SOCCER: World’s team

Barcelona not only have the greatest player football’s ever seen; they’re the template for the game’s future, right down to its acclaimed La Masia academy. Grant Wahl was granted unprecedented access to the men who made Messi.

The Hogwarts of sports is a sparkling steel-and-glass building in Sant Joan Despí, a sleepy suburb not far from the Gaudí-bejewelled centre of Barcelona. On a starlit night with breezes blowing in off the Mediterranean, the teams of FC Barcelona’s youth academy descend in waves of yellow onto a manicured practice pitch. They march down from La Masia (the Farmhouse), the name given to the 300-year-old residence that housed Barça’s first academy and transferred to the decidedly less bucolic school at the club’s new €50 million training headquarters.

It’s a special evening, a chance for Barça to shoot team photographs under the floodlights and present its best and brightest to a gathering of proud parents in the stands. A phalanx of taxis waits in the parking lot, meters running, ready to ferry teen and pre-teen prospects from Catalonian towns back to their homes, as they do every night at the club’s expense. Most of the remaining two thirds of the academy’s players — boarders from other Spanish regions and a dozen countries — live on site in an educational and sporting laboratory that is both nurturing and fiercely competitive.

The children draw closer. You study their faces and can’t help but wonder: Which of these eight- and 12- and 14-year-olds might turn into the planet’s best soccer player, the closest thing in sports to King of the World? Which ones will help add to Barça’s Champions League titles, three in the last seven seasons? Usually such questions are preposterous. Most top European clubs are lucky to have even one homegrown player in their starting line-ups. But La Masia’s track record of developing champions is unprecedented, the evidence visible every time Barcelona takes the field.

In Barça’s Champions League game against Spartak Moscow on September 19, eight of the team’s 11 starters — including Lionel Messi — were products of the club’s youth academy.

There’s a tantric rhythm to Barcelona’s build ups that Sting would love. Pass and move, pass and move. Each man on the ball has at least two options, creating triangles large and small, a blend of movement and geometry that calls to mind the turning wheel of a kaleidoscope as the attack proceeds inexorably downfield. Spartak were powerless. Barça’s passing sequence involved nine players in 55 seconds, including academy products Xavi (from age 11), Cesc Fàbregas (from 10), Pedro (from 17), Sergio Busquets (from 17) and, as ever, Messi. The 25-year-old Argentinian is capable of astonishing individual pyrotechnics but his game-winning header against Spartak off Alexis Sánchez’s cross was something else, a true team goal, the difference between a cobra strike and a python’s slow asphyxiation. Both, in the end, are lethal.

Today’s Barça academy members know all of Messi’s greatest hits. Only a few of these boys will survive the club’s ruthless cuts and join him in the first team someday, but by the time they do they will feel Barcelona — the history, the identity, the style — in their blood and in their bones.

Barça’s president, Sandro Rosell, knows this. On a hope-filled night with soccer’s school of wizardry looming behind him, Rosell addresses the future Messis and Xavis and their parents in Catalan, waxing philosophical about the role of La Masia. “This is the essence of the club,” he concludes, his hands outstretched, before leading everyone in a thunderous chant.

Visca Barça! Visca Catalunya!

The spectacle also hailed the triumph of an idea: that beautiful, intricate soccer can be winning soccer, and that it can be homegrown. Two years ago all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, given to the world’s best player, had developed as children at Barcelona: Messi, the winner, and midfield string pullers Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. It was as though three people from the same secondary school had won Nobel Prizes.

“I’ve played with some of my team-mates since I was 12,” says Fàbregas, now 25. “When Messi first came, we were both 13. He was so tiny. We’re all more like friends, and we fight for each other. I could go with this team to the end of the world.”

Experts have scrambled to put Barcelona’s feats in historical context. “In my time as manager, it’s the best team we have played,” says Alex Ferguson. Where does the Barcelona of the past five years rank among the top teams of all time? “The short answer is by far the best,” says Ray Hudson, the poet laureate of Spanish soccer for beIN Sport television, launching into a six-minute ode that is anything but a short answer. “I can’t imagine anybody going beyond this purest example of football. They have spoiled the game for me. When I try to watch other teams and other leagues, it’s like I’ve just read a wonderful novel and gone back to nursery-rhyme books.”

Hardcore

As Barcelona aim for a third Champions League in five seasons, their popularity transcends soccer itself. In 1992 the Dream Team swaggered into the Barcelona Olympics with the signature basketball players of a generation — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird — and changed the face of global sport. Now, 20 years later, it’s as though Barcelona are returning the favour, mesmerising hardcore fútbol fans but winning new hearts and minds for the Beautiful Game.

