Barcelona's technical staff
all agreed - the little Argentine kid who had just completed a
trial for the Spanish club was one of the most exciting
prospects they had seen.
"Excellent shooting ability, extremely fast with the ball at
his feet, low centre of gravity that gives him great balance on
the move, intelligent and mentally astute," read their report.
It was early October 2000 and the talented 13-year-old about
to win a coveted place at the club's youth academy was future
double World Player of the Year Lionel Messi.
Now 24, Messi is the most famous product of the academy
known as "La Masia" after the quaint 18th-century Catalan stone
farmhouse next to the Nou Camp stadium where a handful of
recruits were housed until earlier this year.
More than three decades after the original Masia opened its
doors to young hopefuls, the academy is beginning a new era with
the official inauguration of the "New Masia" residence at a gala
ceremony on Thursday that included a spectacular firework
display and was broadcast live on YouTube.
The Spanish and European champions have spent around 11
million euros on the box-like steel and
glass-fronted building, which stands next to the pitches where
the first team train and will initially house some 80 young
athletes from the club's various sports teams.
The list of past football academy graduates is impressive,
starting with current coach Pep Guardiola, who moved into the
Masia in 1984 as a 13-year-old, leaving his home village of
Santpedor around 70 kms from the city.
The former Barca and Spain midfielder paved the way for such
names as current club captains Carles Puyol and Xavi, Andres
Iniesta, who scored the goal that won Spain the 2010 World Cup,
and former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, a team mate of Messi's
in the youth ranks.
In all, 11 of the current first-team squad are products of
the Masia and Barca are often compared with great rivals Real
Madrid, where goalkeeper Iker Casillas is the only Real youth
academy graduate with a regular place in the starting 11.
English Premier League champions Manchester United, who lost
to Barca in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals, have six
academy players in their first-team squad.
Alex Garcia coached Messi and Fabregas, as well as current
Barca and Spain centre-back Gerard Pique, when they were 15-year-olds before leaving the club earlier this year to coach Georgian
side Dinamo Tblisi.
In an interview with Reuters, Garcia remembered Messi and
Fabregas as "very quiet and receptive lads but very competitive
and mature on the pitch."
"They were so competitive in training that when they lost
they went off to the showers in an extremely foul mood
considering their tender years," Garcia said.
"The important thing is that they have retained the same
character as back then.
"That's one of the secrets of why they are currently among
the top 10 players in the world.
"Obviously when you have played together for many years this
understanding lasts for ever, as we are seeing currently with
the first team."
Rosario-born Messi, who attended Thursday's ceremony along
with his team-mates, came to Barcelona with his family and was
never a Masia resident but believes spending time there with the
other recruits helped him adapt to his new life.
"I ate there every day and spent many hours there so I have
a lot of memories," he told a news conference on Tuesday before
Barca's Champions League game against Viktoria Plzen.
"It helped a lot in my adaptation and now that I have seen
the new building it seems impressive and spectacular."
The emphasis on developing talent from within the club is
known as "the policy of the youth academy rather than the
wallet", highlighting the economic benefits of the academy.
Graduates form the basis of the first team but Barca has
also been one of the biggest spenders on players over the years,
including paying around 80 million euros for Fabregas and Chile
forward Alexis Sanchez in the close season.
Players who pass through the academy, known in Spanish as
the "cantera" (quarry), are imbued with Barca's unique brand of
stylish, possession-based football, most recently on display in
the game against Plzen when Barca had more than 70 percent of
the ball and the Czech side failed to muster an attempt on goal.
As well as honing their football skills, recruits from Spain
and beyond lucky enough to win a place at the Masia undergo an
intense programme of education which officials say produces more
rounded individuals who have a better chance in life if they
fail to make it as a professional athlete.
Carles Folguera, a former roller hockey goalkeeper who took
charge of the Masia in 2001, told Reuters on Thursday the main
advantage of the new facility was that the training pitches,
medical services and academy staff were all on one site.
As to whether 'New Masia' would help unearth the next
Messi, Folguera was realistic.
"That's going to be tough," he said with a smile.
"A Messi comes along only once a century and it has been our
good fortune to be able to enjoy him.
"What we need to focus on is making sure that all the kids
who come here, whether they are budding Messis or not, are able
to become a source of pride for the staff and for the Barca fans
and that they are filled with desire to do things well."
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