Should Barcelona Rethink How They Run La Masia?

Guillem Balague@@GuillemBalagueFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2014

FC Barcelona's supporters unveil a giant banner reading in Catalan 'La Masia, don't touch it' prior to the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Betis at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Barcelona has been
Manu Fernandez

While Barcelona may well have breached the regulations with their signing of young players, the logic expounded by Corinne Szczur, the mother of one of the youngsters involved, is hard to refute.

"We’re talking about Barcelona here," says the mother of young French prospect Theo Chendri from Toulouse in an interview with La Vanguardia (in Spanish).

"What parent would close the doors of entry to Harvard to their child? This measure has penalised the child, not the clubs."

In truth, there’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the air, and it’s certainly a bit rich for someone like Arsene Wenger to try to snatch the moral high ground by saying Barcelona shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing, as per BBC Sport.

Ronald Wittek

This is the same Wenger, in fact, who despite knowing that contracts could not be signed before players were 16, invited Gerard Pique to look around the Arsenal set-up when he was 15. The same Wenger who had pre-contracts agreed, if not signed, by Fran Merida and Cesc Fabregas before they were 16.

I repeat, Barcelona have broken the rules and, as such, deserve to be punished, but here’s the rub: Most clubs have done the same, and as such, FIFA’s unprecedented firm hand towards the club is as harsh as it is unexpected.

But they are trying to teach a lesson because they really believe it is in the interest of the kids.

And is it?

Three South Koreans, two Cameroonians and one each from Colombia, Nigeria, Argentina, Paraguay and France are affected by the ban, and the truth is I can’t still make up my mind whether I agree with systems like La Masia or not. Let’s explore it.

Parents will always want their children to go to the very best places where they can fulfil their dreams. But many of us, myself included, know the pain of changing schools from one village to another, having to make new friends and getting used to unfamiliar surroundings.

Now imagine changing country and it becomes harder, and then changing continents, which makes it harder still, with language barriers and differences in culture, food and attitudes.

Of the 10 mentioned by FIFA, most of the youngsters had their parents with them. But not all of them, which backs the FIFA stance.

When Leo Messi arrived in Spain from Argentina, he also had his family with him, but nonetheless the experience tore them apart as they struggled to live their lives in Barcelona. After just six months in the Catalan capital, they were all, apart from Leo and his father, back in Argentina.

In the rarified atmosphere of a football academy, this would seem to be a rite of passage you have to go through if you have aspirations of reaching the elite. No pain, no gain.

Manu Fernandez

Andres Iniesta was just 12 years old when he came to La Masia and still recalls how he "cried rivers" because of the acute homesickness he endured. So did Pep Guardiola, and many junior team coaches will tell you that there have been many players, in fact, who have been unable to deal with it and have had to leave.

Among them is Diego Capel who, aged just 12, could not bear to be away from Andalucia, leaving La Masia after less than a year to go to Sevilla, where he went on to build a career. He later joined Sporting Clube de Portugal where he now plays.

And if you were the parent of a boy who showed the sort of promise that looked like it could take him right to the top, would you stop him? Should you stop him?

Last week, support for a radical change in the Academy mentality came from Laureano Ruiz, one of the pioneers of the Barcelona style, even before Johan Cruyff, and one of the first coaches to look at the process of picking young players with more of an eye on technical skill and ability rather than physical strength.

He maintains, quoted in Marca (in Spanish), that kids should not arrive before they are 16 years old, and I have to say that I tend to agree with him.

But how do you steal a child’s dream? The suggestion from Barcelona is that up to the age of 16, a child—in, say, Korea—would not receive the same standards of training, levels of learning and competition.

Certainly in La Masia, they receive the best of everything, with coaches, psychologists (See? They are needed for a reason), educationalists, you name it. That said, I still believe that 16 should still be the minimum age of arrival when they have a clearer idea of what they want from life.

Perhaps what Barcelona should have done, and perhaps should still do, is ask themselves this question: Are we doing the right thing?

They could have done this by talking to the kids who were there, those who had made it and the vast majority who hadn’t, to players and to coaches, and then agreed or disagreed, according to their findings with FIFA, whether the rules were fair or not.

Instead they have taken the opportunity to become defensive, more reactive rather than pro-active, once again casting themselves as victims, creating a situation where meaningful discussions on the matter that should take place, won’t.

And that’s a real shame. An opportunity lost.