Not so long ago, Barcelona made history by fielding an entire team of players who had graduated through the club’s famed ‘La Masia’ youth system.
It was November 25, 2012 and Barca ran out comfortable winners at Levante, with goals from Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas securing a straightforward 4-0 triumph for a team also containing Victor Valdes, Martin Montoya, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Pedro.
Back then, less than five years ago, La Masia was at the height of its fame and Barça were the global benchmark for youth development.
How times have changed. The Nou Camp club have now become a buying club rather than self-sustaining, with many of the players who appeared in that game at Levante departing and being replaced by costly imports.
When they finished last season by winning the Copa del Rey with a 3-1 victory over Alaves, the Catalan club’s 18-man squad featured just five players from La Masia, and their reputation for developing and promoting homegrown talent is in danger of being well and truly lost.
Indeed, that worrying trend has been continuing apace this summer, with two of the youth team’s brightest prospects deciding their futures would be better served elsewhere.
The rapid departures of Jordi Mboula to Monaco and now Eric Garcia to Manchester City is a devastating indictment, suggesting that even the best players within La Masia are losing faith in Barça’s ability to develop young talent.
You can understand why. Since that victory at Levante in 2012, only Sergi Roberto and Rafinha have made the leap from the youth ranks to the first team, while Mboula and Garcia have joined the likes of Sandro (recently signed by Everton), Marc Bartra (Borussia Dortmund), Alex Grimaldo (Benfica) and Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich) in heading through the exit door.
The club is clearly aware of the issue, and understandably concerned. The imminent recruitment of Gerard Deulofeu, in fact, is the first step at attempting to reverse the process.
As a youngster, flamboyant winger Deulofeu was a major star in Barça’s youth ranks, regularly shining for the club’s B team and making a handful of appearances for the senior eleven.
But was not given a real chance to progress any further, joined Everton, Sevilla, Everton again and then AC Milan in an attempt to spark his career, and is now close to being brought back to Camp Nou in a bid to prove that the values of La Masia have not been abandoned and that young players can find a route, however tortuous, to the first team.
Deulofeu’s return may be a largely cosmetic measure, attempting to reassure disgruntled fans that locally reared boys can still make it. But the appointment of Ernesto Valverde is a far more fundamental and significant step, with the former Athletic Bilbao coach getting picked for the job of succeeding Luis Enrique partly because he has an excellent record of developing young players.
Inaki Williams, Aymeric Laporte and Yeray Alvarez were among the youngsters who flourished in Bilbao under the command of Valverde, who will now be expected to achieve similar feats with Barça’s most promising youth performers.
It helps that Barça’s B team has just earned promotion back to the Segunda Division, meaning their rising stars will be testing themselves and improving at a strong level of competition.
It should be noted, however, that Valverde has been working in an extremely different environment at Athletic, whose long-held policy of only recruiting Basque players effectively forces them to give youth a chance.
Barça, of course, are not burdened by that restriction, and have the financial resources to snap up more or less anyone they want.
Their recent forays into the transfer market have rarely been successful, though, with expensive signings such as Arda Turan, Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes faring badly and leading an increasing number of fans to question why La Masia graduates were not given a chance instead.
Perhaps it’s time to turn back towards La Masia, trust Valverde to develop the players he is given and put away the cheque book. If they don’t take that step, a significant part of the club’s essence will continue to decay.
Security is at the top of everyone’s minds in Rosario, Argentina these days.
On Friday, soccer superstar Lionel Messi will be married there to Antonella Roccuzzo at a lavish celebration bringing together some of the world’s best-paid soccer players, just up the street from one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.
Some 21 members of the hugely popular FC Barcelona team, including Luis Suarez and Neymar, as well as stars like Gerard Pique – accompanied by partner Shakira, perhaps more popular than the Catalan defender himself – will be flying into this port city 180 miles (300 kilometers) north of Buenos Aires.
The luxurious City Center casino-hotel complex, where guests will stay and the ceremony is expected to take place, borders a poor neighborhood known as the birthplace of the bloody drug gang Los Monos.
“Messi’s marriage – like the casino’s presence in the neighborhood – is a metaphor for inequality,” provincial official Carlos Del Frade, author of several books on Rosario’s exploding drug trade, told AFP.
A mere 400 yards (meters) from the bright lights and neon of City Center, two people on a motorcycle opened fire June 17 on four women belonging to Los Monos. The attack claimed the life of Petrona Cantero, 56, the sister of Ariel Cantero, the historic leader of Los Monos, who is now serving a prison sentence.
Drug gang-linked violence has claimed more than 1,000 lives in the past five years in this gritty port city, Del Frade said.
Last year, the homicide rate in Rosario was double the national average of seven per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a report from the Ministry of Security of Santa Fe province, which includes Rosario.
In the Las Flores neighborhood, just behind the City Center complex, Los Monos holds virtually total power, according to Del Frade, who said the gang amounts to the “de facto government” there.
Historically, Rosario has long had a strong working class, and today’s violence stems largely from widespread unemployment, political scientists and economists say.
Messi’s father, a metalworker here in the 1990s, emigrated with his family to Barcelona in 2000, amid the grave economic crisis then facing Argentina.
Today, the government in Rosario says it feels confident the safety of the illustrious visitor and his guests can be assured, regardless of the high crime rate.
“Rosario is prepared for the wedding,” city administrator Monica Fein told AFP. “Lionel chose to come get married here because it is his hometown and he feels comfortable here and we will do everything in our power to make it so.”
For now, the details of the planned security operation remain closely guarded.
Last week, local officials met with representatives of the Messi family, but no information leaked out, including on the location of the meeting itself, which was changed at the last moment to keep journalists away.
Gustavo Leone, a Rosario official, explained that this was “a private event.”
He added that if some guests want to visit Messi’s city a private tour will be arranged, but only under conditions of strict security and confidentiality.
Some local residents, people who know every twist and turn in the city’s streets, cannot understand the decision by the soccer star – who made some 70 million euros last season, according to the Eurosport sports network – to hold his wedding celebration in such an unsafe area.
“The truth is, I’m surprised they’re doing it here, considering that Messi is one of the best-paid players in the world. I just can’t believe it,” Micaela Llane, a 24-year-old secretary here, told AFP.
Locals have been following the preparations as if they were all expecting to be invited, so they know all about last-minute changes to the plans.
“The other hotel (the five-star Puerto Norte, where the celebration was to have been held) is in a much prettier area,” said Ariel Vallejo, who works for a private security firm.
And everyone dreams of showing off the best parts of the city where the soccer superstar – five-time winner of the prestigious Ballon d’Or award – was born.
Lionel Messi has turned 30 – and my word – what a 30 years it has been.
The Barcelona and Argentina superstar is widely revered as the greatest player of all time in many quarters, while others will debate that profusely.
But few stars have enjoyed such a decorated trophy haul as his, with his mantelpiece carrying eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, four Copa Del Reys, three Club World Cups, seven Spanish Super Cups and of course five FIFA Ballon D’Ors.
Copa90‘s video below shows you Messi’s 30-year journey from a prodigy in Argentina to one of the best footballers in the world. This is a must-watch!