The Rise and Fall of Barcelona’s La Masia Academy

How the Catalan Academy Became a Victim of its Own Success

In November 25, 2012, Barcelona FC was playing away against Levante. On the 14th minute of the match, right-back Dani Alves picked up an injury and had to be replaced with Martin Montoya. This marked the first time in which Barcelona’s XI line-up was composed exclusively of academy graduates as Victor Valdes, Montoya, Pique, Carlos Puyol, Jordi Alba, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Ineista and Lionel Messi led Blaugrana to a comfortable 4-0 victory. More importantly, this victory became a symbol of La Masia’s successful youth promotion model, which contrasted, with Real Madrid’s Galacticos strategy of buying all ready established star players from other clubs. 
La Masia is Barcelona’s youth academy, which in the 1970s and 1980s started implementing the philosophies of youth coach Laureano Ruiz and head coach Johan Cruyff. When Ruiz was appointed as youth coach in 1972, he wanted to promote the idea of a quick play style that favoured fast passing and touches, as well as increased position of the ball. Ruiz also wanted to promote smaller and technically gifted players who were better suited for this style of play. While Ruiz wanted to impose this new philosophy into La Masia, upper management still favoured more traditional styles that prioritized taller and more physically imposing attacking players. Barcelona’s gradual identity shift wouldn’t fully take place until 1988 when Dutch coach and former Barca player Johan Cruyff became the Catalans’ head coach. Under his influence, Cruyff would start to use a possession based play style similar to that of the Dutch national team of the 1970s, and more importantly he would transfer these tactics and quick passing and distribution into the youth set up.  Cruyff would also take it upon himself to promote players from Barcelona B into the first team as soon as he thought they were ready. Under his reign, 32 La Masia graduates made their debut into the first team. In spite of this large number, only two graduates would become frequent first team starters, Albert Ferrer and Pep Guardiola. Guardiola retired from football in 2006, but that wasn’t the end of his journey as in 2007 he was appointed Barcelona B’s head coach, where he would start to perfect the legacy which Cruyff left behind. Under his management, Pep’s Barcelona B team would be mostly comprised of youth academy players who were accompanied with by a group of older players who were bought in as “foundational players”. The purpose of foundational players was to instil a winning spirit within Barcelona B team and to act as guides for the younger players. When Pep became the first team’s coach in 2008, he utilised La Masia to perfection as he would promote academy players such as Sergio Busquets to the first team and would buy back former La Masia players such as Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas who had been sold to Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively, under previous manager Frank Rijkaard. The Barcelona first teams that won the 2009 and 2011 Champions Leagues were composed of seven La Masia players, which greatly contrasted with the first teams that won the competition in 1992 and 2006, as both of those respective Barcelona teams only had two academy players each. Furthermore, these new players were perfect for Pep’s play style of keeping possesion and quick short passes, which would become known as “tiki-taka”. La Masia graduates would also go on to become instrumental in the Spanish national team’s successes from 2008 to 2012, as the Spain squad that won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 had the likes of Puyol, Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Ineista and Fabregas. Moreover, the Spain team of that era would use the “tiki taka” play style made famous by FC Barcelona. 

Frenkie De Jong poses with players of La Masia at Camp Nou during his unveiling on July 05, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Getty)

When Pep left Barcelona in 2012, he left behind a foundation for future success and further youth promotion. However, the “tiki-taka” era would also elevate Barcelona to become one of the biggest and most lucrative football brands in the world, as for the first time in its history the Catalans would become a more globally supported club than their arch rivals Real Madrid. To maintain the brand’s success and popularity, Barcelona had to maintain its success on the pitch. As a result, the board could not afford to allow the team to lag behind in order to promote youth prospects that may or may not become successful first teamers. As a result, Barcelona started to rely more on established players bought over from other clubs rather than La Masia graduates. Thus began the rampant decline of what was just 10 years ago considered the greatest youth academy in world football. A similar phenomenon would happen at Manchester United, which in the 1990s and early 2000s had a first team based around the “Class of 92” academy graduates which consisted of the likes of Gary Neville and David Beckham. Manchester United success ultimately led to reliance on transfer rather than youth promotion and to this day fans of the Red Devils are still waiting for the new “Class of 92”. 
By 2020, Barcelona was a shadow of its former self. A team that was once composed of exciting young players was now composed of aging players. Key players such as Messi, Pique, Vidal and Suarez are all 33 years of age, while Busquets and Rakitic are 32. Recent purchases have been underwhelming as both Antoine Greizmann and the young Ousmanne Dembele (who was touted as the future star of the team), have failed to live up to hype and expectations. Barcelona’s 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich served as a massive statement that Barcelona had been severely mismanaged for the past five years or so under current president Josep Bartomeu, and that massive changes needed to be made. If Messi does leave the club during this current transfer window, then it would be the end of the team’s greatest ever era. If Barcelona undergoes a rebuild, then it would have to endure years with little to no silverware. The upcoming election for Barcelona’s presidency slated for next year might be the start of a new La Masia based era for Barcelona, as one of the candidates, Victor Font stated that he aims to rebuild a new Barcelona team around La Masia youth players and he hopes to appoint ex Bara player Xavi as the head coach of this new project.