This is the second part of our series on La Masia.
You can read the first part here.
3: The players are not given the chance at the first team
Another obvious reason for La Masia degenerating is the first team coaches that have not shown trust to the academy players. Going from a Pep Guardiola who made a virtue of using young players to Luis Enrique and Valverde has certainly made many talents look for clubs with better opportunities for first-team football.
After a match in 2010, Guardiola stated that “the biggest victory is to give a La Masia player their debut”.
A total of 28 young talents from La Masia made their debut during Guardiola, but since his resignation in 2012, it has only gone downhill. Although Tito Vilanova (Guardiola’s successor) put 11 La Masia players on the field against Levante in November 2012, he only gave one academy player a debut during his year in charge. The lucky one was Carles Planas. Luis Enrique and Valverde have been so focused on results that they have counted minimal on La Masia players. Back in April, Barça lined up without any La Masia players for the first time in 16 years.
No academy players!
Piqué also acknowledged back in August that a lack of showing confidence in the youth is part of the problem, but that money – which is described in the next chapter – also is: “The more confidence you give for your own breeding, the greater the chance there is for those to stay. However, it is also true that some youth players choose the money rather than the sports project.”
However, it is not the first time in Barça’s history that there has been a lack of room for talents in the first team. For example, Piqué and Fabrègas left when Barça – after years of depression – were suddenly a winning side under the likes of Ronaldinho and the coach Frank Rijkaard. Also, players like Arteta, Nolito and Pepe Reina left La Masia before they broke into the first team.
These three never came back. While this may seem frustrating, it is important to remember that most people who are leaving Barça gradually disappear. An example is Arnau Riera who was Messi’s captain in the B team, but whose career went completely to the sink when he left Barça. He became a hotel receptionist at the age of 32. Also, players like Halilović and Lee Seung-woo, who were predicted a great future, roam today among mediocre teams with swinging performances.
Some will think that the quality of the youth players is declining and that is why fewer of them are accessing the first team.
However, Andrés Iniesta does not buy that one: “There are many people who work in the academy and find the right players. There will always be quality players because we have the world’s best academy. The problem is to give them hope and confidence,” said Iniesta in an interview with Onda Cero on 6 November 2018.
2: Great “Pull effect”
Many talents have moved to other European clubs in recent years. Those include highly anticipated talents like Sergio Gomez of 18 years who went to Borussia Dortmund, Adrián Bernabe of 17 years to Manchester City and 16-year-old Robert Navarro to Monaco. It is just as much external issues that cause this as internal. In the world of football, a great pull-effect is seen, which is primarily due to agents. Agents have infiltrated the football game and they headhunt their players as young as 12 years old. This writer conversated with people inside top clubs and he got the same answer to their perception of modern football’s biggest problem: agents.
The agent of 15 years old Xavi Simons is the iconic – and feared – Mino Raiola, who also has clients like Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marco Verratti and Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Every time an agent seals a new contract for their player, they get a commission. The bigger the contract, the greater the bonus. Agents have – apart from taking care of the player’s administrative work – a hidden agenda. Namely getting his player to change clubs as much as possible, as it means cold cash in their own pocket.
At the same time, we see a tendency for big clubs to happily use extreme sums of money on the youth section – which increases the pull effect to the benefit of the agents. Real Madrid have spent 100 million euros on the renewal of their talent academy “La Fábrica”, and most recently bought an 18-year-old Vinicius Júnior for 45 million euros.
In 2014, Manchester City published a brand-new academy that cost 220 million euros. The architects behind it are former leaders during the Laporta era: Txiki Begiristain who is sports director and Ferran Soriano who is CEO.
In Europe, only AFC Ajax refuses to work with agents working with players under the age of 16. Barça lacks – like many others – a way (or the courage) to deal with this money-prone tendency nourished by the expenditure of big clubs on youth football.
Pep Segura, the current head of football, says about the problem: “We always try to help our youth players. But we will never pay what some agents demand. This involves extreme sums – like 1-2 million euros for a guarantee that a player, who is already ours, will stay with us.”
As a comfort, it is worth remembering that Barça is quite good at exploiting the possibility of a buy-back clause when the luck is out and the player leaves. Just look at Piqué, Fabrégas, Denis Suárez, Deolefeu and Jordi Alba who were all bought back at favourable prices after not breaking through at the start.