Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova recently announced that the day was not far off but even he didn't plan for it to come quite so soon. Fourteen minutes into his team's trip to Levante on Sunday night, Dani Alves departed injured, to be replaced by Martín Montoya. It was 0-0 at the time; by the final whistle, Barcelona had won 4-0, climbing three points clear of Atlético Madrid and eleven points ahead of Real Madrid at the top of the league table. But that was not what made it such a significant moment.
When Montoya ran onto the pitch, he joined Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta, Leo Messi and Pedro Rodríguez. Together, they passed another milestone, one of huge emotional and practical importance. For the first time in Barcelona's history, its entire team had come through the club's youth system at one stage or another. Eleven players: eight Catalans, ten Spaniards, and all eleven of them from La Masía. An entire team, home-grown.
La Masía is a traditional, Catalan farmhouse that stands alongside the Camp Nou. Constructed in 1702, during the 1950s it was a works headquarters for architects and builders constructing the stadium. It became Barcelona's social center in 1966 and then, in 1979, a residency for kids in the youth system. Almost five hundred footballers lived there until Barcelona moved to their new HQ at San Joan Despí and even those who did not actually live there are invariably referred to as La Masía graduates: La Masía became shorthand for the Barcelona cantera, their entire academy. A symbol.
A symbol of a philosophy of football based on technique and possession, where the rondo -- or keep ball routine -- is central. A philosophy that Pep Guardiola described in simple terms, his use of English giving it even more of the feel of a mantra: "I have the ball, I pass the ball, I have the ball, I pass the ball, I have the ball, I pass the ball."
There is a stylistic continuity, a conceptual clarity, that can be detected amongst those players who have come through the system, inspired by Dutch Total Football, the Ajax school and Rinus Michels and passed down through the work of Laureano Ruíz, the system's creator, Johan Cruyff, Charly Rexach, Louis Van Gaal and Pep Guardiola. So clear is the identity that Xavi described himself and Iniesta as "sons of the system" and the former Liverpool striker Michael Robinson, now Spain's most famous pundit, insisted: "show me 20 kids in a park and I can pick out which ones are at Barcelona."
Go through those who came through that system and it makes for quite a list. In recent years, all the more so. Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona had a coach who had been an academy graduate himself and one who shared the philosophy of Cruyff; a coach, moreover, who had coached Barcelona B and had the nerve to give kids a chance in the first team. Few had heard of Pedro and Busquets before Guardiola put them in. A year later, they had won the World Cup.
They were not alone. In 2010, Joan Laporta insisted: "FC Barcelona won the World Cup, only they were wearing the wrong shirts." Laporta is a Catalan nationalist and was Barcelona's president at the time, so perhaps it came as no surprise he should say so, while the exaggeration was obvious. But of Spain's starting XI in the final, six were Barça players -- Piqué, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro and Iniesta (plus David Villa, who'd just signed from Valencia) -- and all six of them had come through the youth system. They were, to use the Spanish title, canteranos.
A few months later, the 2010 Ballón d'Or results were announced and all three men standing on the podium were Barcelona players who had come through La Masía: Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. No wonder newspapers superimposed them over a picture of the farmhouse. The three best players in the world, all from the same youth system.
Now with Montoya's introduction, Barcelona have taken another step. Louis Van Gaal had once expressed his dream that Barcelona would one day win the European Cup with a side made up entirely of home-grown players. When Barcelona won the 2009 Champions League final, 7 of the 11 had been through La Masía and the same was true when they won it in 2011. Now Van Gaal's dream is plausible.
Inevitably, there are those questioning the validity of the claim -- and notably in many case they are the same people, often Real Madrid supporters, who claim the obsession with youth teamers is pointless. Some rebel against the moral tone that sometimes comes with home-grown success. Others see a political desire to bring back canteranos, one that leads to pointless pursuits and over-paying. Was Cesc, they ask, really worth almost 40M euros? Did he really have a place in the team and would Barcelona have really chased him if it had not been a case of bringing him home?
Then there are those who question the definition of 'home-grown' and others question ownership of certain players' development. Still more point to the fees that Barcelona have paid for some of them. Then they point at the money Barcelona have spent on non-canteranos and the fact they pay bigger wages than any other Spanish club bar Madrid.
Pedro did not arrive at the club until he was 17, Sergio Busquets joined at the same age, and Cesc, Piqué and Alba were re-signed by the club from Arsenal, Manchester United, Arsenal and Valencia respectively. Together, they cost Barcelona almost 60 million euros. Alba was released by Barcelona at the age of 15. Piqué joined United at 17, Cesc made his Arsenal debut at 16. Some argue that makes them more a product of Highbury and Old Trafford than La Masía. Others suggest that Busquets and Pedro arrived already developed.
According to UEFA's definition, 'home-grown' refers to any player who, regardless of their nationality, played for their club for at least three years between 15 and 21. On that definition, Piqué, Alba and Cesc, who returned to the club aged 21, 23 and 24 years, respectively, do not count as 'home-grown' Barcelona players. But that is a working juridical definition designed to fit 6+5 proposals aimed at encouraging the development of players and to oblige clubs to give them a chance in their starting XI, preventing them from buying expensive foreigners, not designed to undermine a claim to successful youth team.
To seek to disqualify players from home-grown status is petty. There is no real reason why a player cannot be considered a canterano of more than one club. And why wouldn't Barcelona pay bigger wages than the rest or big fees for players? There can be no doubt that the money spent on Piqué and Alba is justified in footballing terms. Even the question marks over Cesc appear to have been erased this season, despite some doubts and his high price. There was certainly some emotional need in bringing them home, but there was also a footballing one too -- these are players who, because of their past, their footballing education, were more likely to be able to fit into a Barcelona team that has a very particular, very rigid style.
Besides, however you look at it, however much you try to look for flaws, what Barcelona did this weekend was hugely impressive. Eleven players who have played for Barcelona before first team level; eleven players who owe their development and/or discovery to the club. Compare that to Manchester United and Newcastle United who played four, more than anyone else in the English Premier League.
As for Spain, Athletic Bilbao can claim to have fielded a side made up entirely of youth team players (and entirely of Basques, according to their definition of Basque). But this is Barcelona: the league leaders and arguably the strongest side in Europe.
Yes, Cesc Fabregas cost Barcelona money and he owes much to Arsenal -- Pep Guardiola himself noted that "if he is the player that he is, that is thanks to Mr. Wenger" -- but this development is also a product of his time at Barcelona. He played for Barcelona at 13. Leo Messi and Gerard Piqué were amongst his teammates. Their coach back then had also been a resident at La Masía. His name was Tito Vilanova.