If you haven’t seen FC Barcelona this season, then you may (or may not) be surprised to learn that this is a very new Barcelona team to the lazy, egotistical one from last year.
New manager, new players, new style—this team is both a hard working team that plays right to the end (as Espanyol and Shakhtar can both testify this week) under new boss Barca legend Pep Guardiola and a high quality one as well, building much of their play around superstar Lionel Messi.
Yet one of the interesting points of this "new Barcelona" has been the rapid rise and success of two of the surprise packages in their team, central midfielder Sergi Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma. Both players have graduated from the Barcelona B team (whom Guardiola managed before taking the top job) and have taken to playing at the top level impressively—most notably Busquets, who Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque is believed to be watching closely.
Now Barcelona youngsters stepping up and making the move up effortlessly is nothing new, for instance Xavi and Gabri came through together and looked like they belonged instantly, and before them, current boss Guardiola did a similar thing when he first graduated to Johan Cruyff’s star-packed side.
Carlos Puyol is another example, as are Lionel Messi, Bojan Krkic, Giovani Dos Santos, and Andres Iniesta to name but a few, so to say the rise of Busquets and Pedro is something new would be inaccurate.
But, the fact is that at FC Barcelona, and in fact right across the whole of La Liga, the home-grown players are given a chance at the very highest level from a young age—if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
If you look across La Liga, you can see home-grown talent in every team. Real Madrid, have Guti, Casillas, Sergio Ramos (I know they signed him but he is Spanish). Sevilla have Diego Capel and Jesus Navas; and Valencia have Vicente, David Silva, David Albelda, Raul Albiol. Need I go on?
In Spain they even have a club who actively refuses to sign foreign players, or even Spanish players, in Athletic Bilbao. This is a club who refuse to sign non-Basque players and actively give chances to Basque youngsters who come through the club’s "cantera" (youth team), and as a result you can see that the club have been rewarded in kind.
Players such as Joseba Exteberria, Ismael Urzaiz, Pablo Orbaiz, Asier Del Horno, Yeste, and recently Markel Susaeta and Javi Martinez have come through their youth system and have all helped Athletic Bilbao continue to prosper in La Liga as well as enjoyed prosperous careers themselves.
Could you imagine an English club doing that?
And perhaps that is the biggest problem; in England, youth is never given its chance, never given its head. When you examine not only the first teams in the Premiership, but also their youth teams, you see a fundamental lack of home-grown players and an over-reliance on foreign players, and especially foreign youngsters—mostly poached from Spain.
For example, at Arsenal Fran Merida and Cesc Fabregas were both poached from the Barcelona youth team, as well as another young player Ignasi Miquel. At United, they took Gerard Pique from Barcelona. At Liverpool, Gerard Bruna from Real Madrid. I could keep going, arguably through most of the youth teams but the point is illustrated.
Yet even in the first teams of clubs there is a lack of domestic talent, for instance, Liverpool had two home-grown players in their team against PSV. Barcelona? They had five playing against Shakhtar, plus Bojan Krkic who came on and Lionel Messi, who despite not being Spanish came through the academy.
Yet this is a problem which is not merely isolated to England, in Holland for instance, increasing numbers of foreign players are being signed by teams, which is strangling the success of what was previously the most productive and effective youth development system around Europe, as more and more foreign players come over to play.
Similarly in the Bundesliga in Germany, increasing numbers of foreign players are signed for the first teams of these nations, rather than the youth players being given an opportunity meaning many are left frustratedly waiting in the reserve sides of these teams.
Now far from being a rant at these foreign players, whose merits have been great and plentiful for the development of football both internationally and domestically, I merely want to point out that Spain as a nation, are investing and entrusting youth as their future and internationally are reaping the rewards from it.
At youth levels, Spain has for years been the predominant nation in Europe and this summer they deservedly claimed Euro 2008 at full international level. Is it a mere coincidence that Spain are achieving international success when in their own league, there are a high number of home-grown players playing week in week out?
So while other nations plot how to succeed at international level, perhaps they should take note of the Barcelona new boys Busquets and Pedro, because they illustrate just how Spain are doing everything right.