There have been other international sports dynasties, but in an era in which supporting Chelsea and Manchester City feels like cheering for Microsoft, you can root for Barcelona and feel good about it on every level. Barça are the paragon of a championship sports team: exciting, homegrown, tied to the community, with an inspiring social mission and the world’s most magical player. What’s more, Barcelona players are the core of Spain’s national team, the first to hold the World Cup and two European crowns at the same time.

History matters. Barcelona are already pulling away in the Spanish league, and are favourites to win the Champions League. If the club can raise both trophies again, there will be no doubt: Barça are the team of our time.

Lionel Andrés Messi has inspired millions of words in a babel of tongues, but perhaps the best way to summarise him is this: When he is in the game, even hardcore fans might witness something they have never seen before. Take Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Granada on September 22. Late in the game Messi dribbled from the left side into the penalty area, where two defenders sandwiched him, briefly dislodging the ball. In a split second, at full speed, Messi flicked his foot behind him to tap the ball, ran around the defender to meet the ball again and pinballed a low cross off Granada defender Borja Gómez and into the net.

The stat sheet would list it as an own goal, but the rest of us could only watch in disbelief. A backheel to himself. In the box. Just another out-of-body experience for Lionel Messi. Indeed, it’s hard not to get spiritual watching Messi. Just as the Bulls’ triangle offence needed a sporting genius for it to enter the pantheon, so too does Barcelona’s triangle offence. “It’s a special group of players with obvious talent,” says Fàbregas, “and the best player that there has ever been.”

The résumé Messi has already produced at age 25 only begins to make the case: a world-record 73 goals in all club competitions last season, including an unprecedented five in one Champions League game; three Champions League and five Spanish league titles; and three straight world player of the year awards, also unprecedented. If Messi keeps winning the most important club trophies and putting up off-the-charts numbers with Barça, he may not need the World Cup to be called the greatest. At the time of going to press, he had netted a bewildering 88 goals this calendar year (in 65 games) surpassing Gerd Muller’s record.

Messi’s relationship with his Barcelona teammates is strikingly symbiotic. He needs his Barça teammates if he’s to play at his highest level. Without them — and especially without the intuitive understanding he shares with Xavi and Iniesta — Messi can sometimes be frustrated and diminished, not least when he’s playing for Argentina.

When fans from his home country want to sting Messi, they say he’s more Catalan than Argentinian. It’s not true. Messi still consumes Argentinian beef and maté tea, speaks Spanish with an Argentinian accent and recently became a father with girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo, who is from his hometown of Rosario. Then again, Messi also embodies traits more commonly associated with Catalans, who are known for deal-making, efficiency and a cleverness that has a softer edge than its Argentinian counterpart. Despite the sometimes brutal defending he faces, he does not dive. Messi’s rise into the sporting stratosphere has paralleled Barcelona’s. Small wonder that Barça’s fans in the Camp Nou consider him one of their own.

The 5’7” imp is a master of many things, from balance and coordination to speed and a seemingly limitless imagination on the field. Alas, describing his talents in his own words, as many have learned, is not among them. Perhaps by design, Messi is as reserved as Maradona is bombastic. Fortunately, Messi’s teammates are happy to speak for him. They grow animated when asked the question. Xavi’s eyes widen and he gets jazz hands as he talks about Messi. “The hardest thing in soccer is to take on the defender and dribble around him,” he says. “Well, Messi dribbles around four, five, six, seven and scores. That’s practically impossible today. Everybody is physically strong, tall. In a combination play you can get there, but he does it by himself and does it in each game. In soccer there are two speeds: physical, the speed of your legs, and mental. I only have this one” — Xavi points to his head — “but he has both. That’s why he’s the best in the world.”

Fàbregas explains why he thinks Messi is the real thing: “When the final ball is played he’s always on the end of things, but it’s because he makes the really big effort to get in the nice positions. His desire is so big that he makes the other players look like they don’t want it as bad.”

“[He] could say, ‘Okay, I’m the best, but in training I don’t care, I can be lazy,’” says Piqué, “but he’s working at the same level in training as well. It’s unbelievable.”

