The philosophy at Barça's academy that has led to European glory
La Masia has produced another superb side with a system English clubs could learn from, its director tells Alasdair Fotheringham
"I am not sure if players like Iniesta, Pedro, Messior Xavi would have had any chance of making it to the top in England."
A stunning statement when you consider the performances of those players in the Champions League final humiliation of Manchester United on Saturday night, but an even more stunning one when it comes from the director of La Masia, Barcelona's youth talent academy, through which those stars passed.
It's no exaggeration to say that La Masia, an 18th Century farmhouse in the shadow of Barcelona's Nou Camp, lay at the heart of the club's 3-1 win over United and therefore Carles Folguera, who also recalls a 12-year-old Lionel Messi spending his first few days at the academy sitting in a corner barely talking to anybody, is worth listening to. Eight of the Barcelona players who played at Wembley had lived their formative years at La Masia – since 1979 Barcelona's boarding house, which has 16 teams in total – while a ninth, Oier Olazabal, was a substitute and a 10th, Pep Guardiola, was in the coach's dugout.
"The physical aspect is not so important compared with the ability to take decisions, to play the game fast, technique, capacity for anticipation," Folguera says this week when I visit him in Barcelona. "I'm convinced that in many clubs in the world, and I'm talking to you about England because I've seen it there personally, where physical prowess takes priority, I'm not sure Iniesta, Pedro, Messi or Xavi would have had any chance of making it to the top. What we do [with our students] is a balancing act, where the parents, the trainers and La Masia are all factors.
"If we have a talented young player who's a little bit wayward, we try to give him focus without losing that spontaneity. He mustn't lose that individuality, but he has to know he's playing in a collective sport."
No one was better at knowing that than Guardiola. "Pep wasn't fast [as a player], but mentally he could contribute things that the rest did not," recalls Folguera of one of his star pupils back in the day when he was mastering techniques that have since led his club to European domination.
Folguera is about to deliver a 90-minute lecture at the 700-seater conference hall in the IESE business school on the philosophy and ethics of La Masia and just like the Nou Camp was last Sunday, when the latest trophy was celebrated on home soil, the place is packed.
Folguera has been at the youth academy, poetically called La Cantera (the quarry), since 2002 and can therefore take credit for the 2009 Champions League-winning team which beat United in Rome and had seven academy products in it (Valdes, Puyol, Piqué, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi). Before his lecture he tells me it is special not only because of the senior team's success rate, but also because thinking outside the box and valuing all aspects of every player are critical.
Interestingly, comparatively little time is spent playing football: training takes around 90 minutes a day, with a 90-minute game at the weekend – half the time, Folguera says, spent by top youth academies in England. The rest is spent on education and a few leisure activities, with the idea being that given about 10 per cent of La Masia make it to the senior team (although another nine per cent play in first division sides worldwide), the years spent there for those fail to make the grade are not wholly wasted.
"One of the things that makes me proudest is that so many of our young players have university educations," Folguera points out. "In England, when a team selects a young talent, they don't take care of that side of things. We aren't just there to teach them football, we're there to educate them. "From 11 to 18 La Masia is their home, we have to get to know them and teach them, be their family."
He adds: "When our players are 13 or 14, a lot of things may not be clear, but by 18, they have to be much more self-reliant."
To find the future talents in the first place, Folguera says Barcelona have about 40 scouts scouring Spain and beyond. Reports are sent in, and a selection procedure begins.
"When you can find that talent and form it, whether it's a 12-year-old from Argentina called Messi, or Xavi, or Pedro, the idea is the same. Talent is there, but talent formed and shaped from very young ages helps form their sporting identity."
It is crucial for ease of communication, he agrees, that Guardiola and all his assistants were educated at La Masia. "He's lived through all the different sides of Barcelona: as player, captain, trainer... He's the first trainer we've had that I don't need to explain what it is. He was here for five years. When you're both speaking the same language, as it were, it makes things easier."
The world is kept at a certain distance, but La Masia is not a monastery. All of the 16-year-olds and upwards have agents, but they are not allowed inside. Similarly, although a strict lights-out policy sees plugs pulled on the electrical supply to computers at 11pm, Folguera sees no harm in his pupils watching Catalonia's slightly risqué satirical sports programme Cracovia. "They love it," he tells his IESE audience to hoots of laughter.
Folguera insists that both he and the Barça management are well aware with 10 championship titles in three years across the age groups that there is a danger of complacency. He adds: "Pep has a good answer if any of the players say: 'if I don't get such-and-such a title, it's not a problem."
"Pep says 'what do you mean? You owe every day to your club. You have to demonstrate what you're worth, every single day.'"