Not a return. Just a guest post, precipitated by events.
Let’s build a mountain, an unassailable fortress of a mountain that will make even the most staunch Sherpa quake, and retire his crampons.
That mountain will be made of dudgeon, and shall be christened Mount Nonsense, a sentiment that caused the mountain to spring, fully formed and colossal, from the earth.
“La Masia no es toca.” They are stupid for messing up La Masia. People for whom La Masia might as well have been a Barcelona restaurant chain 5 years ago, are how hoisting everything on that pillar. From atop Mount Dudgeon, people scream about La Masia being ruined, many of them because of the mistake that assumes reality from a once-in-a-lifetime event.
There is a man in Florida, Richard Lustig, who has won the lottery seven times, netting more than a million dollars for his exploits. He even has a series of infomercials that tells people how to do it. You might as well advise on how to get struck by lightning. The amount of luck involved in winning the lottery even a single time boggles the mind.
On the current FCB roster are: Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Bartra, Pique, Alba. All are products of La Masia, and are the equivalent of Barça winning the lottery eight times — nine if you count Xavi, ten if you count Puyol. Talent like that coming out of an academy in its entire history, never mind a fairly compressed period, isn’t normal. It’s as far from normal as I am from being Queen of England.
Of the hundreds and hundreds of “gems” that get washed in the gold pans that are La Masia levels, the great majority of them are fool’s gold, the kind of stuff that isn’t legal tender in the nicest establishments. These semi-shiny trinkets might get a man a glass of wine in a small-town bar in a place like Gijon or San Sebastian. But in the big-city bars they just laugh at those dull nuggets, and ask you where the real stuff is.
High on the sins of the current board is La Masia and how it was mismanaged. Talented players are leaving, the wrong coaches being appointed, the wrong men being placed in positions of power. This is being called mismanagement, and it is. But is it the entire reason gems are no longer being culled from the mines at La Masia? We can’t excuse the errors they have made. The transfer ban was mismanagement to an appalling degree. Making Eusebio coach, then following that up with Jordi Vinyals, was mismanagement. But it’s worth applying a bit of perspectiveDo those errors make a player less talented, even as they might hinder his development in a way that makes first-team ascension more difficult? No and yes.
Gerard Deulofeu is off to Everton for a fee that has people calling Barça management stupid as a massive talent scuttles off to the welcoming arms of the Premiership, and a coach who always understood him. Six million is too low, scream the hordes, who are wondering how Chelsea can sell an unwanted bone like Juan Mata for a treasury, forgetting that Mata is a cherished member of the Spain senior team, rather than a head case who has failed under two different coaches.
It’s also easy to forget the low buyback fee, a number that if Deulofeu becomes something of what his talent suggests, would be a bargain many times over. But as fans tackle the ascent of Mt. Nonsense, it’s easy to dig those crampons into the bones of washed-up Sherpas as folks scramble for a summit that becomes higher by the hour. You can just see the summit, and then … “Selling Montoya is stupid. He deserved a chance.”
Is Masia not producing gems because of mismanagement, or talent? Within a season, Sergio Busquets became preferred to a man considered one of the best DMs in the game in Toure Yaya, who was subsequently sold to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola was, in the eyes of many, stupid for that, for elevating a bean pole to primacy over a man mountain who crushed all that dared stand before him.
Most of those same people are now hailing Busquets as untouchable, and a genius. Stupidity has a shelf life, measured in the distance that it takes a pass to travel, the microns between a keeper’s scrabbling fingertips and the goalpost as a shot squeezes between. “Did I say stupid? I meant genius!”
The first team of FC Barcelona is a murderers’ row of grim-faced thugs, talent that starts for national teams, captains those teams and isn’t interested in suffering fools or lesser talents willingly.
Trying to shoehorn its way into that lineage is a young player from La Masia. Is he good enough? How good does he have to be to make it into that charmed assemblage? Pedro wormed his way in, like Busquets, but he didn’t do it with goals. He did it by being willing to ram his head into a brick wall with the exact force his coach told him to. Questions are for the weak. Wham! Pedro isn’t a sub because of anything that he did. Pedro is a sub because Neymar is one of the best players in the world, where Pedro is an excellent role player. The reasons for Bartra not starting range from stupid coaches to not giving him enough time to shine, as if a coach would voluntarily suppress a player who could help the team excel. That time is there to be taken, in training, and Bartra, talented though he is, hasn’t done it yet. Take your chance. Would Vermaelen and/or Mathieu had been purchased had Bartra been that convincing? Valid ask.