Reinvention

Xavi thinks Messi will spend his entire career at Barcelona. “He’s happy, and he was raised here,” Xavi says. “I don’t think he can leave for another club.” That’s not to say Messi will stand still. In the face of new challenges, remaining at the top requires reinvention. Barcelona lost enough of its edge last season to finish second in the Spanish league behind Real Madrid and go out in the Champions League semi-finals to the eventual winners, Chelsea. Pep Guardiola, the Barça coach and mastermind who also developed as a player at La Masia, left his job at age 41 after a remarkable four-year run. (He’s taking a year’s sabbatical with his family in New York City).

Can Barcelona return to dominance under Guardiola’s former assistant, Tito Vilanova? And can Messi and Barça find ways to beat teams that follow Chelsea’s playbook and pack as many players as possible in the defensive end? “That’s the key about Messi: As a player he’s reinventing himself each season, improving year after year,” says Carles Folguera, the director of Barcelona’s youth academy. “He’s not only a top scorer but an assist leader as well. He can play on the wings and up the middle. That’s his own ability to grow and improve and take a hard look at himself.”

With all the changes, there’s a sense that Messi is entering a new phase of his career, like Picasso making the transition from his Blue Period to Cubism. In that case, Messi has chosen the right place, a city in which soccer and art are one and the same.

The procession never stops. In the shadow of the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s 98,000-seat stadium, the Barcelona museum attracts an endless stream of visitors. The shrine to Barça’s past and present is the most visited museum in the city, more than those devoted to Picasso and Miró, more than the museum at La Sagrada Família.

The Barcelona motto — Més que un club, Catalan for “More than a club” — is deliberately open-ended. In one sense it refers to Barça’s social mission as a 113-year-old organisation with 118,000 dues-paying members who vote in elections for the club’s leaders. For years Barça was the only major soccer team that refused to sell space on its jersey to a corporate sponsor, before making the novel decision in 2006 to donate about €1.5m a year and put UNICEF’s logo there. (The big-spending Qatar Foundation replaced it last season in a €175m sponsorship deal as Barça addressed a €330m net debt amassed largely through bank loans to pay for transfers; but UNICEF remains on the back).

In another sense the motto highlights Barcelona’s place as a touchstone for Catalan identity. “It’s the people’s club,” says Rosell, a former Nike executive who once served as a ball boy at the Camp Nou. “It’s a club that understands what it means to be from Barcelona and Catalonia, what it means to be a club that had run-ins with a dictatorship for 40 years and survived with values opposed to what the dictatorship stood for.”

Johann Cruyff’s legacy at Barça has come less as a player than as the embodiment of a philosophy, one that now seeps through every level of the club down to the youth teams. Based on the Dutch school of soccer, it values skill over brawn, ball possession over quick-hit counter-attacks, entertainment over pragmatism. Cruyff instilled the idea as Barça’s coach from 1988 to ‘96, winning four Spanish league titles and a European Cup, and the style is constantly being refined. “Cruyff’s first rule or idea was to defend through ball possession,” says Xavi, 32. “If there’s only one ball in play and you have control of it, you don’t need to defend. And then the idea of attacking soccer: triangles, long possessions. We’ve had this philosophy since Cruyff came, and now we’ve had the good fortune of having a fantastic generation of players.”

How that generation arrived at the top of the soccer world is the story of La Masia.

Cesc Fàbregas can close his eyes and remember the exhaustion he felt as a 10-year-old. Every weekday at 5pm a taxi would pick him up at his house in Arenys de Mar, 25 miles outside Barcelona. In the next two hours the taxi would make five other stops before delivering the half-dozen boys to practice at the Barça youth academy, which in those days was next to the Camp Nou. A 90-minute practice would follow, and then another two-hour cab ride home, followed by dinner, homework, a few hours of sleep and back to school the next morning at seven. “I was too tired as a young boy, and I couldn’t sleep very well, but this is what I loved,” he says. “So after three years I moved to La Masia.”

Sacrifice stories

They all have their sacrifice stories, from Fàbregas to Messi to hundreds of other prospects who didn’t make the grade. Founded in 1979 as the brainchild of Cruyff, Barcelona’s youth academy is based on the one run by Ajax. The guiding principle is to instil the same skill-based philosophy that guides the senior team. “It’s like getting a master’s in football,” Xavi says. “In each session they teach you objectives. Why do we do this exercise? Many teams train just to get physically fit, but the key is to understand the game, to choose the moment you play the ball short in order to then play it long. To know how to decide on the field is the most important thing they teach at La Masia. But it’s also a school of life because it teaches you the values of respect, humility and camaraderie. It’s a way to live soccer and life.”

