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Dec 13, 2010

The kids are alright

The news that January's Ballon d'Or will be handed to one of the three musketeers, Andres Iniesta, Leo Messi or Xavi Hernandez, is significant in various ways.

Despite that opening assertion, it's not the first time that one club has offered up all three candidates for the prize. In 1988, if I'm not mistaken, Marco van Basten won the gold, with his Milan team-mates Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard slightly lower on the podium, and the next year the same guy took the top prize, challenged only by Rijkaard, again, and Franco Baresi.

In terms of Spanish football, this year's candidature is big news indeed, because the last time a Spanish-born player won the coveted award was back in 1960, amazingly enough. The prize then went to the Galician player Luis Suarez, who first made his name with Deportivo before moving on to Barcelona - winning the award in his penultimate season there - and then to Helenio Herrera's infamous Inter side, finishing his career at Sampdoria.

In case you hadn't done the maths, it's 50 years since Suarez won it - an almost bizarre statistic given the native quality that has marched through the ranks of Spanish football since. Other players maybe should have won it. Raul comes to mind, Pep Guardiola himself, but now it seems that one of the Spanish pair - if Xavi will excuse the adjective - is going to win it. One rather suspects that Messi won't take the laurels this year, not because he has been playing any worse, but possibly because of the World Cup, which is fair enough. One suspects that he would be more than happy to cede the title to one of his team-mates.

The other point to highlight about this year's award is that it is the first time three players from the same cantera ('quarry' - youth squad) have all coincided as finalists in the same year for the award. All three are products of Barcelona's legendary La Masia school, the factory that continues to churn out top players by the dozen.

Xavi turned up at the site when he was 11, Iniesta when he was 12, and Messi when he was 13. The fact that all three made it to the professional level is a testament to the ability of the people who run the place to persist with children that they truly rate, despite the difficulties that are associated with that age group, particularly when they are no longer in the comfort zone provided by their parents. People who follow football know little about this kind of stuff, in general. It's a topic rarely discussed.

For the general public, players appear at the age of 17 or 18 as if by magic, and very few appreciate or understand the emotional sagas that have most likely accompanied their often unusual teenage years.

My son is 15, but he already trains three nights a week, does another night in the gym, and plays every weekend. He has to fit homework around this schedule, and also some kind of social life. His mates already have it easier than him. He can't afford to be ill, or hang out late at night. Already at the level he is playing, he needs to be fit and strong. Normal teenage stuff just doesn't lend itself to that.

It's easy to see how so many kids fall by the wayside because they all have to make decisions, sooner or later - but my son isn't under the roof at La Masia. One of the boys from his team was signed by Barcelona last summer, though, and is now there, under the legendary roof, separated from his parents and apparently miserable. It's not a criticism of La Masia. It's a completely normal state of affairs.

The story goes that when Messi turned up in Barcelona with his father, at the invitation of the club, it was still touch-and-go as to whether he would really stay. The club had offered to pay for the boy's hormone treatment, and to look into job possibilities for his father. But personnel at the club from that time all recall Messi as looking like he would never last the famous nine days that the club had calculated for a final decision to be made. Apparently he just sat in a corner of La Masia's reception area, looked at the floor and spoke to no-one. When his mother flew over to see if she could help out, and then was forced to return for work reasons, Messi begged to return to Argentina with her. Whoever persuaded him to stay - and most people credit Carles Rexach with that - deserves some kind of award, too.

His Ballon d'Or colleagues had a hard time of it, too. Andres Iniesta, who came from Fuentealbilla, in the province of Albacete, spent most of his first year in tears, and refused to eat for the first two weeks he was there. He still looks vaguely undernourished, but was apparently also close to packing the whole thing in, and has since admitted that if there had been the internet back then, it might have been easier.

Xavi, whose parents lived in nearby Terrasa, found matters a little less stressful, but his rather introverted nature and reluctance to talk things through also caused problems. And here they are, years down the line, with one of them about to join the list of legends. Well, Messi already has, but I rather suspect that Xavi will win it this year, and perhaps deservedly so. When did he last misplace a pass? 2005?

These are three of the 442 players who have gone through the Masia system since it was inaugurated some 30 years ago; 41 of them have gone on to make their debuts with the first team, and 38 others made it to top-flight status. That leaves 363 who fell by the wayside, although I don't know the figures for those who made it professionally outside of the Spanish first division. Two of the most prominent are Cesc Fabregas and Mikel Arteta, but that still leaves 361 to account for. There are a whole lotta casualties out there. The affective/emotional side of football development is still a topic seldom discussed, but the better managers and clubs understand its crucial influence.

As we know, Xavi didn't fall by any wayside, and he continued to do things right on Sunday night, when his team scored another five goals without reply for the second home league game running and for the third time in their last four home matches. They scored them against Real Sociedad, another team whose philosophy of cantera has paid dividends over the years, but whose policy imposes a type of geographical limitation on recruitment that Barcelona have never concerned themselves with.

Well though Real have started the season, there was an almost depressing abyss between the two teams on show, with the home side's metronomic passing and quick-step triangulation running the visitors dizzy. As Real's manager Martin Lasarte commented afterwards, the way that Barcelona play not only erases all possibilities of your playing football against them (because you never get the ball), it also reduces the chances that you might have to bother them physically, to knock them off the ball. Indeed, every time that a visiting player was poised to make a legitimate physical challenge on Sunday night, the ball was gone. Watching the game through gritted teeth with a mate of mine, we both cheered and became absurdly excited on the few occasions Real actually won the ball and managed to keep possession for more than a few seconds. Barcelona kept it for 80% of the possession game, according to the official statistics.

The other hugely significant fact about Barcelona's success is not so much their ability to keep the ball but the ferociously efficient manner in which they win it back. They may not be remembered for this, in years to come, but it is the one quality that most separates them from the Dream Team side. Cruyff's soldiers had good tacklers too, but it was not such an integral part of their strategy. This present team just reduces you to misery. You could see the resignation on the Real Sociedad players' faces towards the end - a sort of shoulder-shrugging resignation. Can anyone stop this lot? I'm beginning to wonder.

The two sides are nominally competing in the same league. Zaragoza might say the same after being similarly swiped aside by Real Madrid, 3-1 in La Romareda. Javier Aguirre, back from Mexico for his latest challenge, is yet to see his new side show concrete signs of recovery. Gregorio Manzano might be saying the same thing, after seeing his Sevilla side well beaten at home by Almeria (3-1). Sevilla's appalling form - that's now five defeats on the trot, European games included, with three consecutive home defeats - is one of this season's enduring mysteries.

Another mystery, although perhaps that's a little unfair, is Espanyol's unexpected presence in the Champions League spots, still a fact of life despite losing 2-1 in San Mames on Sunday night. Next weekend they finish up the pre-Christmas programme - the league takes its traditional break until the first week of January - with the Catalan derby, at home to their Barcelona-based neighbours. It would be news indeed if they could put Barcelona off their stride, because at the moment it's only a hostile occasion such as this that might have any effect on the state of footballing nirvana that Guardiola's men have attained.

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