There are few clubs as fascinating as Barcelona FC. Not only do they play the best football on the planet but they've been incredibly successful with it. Yet the real admiration for them does not stem from that but from the make up of their team that regularly includes some seven or eight players who have been with the club since childhood.
Barcelona's success in this respect is often attributed to a good youth system but, whilst fundamentally true, that is a simplistic way of looking at it. Barcelona have managed to do what they have because they developed a philosophy and weaved it into every aspect of how their football club is run: scouting, training, recruiting of players, everything is driven by a common vision.
Most of this work is carried out at La Masia, where Barcelona have established their cantera. Many have made the trek there to try and analyse the reasons for their success, but few have done so with as much interest as Marti Perarnau.
An athlete who represented Spain in the high jump in the 1980 Olympics, Perarnau subsequently turned to sports journalism authoring a number of books including Senda de Campeones (Path of Champions) where he looked in detail into what goes on at La Masia to ensure that so many players graduate to regulars at the Nou Camp.
Barring those who actually run La Masia, he is perhaps the most knowledgeable person to talk to about what has made Barcelona so successful.
How did your interest in player development begin?
I have always been very interested in the careers of young players to see whether they can fulfill their early promise or, in case they don't succeed, try to find out the reasons for that failure. In recent years I have been interested primarily in the work of the major Spanish canteras: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
When did you decide you wanted to write a book about this and how much help did you find?
In summer 2010 I made some special reports for a sports newspaper on the most promising then Barça B: Thiago Alcantara, Marc Bartra, Sergi Roberto, Andreu Fontàs, Marc Muniesa. After I had finished this report I realized I had a lot of good material, enough to structure a possible book on how players in Barca's La Masia are trained. I found a neutral attitude at the club: they were outstanding in allowing me access to some information, but also quite reluctant about how young people were trained. I felt fine with this as Barca were only seeking to protect their kids. They do not want the pressure of the media distracting them from their path.
In the 70's through Laureano Ruiz, a Barca manager who was tasked with sowing the seeds. Of course, over the last 40 years football has changed a lot but along the way Barca took some important decisions. With the arrival of Johan Cruyff in 1988, Barca's youth system was given a phenomenal boost: he implanted a unique idea of play, a training model, Established the kind of player needed...in short, the main features and characteristics of a Barca player today.
What makes it so special?
It is a sum of things: the idea, the model, teachers who have spent years and years leading the way, the special type of the player, and the institutional will of the club to fill the first team with players from their youth system.
How important are the results?
A lot. Pep Guardiola says that you cannot separate training and competition. You aren't there not to lose: you are there to win. Winning or losing is part of the comprehensive education and the club looks to win always, but through a set way to play. In this they are ruthless: you have to do everything possible to win, but with an undisputed way of play.
What are the facilities like?
The Ciudad Deportiva Joan Gamper (the name of club's founder) contains all of the football club, from Guardiola's first team to the kids' U8 team and the women's teams. There are a dozen training pitches and complementary facilities that are occupied almost every day of the season.
How are the players chosen? What skills do you want?
Technique, tactical intelligence and mental speed. These three traits are the ones that matter. Players with very good technique, who are able to understand the game (not just play, but also understand it) and speed of mind.
Is physical strength and height given much importance?
None. Barca does not care about the size of the player. The three parameters I mentioned are the only ones that matter. Not even if you stand out during a tournament. Indeed, Barcelona often signe kids that have gone unnoticed in a tournament, but have those three potential features.
What is the training like? What aspects are given more importance? Technique? Tactics?
By the time they reach the first team a player will be already have practiced over 10,000 hours of training and games: games of position, piggy in the middle, hours and hours of trying not to lose the ball and great technique. The tactic becomes second nature and players learn that this is how they see the game.
A lot of clubs to produce good players who cannot make the final step and fully realize its potential. However, Barçelona seem to do it over and over again. How do they manage it?
Pep Guardiola says that there aren’t any major differences between the Barca cantera and others. The difference that exists is that the club uses its homegrown and makes them play with the first team. The latter is true: there is a great boldness in the entire club. They are willing to do almost anything for young people to succeed. That said I do see that there are differences with other canteras.
Although you can never generalize, despite the talent and success is no arrogance among the Barcelona players. People like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pique and Puyol all seem very humble. Is this down to the way they are brought up at La Masia? What factors contribute to this?
There is a very strong desire at La Masia to educate all young people holistically, not simply to focus football. This is done in basic values such as effort and work, solidarity and commitment to the group, honesty and cleanliness in how they behave, humility in success and sobriety. Of course, this is what they try to teach but everyone takes what he wants from these values. Not all are like Xavi and Iniesta, but overall there is a high rate of well educated people.
There is much talk about how the players train, but what about thecoaches? How are they chosen and prepared?
This is a very important aspect for the future. They are chosen by club managers among graduates in physical education and football coaches. They hire those who seem better trained and talented, but in recent times the club has gone a step further and also set up a sort of school for coaches. It will not be easy to achieve, but they will try.
Inevitably, there will be clubs that try to copy the what Barca have done, but in my opinion, few will succeed unless they have a philosophy of play of their own. You can take something that the club is doing and copy it, but you have to put in their own ingredients. Do you agree?
Absolutely. The basic aspects of Barca’s system was to have an idea of how to play the game, create a training model, find the type of player that adapts to it and spend many years and energies in this operation. But each club should put in the pot their own ingredients, no doubt.
One way of clubs have tried to copy Barca is by hiring their youth coaches: Luis Enrique in Rome, Josep Colmer in Qatar, Rodolfo Borrell at Liverpool. Do you see this as a problem?
I think they are very different attempts from one another. Perhaps the most interesting one is that of Liverpool, where there are two former Barca coaches in Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, who lead the Academy and reserves. However they do so with a style of play and training model that is adapted to their realities and needs. It is a very interesting experience to observe.
This summer, Barcelona let a player like Oriol Romeu go. Why, given his talent? Have they reached a stage where they can start exporting players?
First of all, not all players fit into the first team. There is a significant over flow of talent and some promising player should be transferred. Secondly, Guardiola did not seem very enthusiastic about Romeu: he prefers other midfielders.
Historically, teams haven’t managed to keep producing generation after generation of great players. Do you think Barca will succeed? If so, how and why do you think so?
Probably yes, but another Messi, Xavi or Iniesta is practically impossible. However there are very talented players aged between 14 and 19, boys who are very promising. Not only that but every year refinements are made to make the system better and more sustainable. A great future for Barça’s youth players is predicted.
Thanks a lot to Marti Perarnau for his help. An English version of his book Senda de Campeones is in the pipeline but, in the meantime there is his on-line magazine that is bursting with intelligent articles that, with the magic of Google Chrome, one can enjoy even if you don't know Spanish.