THE emphasis is on quality over quantity of practice time. Training sessions take place from 7pm to 8.30pm, three times a week for academy members under 13, four times for older ones, with a game on the weekend. For boarders, the typical day involves attending school from 8am-2pm, returning for lunch and then homework until six, followed by practice. Of the 80 current residents at La Masia, 58 are there for soccer, the rest for basketball, handball and ice hockey. Merely by being admitted to the academy, youngsters have survived a competitive winnowing process. “You always seek talent,” says Guillermo Amor, a former academy graduate and Barcelona player and now La Masia’s sporting director. “That’s fundamental, to have very good players at a young age. Before, you sought out 14- and 15-year-old kids. Now you have to go younger. That makes us work hard to get the best players in our seventh soccer division, who are the smallest and start with seven-year-olds.”

The way Amor sees it, La Masia’s success comes from having the confidence to place faith in young players and train them to excel on the global stage. While most major European clubs have youth academies, few are as committed to inculcating in their young players an entire philosophy. Barça has selectively tabbed established players, such as David Villa and Ronaldinho, but its preference is to dip into the prospect pool. But unlike the first team, the youth academy isn’t about the unceasing pursuit of trophies. “We never tell kids, ‘Go out and win, win, win; we want titles,’” says Amor. “We’re forming players — people — and there will be time to win the day they play on the first team. But not to win at any price. We want to win by controlling the ball, bringing it up from the back, taking the initiative, dominating. That’s our style.”

There’s a human side to the academy, of course. Only a handful of chosen ones will reach the senior team. At the end of every spring the academy directors make their cuts — “the hardest moment,” Amor says. “When we talk about La Masia, we do so as if it were a family for these kids,” says Folguera, the academy director. “We know about their grades, their nutrition, the problems they have, how they get along with their families, if they have girlfriends. We’re always with them.” For the same reasons, those who do make it feel as if the club is part of their fundamental identity. For them, the Barcelona shirt is never just laundry.

Nor for Barça is producing players the same as making widgets. “We’re not going to clone Xavi, Messi or Iniesta just because in X number of years they’re not going to be around anymore,” says Andoni Zubizarreta, Barça’s football director, “but the idea behind our style will be.”

Who will be La Masia’s gems of the next generation? Perhaps Gerard Deulofeu, 18, a striker from nearby Girona who has already played with the senior team. Or Jean Marie Dongou, 17, a marvellously talented Cameroonian striker. Who knows?

More than a club. The reminders of Barça’s transcendence are large and small, global and domestic. During the Clasico against Real Madrid in October, large sections of the stadium dusted off the old chants for Catalan independence, amid Catalan political leader Artur Mas’s calls for fiscal sovereignty from the rest of Spain and a subsequent march of 1.5 million Catalans in the streets of Barcelona.

What’s more, at a time when the unemployment rate in Spain is hovering at 25%, at least one player is acutely aware of the role Barça plays in society. Messi may be Barcelona’s resident genius, but the keeper of Cruyff’s flame is Xavi, the figure who most clearly embodies the club’s philosophy. Cruyff himself rarely visits anymore, the result of disagreements with Rosell, the club’s president. But Xavi has lived the apotheosis of Cruyff’s Barcelona, winning three Champions League titles — and, playing a similar style, a World Cup and the last two Euros with Spain. Xavi thinks the game more than any other Barça player. In the past two seasons he has nine of the top 15 Champions League performances in terms of completed passes in a match. He will almost surely coach Barcelona someday.

In an era in which athleticism, defence and brawn have threatened to take over the world’s game, Xavi feels in his core that Barcelona is fighting for the soul of soccer. “I believe in this philosophy of ours,” he says, “but years ago, because we weren’t winning, people had doubts. Italy had won the World Cup; Greece had won the Euro. The Champions League was won by physical teams. And I thought, ‘No, it can’t be’. Football is talent, you know. For the good of the fans, for the good of the game, talented players should always play the sport. But I’m a football romantic, and there are others who only want to win, win, compete, defend. Hell no. Soccer can be very beautiful.”

If that sounds romantic, then so be it. Barcelona has taken the game to places it has never been, exceeding what we thought was possible, creating new fans in the process.

“They’ve raised people’s appreciation of what they do beyond simple sport, as all greats do,” says Graham Hunter, author of Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.

In a sometimes ugly world, the team of our time brings a simple joy. When Xavi ventures out into the city, older fans, the ones who know the history, stop him on the street, pulling him close. “They tell me, ‘Thanks for playing soccer like that. You make me enjoy it,’” he says. “You can’t top that for me.”

He smiles. History matters. Beauty too.

(c) Time Inc 2012 from Sports Illustrated magazine


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