Story by Adam Tismaneanu
BARCELONA–On a recent warm Sunday at a field near the l’Eixample neighborhood in the western part of Barcelona, a game between the 13-year-old teams of CE Jupiter and UD Parc is about to take place. Dressed in red and grey, the players on CE Jupiter are all crammed together on the cement stands, jostling, joking, getting ready to demonstrate their dominance on the field and their mastery of the sport.
“I’m 13-years-old now and I’ve played with the same club all of my life,” says David Mayor, the tall, talkative captain of CE Jupiter. “When I grow older, I want to become a fútbol player. I would like to play fútbol for Barcelona.”
Mayor’s dream of playing for powerhouse FC Barcelona isn’t uncommon. In fact, in Spain, where fútbol is as much a part of people’s lives as their politics or their religion, boys like Mayor play the sport with the singular goal of making it to the pitch as a professional. Their parents have the same vision for them, which is why so many focus energy on getting their young players noticed by scouts who are searching for the next Andrés Iniesta, or Gerard Piqué or Lionel Messi, who has deity status here.
Mayor, just barely a teenager, might seem young for such a fixation of one day being on the FC Barcelona roster. But it’s not misplaced, because in fact, professional scouts are on the fields recruiting players as young as 7 years old.
The precedent of early scouting in fútbol-driven cultures started long ago. And it works. Messi, now 27, was one of these conquests for Spain.
“Messi was found almost by chance,” says Albert Folch, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington and author of the book, For the Love of the Ball: The History of Methods of the FC Barcelona Youth Academy, published in 2013. “They weren’t really looking in Argentina,” he says, but coaches for FC Barcelona heard about a 13-year-old there who was already emerging as a star, a phenom, even.
It’s that sort of score that the 30 professional scouts in Spain today are trying to replicate. A recent example: Sweden’s Zico Marecaldi Jr. was signed with FC Barcelona in September 2013 when he was 9 to live and work at FC Barcelona’s official training camp, called La Masia.
Here’s how it works: The system varies across the country, but in Barcelona, scouts head from field to field to watch for players with the immediately obvious spark of someone who is both smart and skilled. The ability to score or defend is important, but more central to the profile they’re looking for is someone who can keep control of the ball, find open teammates and create scoring chances.
The youngest recruits – those under 10, are sent to FCBEscola, a fútbol academy where they learn the fundamentals of fútbol together with the principles of FC Barcelona. Then, once they turn 10 and show the kind of potential coaches are looking for, the next step is La Masia – Centro de Formacion Oriol Tort (or the Oriol Tort Center of Formation, after a famous FC Barcelona youth recruiter). That’s where the real scouting begins.
Translated to “the Farmhouse,” La Masia is an academy for potential superstars located in the outskirts of the city. Organized by age, 80 recruits are admitted for the 10-year-old squad and then each year as they get older, fewer and fewer are renewed. They live and go to school on campus. And they play. They play all day – every day, learning technique, learning team culture and most importantly, learning the sacred concept of “tiki-taka” – a term used to describe the sort of spectacular passing that characterizes Spanish play.
The roots of tiki-taka fútbol, which primarily focus on cutting and short passing, are originally credited to Johan Cruyff, who became manager of FC Barcelona in 1988 and implemented the signature system with one of the most popular clubs in the world. The strategy endures today – a touchstone against which all fútbol hopefuls must master and adhere.
“Soccer is a very simple sport,” says Folch from his office in Seattle. “And that’s the beauty of tiki-taka soccer because you can teach it to children.”
Felix Mayor, David Mayor’s father, acknowledges the great players FC Barcelona has developed through La Masia. But he also says he doesn’t believe that’s the only way a player can be cultivated for greatness.
“A lot of the students who go to the La Masia, they’re 12 or 13 years old, and they probably never will compete for Barcelona,” Mayor says, through a translator. “But when they get the training, they can be sent off to other teams. Jupiter” – the team his son David was playing for that morning – “actually has two players who studied at Barcelona and now have a chance to play and shine.”
Mayor should know. He runs EIX Transversal, a fútbol association next to the Ronda Litoral highway and Olympic Port with three small pitches for futsal, a five-on-five modified version of fútbol played on a smaller field. Mayor and his staff teach the core of fútbol and futsal to children from the ages of 4 to 8. He calls himself a “fútbol aficionado” who has dedicated his life to the sport, having coached, refereed and played.
“My aim is to train players and I don’t think that making a kid leave his family younger than 14 is appropriate because his mental capabilities are not fully formed yet and it’s just a mistake,” he says.
On that hot summer afternoon in May, his boy led the the CE Jupiter team to a 3-0 win over UD Parc. David Mayor didn’t score, but as a defender, he made sure the opposition was held scoreless.
After the game, Juan Ramon Puig Velozano, the coach of CE Jupiter, talked about the drive so many young players have to possess to make it to a national stage.
“I have two players on my team who might become professionals,” he says. “I look for, in a player, decision-making abilities, information scouting, if he’s a player who looks before receiving a pass, what he does before he gets the ball.”
Most of the players on the team say they would like to go professional and many believe they could. Or so they dream.
La Masia is not the only youth academy in Spain that looks for talent at such a young age. Real Madrid, Barcelona’s biggest rival, also has an academy, La Fábrica, translated to “The Factory,” which has produced some of Spain’s biggest stars including Álvaro Arbeloa, a mainstay for Real Madrid at right-back along with beloved goalkeeper and captain of the Spanish national team, Iker Casillas.
Though La Masia and training camps like it, such as the youth academies of Manchester United in England and FC Bayern Munich in Germany, are the most recognized pipeline for professional teams to cultivate young talent, players not scouted for the camps aren’t without hope. Folch, a firm believer in La Masia, gives both sides of the argument in reference to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner – the award for best fútbol player in the world given by FIFA.
“Ronaldo was not developed in any great youth academy that I know of but his game is very based on physicality whereas Messi,” the former Ballon d’Or winner, “had a growth defect and he needed some medical help. But in the end what made him great was his exquisite technique and he was taught by the best coaches in the world to become a great team player,” says Folch.
Before prospects have a hope of heading to a place like La Masia, though, they have to show a fierce and unrelenting commitment to the game. They have to prove that it can and will be central to all parts of their life. Even the 4 year olds.
That’s what Danny Jimenez, a trainer for the youngest children at EIX Transversal, tries to instill in his players.
“Right now, you focus on getting them to learn the basics and then you move on from there,” say Jimenez through a translator. “Then with the older players, I focus on perfecting their technique, more dynamic and difficult things that get them ready for the matches.”
Fútbol analysts, such as Folch, say this focus on technique is not present in U.S. soccer, which is one of the key reasons the U.S. struggles to have soccer catch up to its dominance in other sports, they say.
“I think possession soccer is not taught that consistently in the U.S. But most importantly it’s the scouting,” says Folch, who has talked to scouts and studied the FC Barcelona system for his book. “The U.S. doesn’t do it like FC Barcelona. [Barcelona does] what’s termed targeted scouting. They look at what players will fit at each position. They don’t even know what that is [in the U.S.].”
Folch’s explanation about the Spanish mentality showcases why many world-class players are from or have been trained in Spain.
David Mayor also has a theory.
“[American fútbol] is different than here because here we have tiki-taka and Americans are brutes.”