El Tel: Cruyff's legacy lives on with Pep
More than three decades after La Masia youth academy opened its doors for the first time, a Barcelona side packed with its graduates will aim to cement their home-grown dynasty at Wembley this Saturday, by adding another Champions League trophy to their already bulging silverware collection.
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Few could have predicted the indelible impact the academy would have on the club, but having previously housed the architects charged with designing Camp Nou, La Masia would go on to provide the blueprints from which future generations of the first team were built.
Though it would become a breeding ground for Catalonia's finest, the origins of the club's academy are steeped in Oranje, not Blaugrana. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff experienced mixed success during his five years as a Barca player, but one of his final contributions proved his most telling as he convinced club president Josep Nunez to invest in an academy built in the image of Ajax's famous seat of football education.
There is no question that Nunez was able to make Cruyff's dream a success, though La Masia did not begin to bear its ripest of fruit until ten years after its creation.
When Terry Venables became Barcelona manager in 1984, the academy was still in its infancy and, while a level of involvement with La Masia was something the future England boss was keen to pursue, a need to restore the senior side to its former glories took precedence.
"La Masia was exactly the same when I was there, churning out talent," Venables tells ESPNsoccernet. "I brought Nayim from there when I went back to Tottenham because I really liked the look of him. I had originally wanted to be heavily involved in the academy but it all worked so well already, and it was important to have people running it who knew the culture of the area. The club were happy enough that I won the league and got them to the European Cup final so I wasn't really asked to dip into working with the academy."
Despite Venables' assertions that the Barca was bursting at its seams with talented youngsters, few were blooded in the senior side, and when 'El Tel' - as he was nicknamed by the Spanish press - delivered a first Primera Division title in twelve seasons in his debut campaign in 1984-85, it was a championship made in Caledonia not Catalonia, with Glaswegian striker Steve Archibald providing the firepower with 15 goals.
"It's one of those things you look back on and think 'how did I do that'?" Venables says about his time at Camp Nou. "I remember my first ever game with Barca was at Real Madrid and it was a case of 'you can lose all the games just as long as you beat Real Madrid' - there were masses of white shirts shouting 'Spain, Spain' to try to goad our fans.
"People always say 'Barcelona or Real Madrid always win the league' but that wasn't the case then. Barcelona were a bit of a sleeping giant when I arrived, but we managed to win the title in that first season, and by a really big margin [ten points]. We had Steve Archibald up front and he had superb season."
The domestic triumph was enthusiastically celebrated but attention quickly turned to achieving continental glory and moving out of the shadow of bitter rivals Real Madrid. Venables steered the club to the final of the 1986 European Cup, the Blaugranas' first appearance in the competition's showpiece since defeat to Benfica in 1961. La Masia's engine was beginning to whir, but the meeting with Steaua Bucharest saw only one alumnus participate in Angel Pedraza, and there was to be no night of celebration for the graduate.
"We'd had a terrific run through, in the quarter-final we beat Juventus, led by Platini," Venables recalls."In the semi-final against Gothenburg we were losing 3-0 after the first leg but we came back and won 3-0 at home; it went to penalties and everyone was so confident that even the goalkeeper Urruti came out and scored one.
"The final was the opposite. Steaua parked the bus and we had injuries; we just couldn't score. They did have a good side; players like Laszlo Boloni and Marius Lacatus formed the core of the Romania national team. We got to penalties having hammered at them and hammered at them, but been unable to break them down. It wasn't a very exciting game but it went to penalties and the team game, for which we should have had the advantage, turned into an individual game. The pressure went against our lads and we failed miserably from the spot. No-one wanted to take one and I remember the players were avoiding my gaze."
Having been favourites, defeat in Seville was a bitter pill for Barca's fans and board to swallow and Venables subsequently found himself fighting hard to remain in the hotseat, a battle that he lost in September 1987. Future European Championship-winning coach Luis Aragones tried and failed to replicate Venables' early success after replacing him, but the next appointment was the most significant in the club's history.
The man behind the inception of Barca's academy returned as manager and supporters bowed down for the coronation of King Cruyff of Catalonia. Ready to reap what he had first sewn back in 1979, the Dutchman began to blood products of La Masia; Guillermo Amor was one of the first to benefit from a promotion to the senior side, with the likes of Carles Busquets, Pep Guardiola and later Albert Ferrer following. The culmination of Cruyff's Dream Team, a group assembled from academy products and foreign superstars, came in the 1992 European Cup final when Sampdoria were put to the sword.
Venables recognises that Cruyff's return was the catalyst for the future explosions of talent at Camp Nou and has no doubt that Guardiola's first-hand experience of La Masia in his playing days is responsible for the emphasis he now places on giving homegrown youngsters a chance as a coach.
"It was when Johan Cruyff came along that things really picked up - he had been at the club before, he had lived in the area and of course he was very successful," Venables explains. "He instilled an academy system that was already prevalent in the Netherlands, a country that has a rich tradition of producing excellent young players through a great learning process.
"Guardiola came through that system himself and he is very aware of the history. He is a teacher and a result-getter. Aside from [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and [David] Villa, he doesn't subscribe to the fast, buy-the-player now approach. He's got the conveyor-belt system that brings through players who all know and understand the game from a very young age and that means he is happy to throw them straight into the first team. The message is, 'if you work hard enough, you will get opportunities'.
"That is the Barcelona legacy and that's what it's all about for the club and the fans: it's about proudly saying: 'we are made in Catalonia, not Spain'. The motto 'more than a club' means just that, it's more than football for them, it's a war."
This Saturday, Barcelona will be led into battle by Carles Puyol, with no fewer than six other homegrown players making up the rest of the cavalry. Puyol will be ably assisted in the Catalans' crusade by Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and, of course Lionel Messi. The two-time World Player of the Year is widely recognised as Barca's most dangerous weapon, and Venables is certainly under no illusions that shackling Messi will be key to United's chances of upsetting his former club.
"The most important thing for Manchester United to do is work out how to deal with Messi," Venables says. "He is an outstanding player and, aside from tying his legs together, teams have tried everything to shackle him but have failed. Barca will go out and do what they do, it's up to United to come up with a way of stopping them. Barcelona would be slight favourites but it should be a fascinating game."
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