Besides a reputation for creating and exporting an abundant crop of talent, the stone building in the shadow of Camp Nou is also responsible for teaching many football fans their first words of Catalan: La Masia. Yet Barcelona's native term for 'farmhouse' has become a byword for a footballing education without equal in the modern game.
It is a schooling that starts at an early age with a stress on shaping well-rounded individuals on and off the field. When it comes to playing football, the FC Barcelona school continues its culture of education, teaching pupils to use their brains before their feet. "I was 11 when I arrived, and the football philosophy of this club was drilled into me from the off," said Xavi Hernández, one of La Masia's foremost graduates. "The most important thing is a willingness to learn. The philosophy is that the result is not important."
Xavi arrived thinking he was a centre-forward but soon realised he was "slower than the other kids". He was nicknamed 'La Máquina' (the machine) because of his perpetual motion and metronomic precision passing. So how did the coaches convert him into a ball-playing central midfielder? "
We were taught to play triangles and move the ball around. You pick up good habits like learning the strengths of your team-mates and always playing with your head up.
"Playing intelligently, passing to the right foot of a right-footed player or the left of a player who prefers the left. Before you get the ball you have to know what you are going to do with it." The benefits of instilling such principles into youngsters have never been as productive as right now, Xavi adds. "You can see the results of that development, with eight or nine key players in the Barcelona first team having come through the ranks. They are the base on which the team is built."
For the philosophy to become reality – the first team mirrors the academy while simultaneously supplying its inspiration – it requires a senior coach versed in the club's credo. Step forward Josep Guardiola. "Guardiola is a product of La Masia, he knows that the players he selects from the youth teams will fit his system," explained Xavi.
Listening to the midfielder, you would think this communion of coach, players and academy is a grand plan years in the making. In fact, much of the current set-up owes its success to luck and judgement. The bold appointment of Guardiola as coach in 2008 was an audacious move by then president Joan Laporta, who faced opposition from the majority of his board, with some close advisers favouring José Mourinho.
Guardiola was so surprised when approached by Laporta, that he told him he would never dare hand over the reins of a club like Barcelona to someone with no top-flight coaching experience. Yet Xavi, 30, was never in doubt about the capabilities of the man he once wished to emulate and later played alongside. "I believed in Pep. He is a committed, meticulous, enthusiastic person. He has such tremendous conviction in his beliefs and the ability to transmit all that energy to you.
"I know there were doubts because of his lack of experience, but if someone comes from outside Barcelona, you have to show them how everything works. Pep knows what he has to do, how the players feel and the pressure they are under. He is exactly the right man for the job, but even the most optimistic would never have imagined things turning out as well as they have."
What, then, is Guardiola's secret? "He's very calm, doesn't push too many things on you," Xavi said. "He encourages players to enjoy themselves on the pitch, and make the most of the privileged lives we have. Pep's emphasis is on keeping possession, moving the ball around quickly. He gives us three or four key points about the opposition, how they are going to play and how we will need to react. We're talking ten minutes maximum. More than anything, he looks at concepts."
If the resulting trophies have made Barcelona's style of football fashionable, Xavi reasons that talent remains the key factor in the success story: "Natural ability and talent are more valuable than physical prowess. You could put out 11 physical players, but it wouldn't be enough to win. It has always been the case." Few footballers have proved that point with the same thrilling consistency as Barcelona's No6.
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