Joan Vila, one of the most Iconic coaches of Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy 2016, once said in an interview with Michael Burgess,
“People come to Barcelona to learn our ‘Magic secret’ like its Coca-Cola’s secret. But it’s not that simple. There is no secret. La Masia is a product of years of hard work by many different people who believed in the same idea and the system.”
La Masia has never been the same at FC Barcelona. Though people did not expect it to generate talent equivalent to it did in the late 2000s, the contrast is shocking. La Masia’s problems include the lack of using the loan market and the bottleneck created by it. Catalan journalists have always blamed La Masia for its inability to get rid of talent over the past few years.
The second major issue revolves around the first team’s success and the paradox created by it. The better the players an academy produces, the better the next generation has to be to break through into the first team.
The third and the biggest issue for La Masia is the influx of business in youth football. Every time an agent seals a new contract for a player, they get a commission. The bigger the fee, the greater the bonus. While agents are supposed to take care of administrative work for a player, they are also looking at such transfers as an opportunity to bring more commissions.
At the same time, we see the richer clubs happily use large sums of money for their youth academy, which helps the pull effect from the agents’ point of view. Real Madrid has spent over €100 million on the renewal of “La Fabrica” – their youth academy. Manchester City has also joined the spending spree with the opening of their academy at £22 million. The lack of stability and changing presidents and their visions have only worsened the state of La Masia over the past two decades.
Since Laporta’s presidency (2005), constant switches in personnel have continued to occur due to politics, scandals, and resignations. Barcelona’s ideas take time to teach to children. Coaches and leaders could not pass their wisdom on to the students before another would take over and change direction. Since then, coaches, teachers, and ideas have gone by, including the Iconic La Masia 360 project conceptualized as a residence and school for academy prospects.
In 2014, Barcelona was given a ban by FIFA for illegally signing players under 18, making things even worse. Due to these problems and the lack of playing time, many players like Xavi Simmons, Kubo, Andre Onana in a sea of talents chose to leave the academy over the next few years. Xavi Simmons, the most popular among the youth players, joined the academy at the age of seven but was snatched away by PSG at 16 with a lucrative € 1 million per year contract.
The solution to curing La Masia shows some future with Laporta becoming president again, he has promised to restore the reputation of La Masia. “La Masia will be our pillar, the backbone of our club’s values”, he claimed during the election campaign, understanding that La Masia has become too peripheral. However, it will take out-of-the-box thinking that eventually re-emphasizes its importance over time. Ronald Koeman as head coach is willing to allow La Masia prospects a playing opportunity. Laporta must now work on incubating that change, which will involve intangibles like patience, faith, and resilience to criticism from fans and media which will be complicated as it might require sacrificing short-term ambitions so that homegrown talent can mature.
Laporta is in a difficult situation as he handles Lionel Messi’s contract, the financial debt over a billion, and a forever critique of his actions all at the same time. Laporta could likely improve the academy to reduce the team’s reliance on the transfer market. He has already started making changes in personnel and placing like-minded people across the hierarchy at Barcelona, allowing a better implementation of ideas and reducing the inefficiencies at the academy and other parts of the team. The process has seemed to begin, and the path forward looks vaguely clear, and should everyone at the club look at its academy in the same way, that would be a fantastic start.