Back in the 50s, La Masia de Can Planes, usually shortened to La Masia (English: “farmhouse”), was the place where architects and builders of the Camp Nou gathered to model and execute their project. Once the stadium was inaugurated, on September 24, 1957, the doors of La Masia were closed until a new purpose could be found.
After years of financial and performative struggle -Real Madrid dominated La Liga’s title-, a legendary generation of players like Johann Cruyff, Juan Manuel Asensi, Carles Rexach and Hugo Sotil, gave back the lost pride and glory to the blaugrana fans. On 16 May 1979, Barça won its first European Cup Winners’ Cup, and in the same year, the club, under the advice of Cruyff, began to invest in the club’s youth programme. La Masia was chosen as the headquarters of the project and was turned into a dormitory for young academy players from abroad.
A very few number of players have been accepted on the past thirty years. The excellence and ability required is rarely seen, but, among the exceptional ones who made it, top-class players can be found: Guardiola, Busquets, Sergi, De la Peña, Puyol, Xavi, Reina, Víctor Valdés, Gabri, Messi and Pique, Cesc Fabregas are notable alumni, to name a few. This factory of talent did not only transform the club; Spain won the 2010 FIFA World Cup with seven players who came from La Masia, setting a record for the most players to be provided by a club for a team in a World Cup final.
Main façade of La Masía.
What then, is the secret to be such an endless source of talent and excellence? First, the football technique transmitted creates a distinguishable, and extremely efficient, style of playing. Second, the ethics young recruits learn, has built a certain mentality and footballing identity/ideology that runs through the club till this day. Is not exclusively about the game; as Pep Guardiola said: “The player who has come through La Masia has something different from the rest, it’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child”.
Tiki Taka: Cruyff’s greatest legacy
Albert Benaiges, former coordinator of the Catalan club’s youth teams, indicated that what sets Barcelona’s academy apart is the insistence on always having a ball at the feet. “In all the exercises they do, whether it’s physical preparation or any other kind of training, the ball is always there. That’s what distinguish us from other academies and makes us very different from other clubs.” Said Benaiges in an interview with the website Reuters.
Short passing, movement and possession are the main characteristics of Barcelona’s style. Technical ability, efficiency, speed, acceleration, dribbling and vision are given more importance than physical strength, because what’s vital in the game according to this perspective, is understanding the geometry of the space on a football field. Tiki Taka, as it’s commonly known, became Barca’s style since Pep Guardiola became the manager of the team, inaugurating an extremely successful era (15 titles under Guardiola) and was latter adopted and perfectioned in the Spanish National Team by the managers Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque.
Johan Cruyff in 1974, the year the Netherlands lost the World Cup final to West Germany.
Tracing back the history of Barcelona’s dominant style, much must be given to Johan Cruyff, who laid the foundations for the future prominent game mentality and strategy. As Guardiola said “Cruyff built the cathedral, our job is to maintain and renovate it”. Cruyff, back in the 70s, became the greatest exponent and teacher of ‘totaalvoetbal’ -Total Football: a system where the management of space is paramount. The player who moves out of his position is quickly replaced by another one from his team, therefore, allowing the team to retain structure and order. The style was invented by Ajax coach Rinus Michels and conducted in the field by Cruyff.
As his team-mate, Barry Hulshoff, put it later “We discussed space the whole time. Cruyff always talked about where people should run, where they should stand, where they should not be moving. It was all about making space and coming into space. It is a kind of architecture on the field. We always talked about speed of ball, space and time. Where is the most space? Where is the player who has the most time? That is where we must play the ball. Every player had to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch and the system as a whole.”
Later, when Cruyff became Barcelona’s manager, he implemented this game’s philosophy into Barcelona’s style. Changes were demanded at the academy with the solely aim of breeding players with such a mentality deep-rooted on their way of playing, and La Masía began a process of regularly producing the players Cruyff wanted. With 11 trophies, Cruyff was Barcelona’s most successful manager, but has since been surpassed by his former player Pep Guardiola, who achieved 15. Guardiola took this style to the extreme and, some may say, constructed the best team in all Football’s history.
High defensive line usually applying the offside trap with midfielders providing support to defenders to make more passing options available; patience, preferring safe pass options looking for midfielders with the ball circulated anywhere on the pitch waiting for a gap to make a vertical pass; creation of most of the chances depending on through balls and performing give and go passes; and fluidity on the field between teammates. These are the four pillars of Tiki Taka, inspired by Total Football’s mentality and indivisible from Barcelona’s and Spain’s National Team actual way of playing football.
Cruyff’s legacy is not only seen in the factual way of playing, but in the underlying ethic and human values inculcated in La Masia and shown by Barça’s players on the field. The recruits who go through La Masía are taught to behave with civility and humility, two values that will awaken their capacity to learn, which is the capacity to improve. “Since his arrival, Johan had tried and succeeded in convincing the club to train all the junior teams in the same way as the first eleven – and to favour talent over physique.” Said Guillem Balagué.
Without humility and respect for the other, it’s hardly conceivable the kind of team work and solidarity seen in Barcelona’s and Spain’s teams. All players, as they must work as an entire system, have to be in possession of a special awareness that doesn’t care much about individualities and personal brilliance, but mostly about collective efficacy. Simplicity is another key value transmitted in La Masia. “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing,” said Cruyff once. Barca’s beautiful way of playing is neither carried out to embarrass the opponent nor to excite the watching crowd; it’s simply an effective and harmonious strategy.
“With effort and sacrifice, you can also make it. Just do it, it is worth!”. Photo from 1992 which was displayed for many years at La Masia (FC Barcelona academy), depicting Guillem Amor, Albert Ferrer, Josep Mussons and Josep Guardiola.
Technique and Ethos; Strategy and Values; Vision and Quality. The balance in training principles reveal themselves as the formula which has contributed to Barca’s outstanding and massive success as a Football team. The inculcation and factual implementation of Total Football/Tiki Taka principles has been only possible because of La Masia’s youth programme, as the same youngsters that are hosted under Barca’s roof during most of their childhood and learn to play this way, are the ones who have constituted the majority of the club’s first team on recent years. No other team on history has developed such kind of deep identification with a football ideology, and, while some could question the validity and necessity of following it to reach success, no one can deny the monumental success that Barcelona and Spain’s National Team have attained.