recovery time granted to the first-teamers, earned him a spot on Barcelona’s summer US tour, during which he opened eyes with his elegant play against both Tottenham and AC Milan, with Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso – winner of two Champions Leagues and a World Cup as a player – describing the wispy youngster as “spectacular”.
Puig made his senior debut on December 5, 2018, in a home encounter with Cultural Leonesa in the Copa del Rey. He took the pitch at Camp Nou for the time ever in the 55th minute and, roughly fifteen minutes later, provided the game’s signature moment, calmly, delicately caressing a chipped pass through a crowd of defenders to Denis Suarez, who converted the Barcelona’s final goal in the 4-1 victory. Not unlike...
On the heels of the most significant week that each has had, well, in his life, probably, the hype machine is invariably undergoing diagnostic tests and getting its gears greased up. This is unavoidable under any circumstances. Given La Masia’s checkered recent history with top-tier prospects, the yearning for the next home-grown superstar is palpable. For the good of the two kids involved – both personally as well as professionally – it’s undoubtedly instructive to exercise more than a measure of caution before piling on expectations.
The careers of Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig could play out in any number of ways. One, or both, could in fact be “next”, reaching the sport’s top tier, at Camp Nou, abroad or, as Thiago Alcântara, Cesc Fàbregas and Man United era Gerard Piqué managed, both. Solid, if unspectacular careers, a la the Brothers Dos Santos, Jonathan and Giovani? First team appearances at Barcelona, before ultimately joining your brother at two clubs and a World Cup hardly classifies as failure. Or perhaps you take your talents abroad early, as Fàbregas did, with great success, and Adama Traore is currently attempting, as a still-22-year-old electric, impact substitute for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League.
These are matters best left for another, as yet distant day. Time stubbornly marches on, and the future will likely be upon us sooner than we’d prefer. To forsake all excitement at these exploits in the name of “perspective” would be joyless. Similarly, to latch on to every moment, however insignificant, for no reason other than to extrapolate an unknowable future is similarly joyless.
Right now, this – whatever it is – is happening. And it’s pretty awesome.