BY PAUL GRECH
For all the triumphs they have claimed in a decade filled with success after success, there are still some results that are looked at with added pride. The humiliations inflicted on Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, for instance, or the relentless manner in which they won the World Club Cup against Santos and River Plate.
Yet, Barcelona’s fourth Champions League win will always be their finest. It came against Manchester United in a game that was nowhere near as close as the 3-1 score line seems to suggest. United struggled to get close to the ball whilst Barcelona did as they pleased. Only some casual finishing limited the damage.
It was a game that moved Sir Alex Ferguson to claim that “they’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that.”
What made the game particularly special was that seven out of the eleven starters came from the academy at La Masia. This underlined just how much this wasn’t just any other win but one that really embodied Barcelona’s Mes Que Un Club motto.
What has been forgotten from that game is another part of Ferguson’s post-match reaction; a rather stark warning. “But how long it lasts … whether they can replace that team at some point … they certainly have the right philosophy, but it’s always difficult to find players like Xavi [Hernández], [Andrés] Iniesta and [Lionel] Messi all the time.”
Five years on and Barcelona are still winning largely by overwhelming teams with their attacking play. Yet, there has been a slight but unmistakeable shift in how the club is run. No longer is the Barcelona first team packed with youth team graduates; with their place being taken instead by expensive imports.
Lionel Messi is still their star player but sharing the spotlight in attack there now is Neymar (£71million) and Luis Suarez (£65million). When a replacement was needed for Xavi they opted for Ivan Rakitic (£15million) and, this summer, they went for Samuel Umtiti (£25million) to strengthen their defence.
There are many ideas over what has contributed to this decline but most seem to point to Sandro Rosell. Those big signings have mainly come about since Rosell took over as the club president. They have been funded partly by the £125million deal that he signed with the Qatar Foundation which broke the club’s long held stand against featuring any sponsorships on their shirts
“My personal perceptions – and, therefore, subject to mistake – is that the work of La Masia has been moving away from excellence since 2010 for one main reason: the lack of investment in coaches,” wrote the highly respected Catalan writer Marti Perarnau last year.
Perarnau is referring to the number of coaches that have been pushed out of, or have left Barcelona’s youth system during Rosell’s and his successor Josep Bartomeu’s reign, which is seen as symptomatic of the lack of harmony that exists. José Ramón Alexanko and his assistant Albert Benaiges, the men who had been successfully running La Masia since Guardiola’s time as Barca B manager, were both dismissed. They were the ones who ensured that Barcelona retained the same philosophy throughout the youth system but without them that link vanished.
They weren’t the only ones. Albert Capellas, a widely respected coach, opted to move to Brondby rather than remain at Barcelona, Enrique ‘Quique’ Álvarez Costas was dismissed whilst Óscar García Junyen was also compelled to leave. Indeed, his is probably the most indicative departure.
Garcia had achieved fantastic results with the Juvenil A and was earmarked as Luis Enrique’s replacement for the Barca B team. That never happened, allegedly, because he was a coach with close contact to Johan Cruyff and it was this humiliation that eventually led him to move away.
Worse, perhaps, is the fact that rather than Garcia they opted for Eusebio Sacristan. Although he too was a former player his beliefs were at odds with those widely held throughout the club. Rather than the possession based attacking football for which the club is known his focus was more on the defensive side of the game. His conservative approach was hardly the right preparation for players aiming to move on to the senior side.
Whilst culés found this attitude affronting it was nothing compared to the disgrace that was inflicted on the club when FIFA barred them from signing players after an investigation into their recruitment practices within La Masia.
The person that ultimately bore the bulk of the blame for this was Albert Puig who had been appointed by Sandro Rosell as La Masia’s co-ordinator.
Puig was behind an ambitious attempt to bring to the club first some of Spain’s brightest young players and, then, tried to do the same with those from overseas. In his zeal, however, he failed to adhere to the regulations and as a consequence landed the club into one of the most humiliating situations which also tarred La Masia’s previously immaculate reputation.
That, however, isn’t the main reason why players aren’t coming through any more. The biggest barrier is a lack of belief at the highest level. Tata Martino, the man chosen to replace Tito Villanova as Barcelona manager, never really gave them much of a chance. Similarly, and more surprisingly, Luis Enrique has also been reluctant. This is, after all, someone with a history at the club and with a past managing at La Masia.
It could be that the players coming through aren’t good enough. The struggles that the likes of Martin Montoya and Bojan Krkic have faced since moving away from Barcelona suggests that perhaps they aren’t. It could also be that given the club’s higher profile these days the path for future La Masia graduates is the one set out by Denis Suarez who will this summer return to Barcelona after spending two successful years at Sevilla.
Yet the feeling is that every time a player like Marc Bartra leaves the club complaining over the lack of playing time, Barcelona loses a little bit of the shine that made it seem so special.
Pep Guardiola once claimed that “there is no bigger victory than being able to debut a player from La Masia. It’s even bigger than winning a title.” That may have been true during his time at Barcelona but it isn’t the case anymore.
PAUL GRECH – @paul_grech