More than a future - Barcelona and La Masia

It can't be this good at Barca forever can it? Can it?  Here's Caleb Cousens on the production line par excellence.

After two years in which Barcelona won everything football has to offer, some observers have begun to wonder where the Blaugrana will go from here, and, whether it can get any better.

After Barca’s exit from the Champions League last year to Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale, critics were keen to suggest that it was all downhill for Pep Guardiola’s side. However, thanks to the current crop of players and one of the best youth development academies in history, Barcelona will remain THE team to beat for a long time yet.

People who have read my previous articles will know that I have a great interest in youth football and the development of the next generation. My Boca Juniors article recently was just one in what I hope to be a series of posts covering the best youth academies on planet football. I cannot do so without mentioning the academy that has been getting all the attention in the last few years, Barcelona’s much praised La Masia.

It used to go that to gain success in the world of football everything starts with your youth team and your system for finding and developing young talent. A club’s future depended on the quality of their youth side; not on their oligarchs, oil barons, and foreign billionaire chairmen. While football has strayed from its roots and adopted a philosophy of instant gratification that involves buying proven talent rather than developing it; teams that have maintained a youth philosophy have found much success. Barcelona are one of these sides.

La Masia is an academy that has developed many of the top players in the game today, including FIFA Ballon d’Or nominees (and winner) Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, not to mention the bulk of the Barcelona squad in Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Sergi Busquets, and Pedro Rodriguez.

If you add this remarkable list to the catalogue of Barcelona youth products playing abroad, La Masia shows its true genius. Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Mikel Arteta, Luis Garcia, Thiago Motta, Dani Pacheco and Fran Merida are playing for top clubs in Europe.  La Masia is a factory for world class talent that shows no sign of slowing.

With three La Masia graduates up for football’s most prestigious individual prize, former Barcelona president, Joan Laporta’s comment last year rings prophetic: "Some clubs buy Ballon d'Ors, we create them".

La Masia is the spiritual heart of Barcelona FC.  Housed in an old country mansion built in 1702, the Barcelona academy was once used to provide shelter for architects and construction workers as they worked on the Camp Nou. The 6,500 square foot farmhouse was turned into a dormitory in 1979 and now provides accommodation to academy players who have moved away from their homes and family. In its first thirty years, La Masia has been home to more than 500 youngsters looking for an opportunity to don the shirt of the Blaugrana, with more than half of that number coming from Catalonia. The academy is a uniquely integrated model that includes physiotherapists, doctors, nutritionists, coaches, and psychologists, which gives young members of La Masia everything they need to develop as players and people. There is currently a new facility being built that will take the place of the old house - a state of the art building that will house up to 82 players.

Already the next generation of FIFA Ballon d’Or winners is being primed at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper (Barcelona’s training ground) and there is another batch coming hot on the heels of the most recent La Masia graduates (Bojan Krkic, Pedro Rodriguez, and Sergi Busquets).  If it is possible, they might just be better. Here are three players who could be up for the FIFA Ballon d’Or one day soon;

Thiago Alcantara

Many call him the “pearl” of La Masia and Thiago has already been marked as a replacement for Xavi. The Italian born Brazilian is eligible for the Spanish national team (confusing right?) and is the son of former Brazilian footballer Mazinho who won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994.

The nineteen-year-old is a playmaker in the truest sense of the word with an element of Brazilian flair (think of a cross between Xavi and Ronaldinho).  Alcantra is currently with Barca’s B side in the Spanish Segunda division, and will step up to the first team squad in June this year.

Thiago played a key part in the Spanish national team’s win in the U-17 European Championship (scoring two goals during the tournament) and helped lead the U-19 Spanish squad to the Euro final last summer (they lost to France).

Just as a side note, Thiago’s younger brother, Rafa, is also a part of La Masia.

Marc Muniesa

Muniesa is well on his way to becoming the next Carles Puyol. Not only does he have a similar mop of hair, but the young Spaniard is poised and plays a solid, unforgiving defensive style. There is a good reason that he was a transfer target for Chelsea at fifteen, and made his first team debut for Barcelona at seventeen years old.

Now, at the ripe old age of eighteen, the Catalonia native is at a crucial juncture in his career. Does he stick it out at Barcelona and wait for opportunities or does he follow the footsteps of Gerard Pique and go abroad (maybe to return to Barcelona later in his career). There would be no shortage of suitors should he chose to move. Muniesa was part of the same Spanish sides that Thiago was in and led the defensive line for La Furia Roja.

Muniesa can play in the center of defence or as a left-back (also similar to Carles Puyol) and his ball moving skills seem to be a trademark of defenders that emerge from La Masia. Marc Muniesa is one of those who will usher in the new generation of skilled defenders in world football.

Marti Riverola Bataller

I may have saved the best for last.  Riverola is a nineteen-year-old attacking midfielder in the same vein as Iniesta. He was born in Barcelona and started his career at La Masia at the age of six. Originally a striker, Riverola was moved into midfield in 2005 where he has remained, although he hasn’t lost his scoring touch. Riverola captained Barcelona’s Juvenil A side and scored on his debut with Barca B last season.  Just this month Barcelona loaned the youngster to Eredivisie side Vitesse on a six-month loan. Vitesse are managed by former Barcelona player Albert Ferrer and the first team football should do wonders for Riverola’s transition to the first team at Barca.

Of the three players I have mentioned, Riverola has the best chance of having a long and successful career with the Blaugrana. Pep Guardiola has already tipped the lad to do just that and says that he is the perfect example of the success La Masia has had by bringing (and keeping) a player up through all of the youth teams and into contention for first team football.

Barcelona treat their youngsters well and offer an opportunity to grow into the first team. This develops a club loyalty that most teams just don’t have. Leo Messi is a perfect example. The newly crowned FIFA Ballon d’Or winner joined Barcelona at a young age with the club prepared to fund treatment for a growth hormone deficiency. This type of dedication towards players not even in the first team reaps rewards as the Argentine and many of his La Masia graduate teammates have said that they want to “retire in Barcelona”.

You can read more from Caleb at Gaffers Corner and on Twitter @Gaffers_corner