It’s the sort of tale that historians love, the sort that spans centuries and weaves together past, present and future.
It was in Rome on May 27 of this year that FC Barcelona won the European Champions League, but the foundation for the Catalan club’s triumph was set 307 years ago, in 1702.
That’s when workmen in Barcelona completed a two-story stone farmhouse that still stands today. La Masia, they call it, and it is nothing less than the soul of FC Barcelona.
It was where architects more than half a century ago laid out their plans for the giant Camp Nou, Barcelona’s magnificent home stadium which, with a capacity of 98,772, is the largest in Europe and stands nearby.
Thirty years ago, in 1979, La Masia began a new incarnation. It became the primary residence for young players being groomed by Barcelona for future success.
Very young players.
The Barcelona team that defeated Manchester United in the May final in Rome is a virtual blueprint for the way a successful soccer team should be built.
The team’s coach, Josep “Pep” Guardiola, and seven of the 11 Barcelona starters that day passed through La Masia on their way to international stardom.
* Defender Carles Puyol, 31, joined in 1995 at age 17.
* Midfielder Sergi Busquets, 21, joined in 2005 at age 17.
* Goalkeeper Victor Valdes, 27, joined in 1995 at age 13.
* Forward Lionel Messi, 22, joined in 2000 at age 13.
* Midfielder Andres Iniesta, 25, joined in 1996 at age 12.
* Midfielder Xavi, 29, joined in 1991 at age 11.
* Defender Gerard Pique, 22, joined in 1997 at age 10.
How does Barcelona find such players? What does it look for? Where does it look? How does it persuade their families to allow them to relocate to Barcelona? How is the La Masia magic accomplished?
According to Joan Laporta, the 47-year-old president of FC Barcelona, it all comes down to having a philosophy as a club (Barcelona is owned by its 162,979 members), having a soccer identity as a team, and believing in tradition.
In an interview in Beverly Hills on Friday, Laporta traced the origins of the 109-year-old club’s current success to 1973, when Dutch great Johann Cruyff joined the team.
Cruyff, a three-time European player of the year and the ultimate exponent of “total football,” changed everything.
As a Barcelona player and later as the team’s coach, Cruyff developed “the way that we express our identity,” Laporta said, the style that Barca teams employ at every age level.
He created the “dream team” that won the club its first European championship, in 1992. The captain of that team was Guardiola, a gold medal winner for Spain at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and a player who had joined La Masia in 1984 at age 13.
Barcelona’s playing style, inherited from Cruyff, is all about possession, short passing, movement off the ball, one- and two-touch attacking soccer, and pressuring the opponent when the ball is lost.
The first team plays that way and so does the youngest of the club’s many youth teams.
German national team Coach Joachim “Jordi” Low, in a recent interview with England’s World Soccer magazine, recognized the importance of such consistency.
“I was in Barcelona and I saw the under-17 team play a game in training against the first team,” Low said. “I didn’t see any difference. Seventeen-year-old players from Barcelona with perfect technique, perfect position, perfect speed.
“Of course, maybe they did not have the 100% motivation of the professionals, but I saw something special. They practice in training from the age of 12, 13, 14, so when they go into the first team they know what they have to do.”
Most of those who come to La Masia are from Spain, but Laporta said Barcelona employs about 50 scouts worldwide who look for players with something unique.
“In order to express our identity, we have to love football and that means that we understand football in a particular way,” he said.
“We are searching for players everywhere, especially in Cataluna, but also in Argentina, Brazil, Africa as well, the countries that are producing players.
“It is important that when they arrive they have a particular talent that would allow them to be a player for Barcelona.”
Laporta says he believes Barcelona can repeat its success of last season in years to come.
La Masia virtually guarantees it.
“We think that we can replicate it,” he said. “We see that in our youth teams there are players who could be maybe a new Iniesta, a new Xavi, a new Busquets, a new Puyol.”
“There are three, four, five players who are at the top level already,” he said.
Those who doubt that assertion should take note of some names. They will be heard from soon.
* Spanish forward Bojan Krkic, 18, who joined La Masia in 1999 at age 9.
* Israeli winger Gai Assulin, 18, who joined La Masia in 2003 at age 12.
* Mexican midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos, 19, who joined La Masia in 2002 at age 12.
The list goes on. The tradition continues.
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Barcelona’s trophy cabinet
FC Barcelona has won 69 trophies in its 109-year history. The breakdown, with most recent victory in parentheses:
3 European Cups/ Champions League titles (2009)
4 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups (1997)
3 Inter-Cities fairs Cups/UEFA Cups (1966)
2 UEFA Super Cups (1997)
19 La Liga titles (2009)
25 Copa del Rey (2009)
11 Supercopa de Espana (2006)
2 Copa de Liga (1986)