Inside Barcelona: Club's success rooted in rich youth academy
BARCELONA, Spain -- There are no secrets.
The man in charge of the most successful youth academy in world sports insists he has no magic elixir that turns teenagers into world-beaters, no elusive potion that transforms rather ordinary-looking kids into the next Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
Guillermo Amor is the sporting director at La Masia, FC Barcelona's remarkable youth academy, which has provided so many top-level players for Barça's senior team that at times all 11 starters have been homegrown. A former midfielder for Barça and Spain and himself a product of La Masia, Amor, 44, took over the job two years ago after Sandro Rosell won the club's presidency. Amor knows as well as anyone what fires La Masia's success.
"I don't think it's about secrets," he said one afternoon at the club's headquarters in Sant Joan Despí. "It's about having confidence in what you do, in the work that's been undertaken for many years and on a clear bet on young people, on the youth system, because the proven results are there. Many of the players on the first team are from here, from our house. We see that we have people in the system with a lot of quality and potential to one day make it to the first team."
A few other impressive youth academies exist at European clubs. Bayern Munich's has produced Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber and Diego Contento, for example. But nobody else comes close to Barça's youth operation. In 2010, all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d'Or (given to the world's top player) came from La Masia: Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. If I'd had a vote I would have leaned (barely) toward Xavi, but Messi was a deserving winner, his second of three straight trophies (and counting).
"For us it was a very special moment," Amor said. "The fact that a person comes out of our system, reaches the first team, achieves so much and wins the Ballon d'Or -- you can't top that. But having three of them? Better yet. And any one of them deserved it. Messi is a phenom. He's No. 1 and deserves it, but Xavi as well as Iniesta could have perfectly walked away with it. It helps us because people, especially the youth in our system, can see what the first team is made of, what they have achieved through hard work."
The original La Masia (The Farmhouse), the one where Messi, Xavi and Iniesta developed, was a 300-year-old building next to the Camp Nou stadium in central Barcelona. The new La Masia is a large glass-and-steel box-like building at the team's training HQ, which houses boarders from outside Catalonia and outside Spain itself. They attend school during the day and train most nights from 7 to 8:30 p.m., with a game on weekends. "You can spend all day doing something and have nothing to show for it, and other people accomplish much more in an hour's time," as Amor said.
One thing that stands out to anyone who visits La Masia is how many different people are part of the operation, from coaches and directors to teachers and advisers and other support staff.
"It's not defined by a single variable," said Carles Folguera, the academic director of La Masia. "There are many influencing factors that explain our success that is being recognized worldwide. It's a long process. It's not good to be in a hurry, so there's patience here. In that process you have good coaches, and you look not only for talent for the game, but you also look at personality -- how the kid tries to overcome obstacles and difficult moments, an injury or a coach who doesn't believe in him. So it's also about character, values."
In my SI magazine story on Barça this week, I go into more detail about what takes place at La Masia, how the club's philosophy is inculcated in its youth teams from the ages of 7 and 8, and how Barça's senior team coaches have consistently placed their faith in the development program.
"We play football in a unique manner with players who are made with our unique idea of football," says the club's senior football director, Andoni Zubizarreta, also a legendary goalkeeper for Barça and Spain. "We feed ourselves through that same process and it allows us to compete at the highest levels. But you can only achieve that through conviction, sometimes not even a conscious conviction. It's not written down, it's lived. It's something you have in you. The youth in our system play that way not because somebody tells them to, but because they've internalized it.
"Barça is an evolution of football, a new operating system," he continues. La Masia "allows [senior team coach Tito Vilanova] to look at players in our system, the ones who are in Barça B, and to know that in the end the great answer to the question is: Do you dare line up the B player when the time comes?"
Time and again, the answer has been yes. Though that's not to say that everyone makes it. The vast majority don't, of course, and that, too, is part of life. Every year at the end of June, the academy's directors decide who will stay and who will go.
"We analyze the squads, we look forward to the next year, what must be improved, and we start making moves according to positions," Amor said. "And once we lock down the teams, it's normal that there will be people that cannot continue in the club and will have to leave. If they are living in the Masia residence, then they'll have to pack up and go back home with their families. And if they're from around here, they'll have to find another team. We help them do that if he has a problem finding a club.
"As you move up through each category, it gets harder because each level is more competitive. Once you get to Juveniles, it's really difficult to stay in the club, and they know that. They know that making the first team is difficult -- only a small percentage make it -- and they know they have to fight and work hard to get the chance so they'll have no regrets."
For those who do make it to the senior team, though, there is a sense of belonging to Barça that you'll never get if you move from club to club during your career, no matter how successful you might be. And there's real value in that, too.
"A kid who is formed from 12 or 13 until the age of 18, he feels the club," Folguera said. "Nobody has to tell him when he arrives at the first team what the club means. There's a feeling of identity here. The majority of players in the first team know what Barça is."
That's one of the things they mean when they say Barça is more than a club.