On this day, four years ago, a truly remarkable thing happened when for about 60 minutes of a match against Levante in La Liga, Barça fielded an all-Masia XI.
Valdes, Montoya, Pique, Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi, Pedro.
Wow, right? It’s a fascinating thing because it’s safe to say that this achievement, an unprecedented thing that should have been a lustrous one-off, has in many ways become misunderstood and inflated in many parts of the Barçaverse, to the mythical unicorn.
One of my rational Twitter accounts, of Sameer Riyaz, made this observation about Unicorn Day:
I don’t think I’ve come to resent any of Barça’s achievements more than this. Widely misunderstood, and the be and end all of Barça Twitter.
What did he mean? Not that he resents the wonderfulness of that hour-long moment that came to, in many ways, represent the apotheosis of everything Barça — home-grown coach, applying Cruijffian principles, leading an all-Masia XI, winning the match and dominating possession — but rather that it has become so misunderstood by people who don’t understand the equivalent of Haley’s Comet, and why it doesn’t come every Saturday nite.
La Masia, the place where future superstars are (hopefully) born, has become a cause celebre. The the U.S., when Barça was all the rage, the TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” did a piece on La Masia. During the transfer ban, a protest against the current board became a slogan, “La Masia No Es Toca.” The place that birthed the core of a magical team became a team within a team, rather than a font of hope and potential.
Articles such as “Barcelona’s new model is leaving La Masia behind,” or “Is Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy in decline,” coupled with already outsized expectation to create something impossible. Now people are tracking youth players, and the talented ones are being tapped for stardom at an early age. Should this not come to pass, it’s someone’s fault.
A lot of this finds a home in this all-Masia XI. The role and ambition of La Masia has become as misunderstood as those of possession and midfield play. Simply enough, La Masia doesn’t create superstars. It trains young players who, hopefully, have the talent to progress through the system to become good enough to make the Barça first team.
The distinction is important because not every young attacker who leaves La Masia for opportunity isn’t the next Messi, just as every young mid who leaves isn’t the next Iniesta. Presence at La Masia doesn’t guarantee success. Just ask folks such as Fontas, Bartra, Muniesa, Krkic, Dos Santos or Assulin. Good enough to be a pro and good enough to play for Barça are, particularly given the quality of the roster, vastly different propositions.
A pro can, like talents such as Sergio Araujo or Isaac Cuenca, get a job for a Liga team and make a good career as a player. Good enough to play for Barça means fitting into the best XI in the world, or elbowing your way onto a bench comprised of players who all start or have started for their national teams.
La Masia gives a player the schooling, the building blocks that will enable him to be shaped into a player. Where he goes from there is up to him, talent and fate. Pressure derailed Bojan Krkic. A knee injury derailed Cuenca and Muniesa. At present, hype and expectation are building up others into sure things, when they might be barely a sure thing for the next level of the acdemy system.
Hector Bellerin left La Masia to make a go of it at Arsenal. This made sense for him, as he wanted to become a professional and play for a team before the wall to ambition that was Dani Alves would see fit to hang up the cleats. And it worked for him. Where would he be now, if he had stayed? In the Barça XI. Maybe. It presumes that he would have been able to get the consistent playing time under high pressure that made him into a quality RB.
But with the durability of Alves, would such a thing have happened? We shouldn’t forget, even among the “results don’t matter” crowd, that winning matches matters. A Barça coach’s job is to win matches. If they don’t win enough, they will soon be able to add “former Barça manager” to their resume. Fans want a manager to settle on an XI, the best assemblage of players necessary to win matches. But they also want any player who subs for a gala player to be of like quality. And they also want a steady stream of promoted players, ALL boasting that quality, to be ready and waiting for stroll into the Barça XI, given their birthright by a coach who is playing football the exact right way, defined by a two-year period in the team’s history, with the exact right players. Will do. But first, let me put on shorts, a t-shirt a flip-flops, and ascend Mt. Everest.
If a coach can’t even rotate in matches, how is he supposed to work youth players in? Pedros and Busquets don’t come along every day, players who can slot into a Barça team and function as if they were to the manor born. The next La Masia player to make it has been Sergi Roberto, but think of his path, and how many deemed him not good enough, wondered about his place in the team and wanted to give his roster spot to a more deserving player.
Barça has had so many freak occurrences happen, that people are coming to accept the abnormal as an expectation. Lionel Messi. A treble. A tactical wrinkle that changed football. Another treble. Home-grown superstars. A collection of freak occurrences becomes a spectacular run of luck, not an expectation.
La Masia is a fantastic place because it makes FC Barcelona famous, and not just for the occasional superstar that comes from those halls. Other teams puff out their chests at the talents of their latest transfer, which lets culers stick out their chests at the fact that we raised them. In the U.S., there are top-quality college football schools that are said to produce pro players. Even the most successful of those schools might place two pros in the ranks of the best of the best, the NFL. That’s it.
A look at the list of La Masia players now working at other teams is stunning, and impressive. That list has nothing whatsoever to do with that dazzling day four years ago in November, when everything came together the right way, at the right time. La Masia, at present, has gobs of talent. Talent is potential, rather than a guarantee. Talent is the tools that allow a player to scrabble at the lock of opportunity. Marc Bartra has talent. But when Barça signed Samuel Umtiti, it was because Bartra didn’t have what it took to stick at that level. Umtiti does. What La Masia CB has had the ability to argue against the signing of Umtiti?
The job of La Masia is not, and has never been to produce first team players. That’s the mistake. The job of La Masia is to give young men with talent every opportunity to succeed at FC Barcelona. If they don’t, it isn’t because the system has somehow failed, or because somebody is screwing up. It’s because for whatever reason, that player didn’t have what it took. That happens. Sometimes, stuff just happens. Cuenca took a wrong step, picking up the knee injury that derailed his career. Krkic had the great misfortune of being born into the wrong body. Fabregas, Toral, Bellerin were impatient, and that impatience was rewarded.
But every player with talent at La Masia isn’t a future superstar, just as a bunch of guys stroking a ball around midfield isn’t football a la Barça. It’s part of the arc of a game. That day, that match, was stunning. It wasn’t stunning because of the all-Masia XI. It was stunning because those players, all from the same academy, were also the best football team in the game. You get one of those per lifetime.