Figures show that Serbian club FK Partizan are currently Europe’s greatest producers of talent, with 78 youngsters trained at their youth academy currently playing the sport professionally, closely followed by Ajax with 75 players.
Barcelona are some way behind in third place, having produced just 62 current players. Yet, when you look at the names among their graduate list, it is plain to see that the La Liga champions currently have the best youth academy in Europe. What other club can brag about producing the likes of Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Cesc Fabregas in recent times, let alone the unforgettable trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi?
Proposed by the legendary Johan Cruyff and modelled on the legendary Ajax Academy, Barcelona’s La Masia academy has been producing talent of the highest quality since 1979.
Despite its success, there are vast differences between La Masia and many of the academies run by other top clubs. The norm among most European soccer clubs and organisations is to train youth players in a way that ensures that they continue to enjoy the sport – plenty of variation, allowance to be creative and free-spirited and, fundamentally, a lack of criticism when they make mistakes.
One of the toughest aspects of goalkeeping is coping with the game mentally, particularly so in an era where records are kept, replays are broadcast and your every move is analysed following a game. As the last line of defence, mistakes are bound to happen, they will almost always be costly and they are certain to generate some dissatisfaction among the fans. However, Barcelona feel that the best way to prepare their youngsters for that side of the game is to highlight and discuss their shortcoming in a way that helps them to develop as a professional, risking unhappiness among their prospects.
“We look at the difficulties that they’ve had during the game, the things they’ve done well, things we can perhaps disagree about,” explains Carles Gil, a member of the La Masia goalkeeping team. “Our work is to help the kids grown.”
Their approach to youth development may seem tough – the children blessed with the opportunity to join Barcelona’s youth ranks live at the academy, for example, away from their families, learning how to be model professionals the ‘Barcelona way’. Club captain Iniesta was said to have ‘cried rivers’ when his family left him at the club aged just 12, yet his haul of eight La Liga titles and four Champions League medals seems to suggest that the club’s approach works.
The standout aspect of La Masia is the immersion of youngsters into the club. They live, sleep, eat, learn and, most importantly, grow up alongside their team-mates. While the Barcelona approach isn’t the only way, it has certainly influenced the decisions of a number of clubs over the years.
LA Galaxy, for example, have modelled their own academy on La Masia, offering their youth prospects a blend of intense soccer training and high school studies which prepares them for later life, both on and off the pitch. Real Salt Lake seem to be following suit, having unveiled plans to built a massive $50 million soccer training complex to rival some of the world’s best academy systems.
With a handful of naturally talented youngsters and the right coaches, any club can produce a talented footballer, but La Masia takes youth production to the next level. They don’t just built great players, they build great professionals that will do anything to produce success – not for themselves, but for their club.