Barça’s plan B

Barcelona may take pride in giving youth a chance but the story isn’t as simple as some people make out. Ian Farrell reports

After three of their graduates made the shortlist for World Player of the Year, Barcelona’s academy was widely hailed as the role model for these turbulent times of recession and chequebook team-building. But while the quality of its best players is not in question, the exact quantity “produced” is open to debate.

Even by Spanish standards – where with squads restricted to 25 players, clubs tend to have to make good use of their junior teams – Barça put particular faith in their cantera. They currently have just 21 first-teamers registered, and that includes three goalkeepers and long-time casualty Gabriel Milito. Coach Pep Guardiola frequently has to dip into the lower ranks to fill the bench, and five players from the B team – currently in the third level Segunda División B – have seen action so far this season. All together, Barça would consider 12 of the 24 starters in all competitions to be “homegrown”.

But UEFA would say that this number is 11, according to their criteria of being registered by a club for at least three years between the ages of 15 and 21. In their eyes, the main credit for Gerard Piqué goes not to the club he represented from the age of ten to 17, but to Manchester United, from whom Barça re-signed the 21-year-old last summer, just as it is apparently Arsenal who gave the world Cesc Fàbregas. To Barça, there was a fourth graduate on that World Player shortlist; Arsenal and Sepp Blatter would call him a drop-out.

UEFA wouldn’t say Barcelona don’t deserve any credit for Piqué, for while he doesn’t count in the Champions League quota of four club-trained plus four national association-trained players in your “A” list squad, he does meet the regulations for the competition’s “B” list of young players (having been born after January 1,1987 and having spent at least two years with the club from 15). However, there are other recent alumni, like Oleguer Presas, who wouldn’t come close to making either count. The Catalan defender, a valuable squad member under Frank Rijkaard, did not join the B team from Gramanet until he was 21. Of course, he would still be mentioned when British commentators laud Barça’s commitment to youth.

The confusion comes from unfamiliarity with the B team system. It tends to be equated with our youth teams, and anyone with Barça B on their CV gets corralled together with the homegrown products. The rechristened Barcelona Atlètic took in 13 new players for the current season, but only six were teens promoted from the juvenil side; the rest, aged 21 or over, arrived from the lower leagues or other B teams.

 Players joining too late to be counted is a less emotive issue than that of youngsters leaving too early. Premier League clubs exploiting the disparity between British and Spanish employment law to sign their starlets has left president Joan Laporta casting the club as a victim, even going as far as suing Arsenal’s other young Catalan, Fran Mérida. But such taking of the moral high ground is met with derision from the English, who not unreasonably point to Lionel Messi, a Newell’s Old Boys prodigy until Barça “magnanimously” offered to pay for his growth hormone deficiency treatment. In terms of work required there may be a major difference between a 13-year-old with potential to be nurtured and a player like Fàbregas, deemed worthy of a first team debut just six weeks after signing, but the ethics of acquisition seem depressingly similar.

The oft-repeated justification that a player had to leave Barcelona in order to get a chance looks weak in the light of Messi, Bojan Krkic and Giovani all making the step up at 17, but then it could be argued that these early starts over recent years are a consequence of impatient kids being tempted away. If Liverpool’s alleged interest in adding 15-year-old Gerard Deulofeu to their 2007 capture of striker Daniel Pacheco proves to be true, it will be interesting to see if Barça are now better equipped to convince him to stay.

But whether Deulofeu remains at the Camp Nou to stand alongside Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, or whether he leaves to be bickered over like Fàbregas, it is undeniable that Barcelona have made their contribution. Whether they don’t get the credit – or the compensation – they feel they deserve, or whether they get too much credit for player who joined at 20, one thing is for sure: if their myriad levels, from the six-year-olds section of the FCBEscola up to the B team, can continue to teach and encourage accurate passing and tight control, then wherever players learn the rest, lovers of expansive football will be grateful.

From WSC 267 May 2009