La Masia doesn’t have to be touched by anyone. The real world does that just fine. Deulofeu, Krkic, Gai “next Messi” Assulin, Gio Dos Santos, Victor Sanchez, Isaac Cuenca, Jonathan dos Santos, the list of players who were good, but not good enough is a long one, forming the spine of many a lesser club in lesser leagues or small markets, teams that appreciate those gems as their bars accept less-shiny trinkets, happily.
The role of the Barça academy is huge. But that is true for any club that has one. La Masia isn’t any more or less special than the Arsenal, United or Chelsea academies. The job of an academy such as La Masia is to make professionals. The overwhelming percentage of those players will not be good enough for Barça. Remember when Dongou was one of the best players anyone had ever seen? La Masia is an important plank of success at FC Barcelona because a strong academy is essential to the club and its future. La Masia makes role players as well as superstars. It also makes carpenters and journeymen. It makes all of these far, far more often than it makes an Iniesta or a Busquets. It’s like the above Mr. Lustig having a bill come due and deciding, “I’ll just play the lottery.”
What if you win a Dos Santos instead of a Busquets? What if you win a Muniesa instead of a Pique?
The glory days, or even this Barça XI would have been impossible to assemble in the market. Messi alone would break the bank. Then being able to afford Iniesta and Busquets? No. You raise talents like that, and promote them. But not every talent is like those. The mistake would be to assume that a presidential candidate, or anyone at all, would be able to better oversee having the next Busquets come out of La Masia. As many mistakes and dunderheaded errors as this board has made, Sergi Samper is still Sergi Samper, and will be promoted to the first team. Talent. Adama Traore is bursting at the seams. So is Grimaldo. Talent will do what it is going to do, which is find its way to the top of the pile. Then talent has to stay there. Deulofeu has as much raw talent in one leg as Pedro has in his whole body. Why is one at Everton on a last chance, while the other just renewed at Barça? Talent gives you a chance. Now do something with it.
A club needs to believe in its academy. It needs to nurture, support and make sure that academy provides a sure path to the first team for players who are deserving of that exalted position. It also needs to provide the structure and the guidance for those players to have the best chance to excel. It is here that the former board failed miserably. Talents are leaving. Whether it’s because of the transfer ban or the cruel math that a youth player has to perform is another matter. But talent will find its way out. Seung-Woo Lee isn’t staying because of anything other than his clearly defined path to the first team, the stupidity of the actions that resulted in his ban notwithstanding. Fabregas wasn’t stolen. He left because he did the math, and knew he wasn’t good enough to compete with what La Masia had.
The mistake is to believe that a player deserves a first-team spot simply by virtue of coming from La Masia, and shame on a coach who doesn’t give him that opportunity. The other mistake is to assume that being at La Masia means first team is beckoning, and it’s a tragedy when a youth talent leaves.
Montoya is an excellent example, promoted under Guardiola. Enrique is his fourth coach, and he still hasn’t wrestled his way into a regular substitute role. Because Dani Alves. Montoya is good. He isn’t that good. Is he better than a punt of a player in Douglas? Enrique apparently wants to keep Douglas. Montoya is at Inter Milan, for no other reason than he wasn’t good enough. He said he left because Alves renewing and Aleix Vidal being bought made his decision clear. Indeed. Douglas will have his chance to be good enough or be jettisoned. That’s what football does. Here’s your shot. Be good or be gone.
Did Montoya deserve more chances, or should he have found a place where his talents can net him a first-team spot? What makes Montoya different than Jonathan Dos Santos? Both are talented, but not talented enough to crack the Barça first team. Both are talented enough for other teams, ensembles not vying for that highest rung of the competitive ladder. Would more playing time have given Montoya that needed edge, or just prove how good Alves truly is?
Jonathan Dos Santos is, along with his brother Gio, playing fine football for Villarreal. Is that a success or a failure for La Masia? Put another way, is Masia success defined by whether a player makes it at Barça, or whether he becomes a professional footballer somewhere in the world?
In America, big-time college athletics produces football and basketball players galore. A fraction of those talents make it into the professional ranks. What of the rest of them? Is the job of a college to provide athletes, or prepare its youthful charges for the rest of their life, whatever that might entail?
La Masia is a life school, not just a football school. It isn’t failing because it isn’t producing first-team talents, not if it is giving its players an education and a future, even if that future isn’t at Barça. After all, Villarreal needs midfielders, too.