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La Masía nurtures Barcelona's philosophy for technical excellence

On Monday afternoon, Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández walked out to the pitch at FC Barcelona's Sant Joan Despí training ground and posed for a photo. The three stood together and in the middle was a blue and red football, Messi reaching to lay a hand on it from the right, Xavi doing likewise from the left. Iniesta stood with an arm around his teammates.

It would have been a good picture anyway, but it was about to get better. The three men had just been confirmed as the final candidates for this year's Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball), awarded by France Football (and now FIFA) to the world's best player. So it was natural enough that on the cover of the Catalan sports newspapers the following day, red and blue leather had been turned into precious metal, gleaming and golden, France Football embossed on it.

Just as it was natural that while the pro-Real Madrid daily Marca declared "And the Ballon d'Or goes to ... Spanish football," Sport led on "Historic Barça." After all, this is only the third time that the top three have all come from the same club -- the last two times were both Arrigo Sacchi's Milan.

But that was not the only reason they were feeling so satisfied in Barcelona. And the ball was not the only thing to get the Photoshop treatment. By the time the picture appeared the following morning, the concrete, metal and plastic of the stands behind the three players had, by sleight of technological hand, turned into an old, traditional-style Catalan farmhouse, built in rough, slightly yellow stone.

The farmhouse's name is La Masía. It was constructed in 1702 and is 6,500 square feet. In the 1950s, it was used as an office for architects and builders as they toiled on the huge building site right next door. That building site became the Camp Nou, and La Masía, looking incongruous alongside, dwarfed by the city that has grown up around it, became Barcelona's "spiritual" home. Bought in 1979, La Masía became a residency for hopeful children looking to carve out a career at the club. More than that, it became a kind of indoctrination center in all things Barcelona.

Now, it has won the Ballon d'Or. Even those who never actually lived there are always said to be graduates of La Masía; it is a symbol of the club's youth academy, which included Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. No wonder El Mundo Deportivo splashed on "Masía Mundial." Smug though it may have been, and opportunistic too, never before has former president Joan Laporta's insistence that "some clubs buy Ballon d'Ors; we create them" rung truer than it does now.

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The announcement on Monday was greeted by many as the success not just of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi or even of Barcelona, but an entire philosophy. It was a victory not just for those three players but the 500 children who have lived at La Masía and the rest who have come through Barcelona's youth system; a victory for the coaches and scouts, for the system -- and Xavi once described he and Iniesta as "sons of the system." It is a victory for an idea, an ideology. And when it comes to footballing religions, few are as puritanical as Barcelona.

The Ballon d'Or, wrote former Barcelona player Eusebio, is "everyone's success, recognition for a philosophy, for our values." It is seen as the confirmation of a trend and the vindication of a commitment to a very specific way of playing that, initially brought in by Johan Cruyff, is imposed at all levels at Barcelona. When players make the leap to the first team, the transition is smoothed by the approach being essentially the same. All the more so under Pep Guardiola, the Masía graduate who became club captain, coached the B team and now coaches the first team.

Guardiola was more than just a Barcelona player; he was a disciple of Cruyff and, with his technical, pass-pass-pass approach, the embodiment of that self-consciously expressed Barcelona style as a player. It is a way of playing that is obsessed by technique and passing, by possession. All of it underpinned by the simplest of drills: the rondo, or piggy in the middle. Iniesta recalls the obsession being simple: It was "receive, pass, offer" over and over again. To see him on the training pitch in Barcelona this week going through the moves, explaining them, is to be struck by the technical excellence and its simplicity.

As one director put it: "Almost 20 years ago, Cruyff arrived and said we were going to play in a certain way and [his] vision [was] always about the technique of the children, the speed of the pass, the speed of the mind."

"Barcelona," Fernando Hierro said, "has worked for some time according to a certain philosophy and personality and built projects according to that image."

Hierro is a former Real Madrid captain. Now, he is the sporting director at the Spanish Football Federation; now, he can smile rather more at Barcelona's success. After all, when Spain won the World Cup last summer, seven of the starting XI were Barcelona players. Better still, six had played for Barcelona at the youth level -- Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Pedro Rodríguez and Iniesta -- and Spain's style was very much Barcelona's style. Likewise, when Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 recently, in what many have called the greatest performance ever, eight of the players were Masía graduates. When it won the European Cup in 2009, seven were.

Now, the three men who can be declared the planet's best for 2010 are from Masía, too. And as if to prove the point, and to show that, although this is an extraordinary -- and probably unrepeatable -- generation of players, La Masía's success continues. On Tuesday, just hours after the Ballon d'Or announcement, Barcelona faced Russian side Rubin Kazan in the Champions League. Barcelona won 2-0, with Andreu and Victor Vázquez scoring, and Thiago Alcántara, Marc Bartra and Jonathan dos Santos playing. All of them had been promoted from the side that sits fourth in Spain's national Second Division: Barcelona B. The same Barcelona B that once housed Messi, Iniesta and Xavi.