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In hindsight, it has to rank as one of worst decision in the history football. When San Lorenzo dithered about paying for the treatment that a kid by the name of Leo Messi needed, they were letting slip through their hands a boy who would go on to become one of the finest players in the history of the game.
That story is fairly well known but there was also a time when Messi wouldn’t have found an opportunity at Barcelona either. Not because of the expense involved in the treatment that he needed but because he wasn’t as tall as they expected players to be.
Johann Cruyff is often credited as the man who set up the youth focused philosophy at Barcelona but, in truth, he was building on what was already there. In fact, the man who began it all was Laureano Ruiz and one of the changes that he put in place was the abolishment of a policy where only players of a certain height were considered.
“When I arrived at Barça there was a sign on door of the coaches’ offices that said "if you come with a youth who is shorter than 1.80 meters, turn around!" he recalls. “This obsession with height wasn’t limited to one club but it was a general view. If they’d been born earlier none of Messi , Xavi or Iniesta would have made it to the first team.”
“And today it is still present. The shorter players have many advantages over taller ones when starting, turning, changing direction and so on. Movement in modern football plays a key role.”
“The tall players also have their advantages: longer steps, physical challenges, at headers, winning 50-50 balls. That is why the great teams in history were made of football players of very different sizes; the Madrid of Di Stefano , Puskas’ Honved , Santos of Pele, Zico 's Flamengo , Messi at Barca and so on.”
“Still, the best players are the shorter ones: Pele ( 1.70m) , Di Stefano (1.74m) , Puskas (1.67m) , Zico (1.71m) , Gento (1.65m) , Kopa ( 1.69m) , Seeler (1.69m) , Messi (1.69m) , Maradona (1.65m), Xavi (1.68m) and Iniesta (1.67m).”
Most of Laureano Ruiz’s playing career at Racing Santander and Gimnastica de Torrelavega before retiring when he was just twenty eight to focus on coaching. After a spell coaching Racing Santander’s first team, he began focusing on developing youth talent and it was for that purpose that Barcelona approached him in 1972.
Legend has it that a few weeks earlier Barcelona’s Juvenil A were playing the final of the Copa Catalunya against local outfit CF Damm (who were financed by a beer company). Spurred on by 15,000 spectators; they were expected to win and do so easily. But football rarely follows the set script and Barca lost 2-3. Agusti Montal, then Barcelona’s president, is said to have remarked “Something has to be done. This is unacceptable. I can accept a loss against a football team, but not to a beer company!”
Soon afterwards Ruiz was given the opportunity to work at Barca and what he did certainly impressed them because within two years he was in charge of the whole sector.
“Essentially, I arrived at Barçelona for what I had achieved. I was 34, but had been coaching since I was 15. What probably also played a part and influenced my move to Barcelona was that we beat them in the final of the Juvenil Championship.”
Whatever the reason, it was an inspired choice.
Ruiz, for instance, was the one who switched Barcelona to the 3-4-3 system. Talk of ‘switching’, however, seems to irritate him. “I did not change anything because when I arrived at the club there was nothing organized! It was hard work to create a footballing, social and human environment.”
Indeed, as with many other football men, Ruiz is not as impressed by talk of tactical formations that seem to fascinate those analysing the game. “Those numbers do not mean anything. A game system is everything that we have prepared. It is what happens in defense and attack, while the ball is "in motion" and refers to the strategy when the ball is "inactive"; the system when the game is becoming tactical and when there are delays in the match due to fouls, corners and so on.”
“So when I refer to my system of play, I stress: order, inspiration and fantasy.”
“That said, I introduced the system that today is widely used, with a broad front of three forwards - two on top and a "false striker" mostly operating behind those two. The players also got to know their position and tasks in the field simply by looking at the number on their shirt, for instance, "playing 9".
“I also introduced the pressing game for which I took inspiration from basketball. In fact my system of play was used even before I came to Barcelona, and it was already successfully practiced in the 60s for teams like Racing.”
Ruiz was also an advocate of having all the teams within a club should play along the same lines, an idea that was being popularised by Ajax. “First of all, I have to point out that youth teams do not have to train like the senior sides in the same way that teaching in primary and secondary school is different from that at university level.”
“What is important is that the style of play should be identical throughout.”
How is it, then, that children’s training should differ from that of adults? “In many ways, but I’ll mention only one: there are many coaches who believe that you should give children a great physical education and then, when they are 17, begin teaching them about football. It is a huge mistake.”
“Football technique depends on motor co-ordination, which starts forming much earlier than that age. For example, in a few months children learn the ability to "pronounce" correctly languages other than their own mother tongue, even if they’re unaware of its grammar and syntax. However, an adult, despite having studied deeply rarely ever achieved such perfection (the pronunciation depends on the phonetic co-ordination).”
“In short, football learning should begin early on.”
“My dream was, and I said this publicly at the time, that one day the all of Barcelona’s team would be made up of players from the "quarry" (cantera), working with my methods and with me as head coach.”
That final part of his dream might not have come true (even though he did coach the first team for six games when Heinnes Wesweiler was sacked in 1976) but otherwise his ambition was quite visionary. Seven of the starting eleven (and eleven of the match day squad of eighteen) that won the Champions League final against Manchester United in 2011 came through Barca’s cantera
Indeed, visionary is a phrase that you find yourself often repeating when talking about Ruiz. So much that there are aspects of his philosophy that are only just being accepted.
One of those is his insistence that youth players get a good education, something that many clubs seem to do begrudgingly. “It is essential that coaches worry for the education of the youth, not just their football. When I arrived at the club we had 147 youth players, 126 of them told me that they were neither working nor studying, they were simply focused on football.”
“I felt horrible and decided that everyone would have to work or study and do so at the best of their abilities. Otherwise, they wouldn’t continue at Barcelona.”
Given that his coaching and ideas helped shape the team that, in turn, has shaped how we view football, talking about what makes a good coach seems like a good point to conclude the interview.
“There are so many and they are all so different!”
“To mention a few: he must have knowledge of the game; judging situations and positioning of players). It is also essential to know if a player is worth the effort or not. And if it works, in what position he should be playing. Also, you have to know what problems there are and how you can correct them.”
“With respect to the tactical aspect, knowing how to put together the best team is vital. During games, analysing how it is working and deciding what corrective measures are needed like swapping players’ positions, varying the marking and generally altering the game plan.”
Analysing those final comments, it is possible to distil all that into two words: game intelligence. Because that aspect for which Barcelona’s players have become famous (among other things) is, essentially, also what makes their coaching so special.
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