Best Academy Products: 10 greatest graduates of all time from Barcelona's La Masia
In 1979, a proposal by Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff to establish a football academy similar to Ajax’s at Barcelona was accepted by the club president Josep Nunez. Cruyff and Nunez would have never perceived the immense impact that their decision to remodel the football academy at the Catalan club would have on football in the 21st century.Today La Masia is the epitome of a football academy and it is a model that many other clubs around the world would like to replicate.La Masia produced some of the greatest players of recent times and these players played a crucial role in establishing Barcelona as a European powerhouse. The club would go on to win four UEFA Champions League in the space of a decade and become the first club to win six major honours in a single year. Many La Masia graduates also played a crucial role in Spain’s World Cup and Euro success between 2008 and 2012. In fact, six of the starters for Spain in the World Cup final were La Masia graduates.In 2010, all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d’Or – Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, were graduates of Barcelona’s academy and it was the first time that such a scenario occurred.As part of Sportskeeda’s Best Academy Products series here is a list of the 10 best players to have trained at arguably the best football academy in the world.
#10 Victor Valdes
Victor Valdes has often been unfairly criticised for his occasional goalkeeping mistakes, but there is no denying that he was a top goalkeeper for Barcelona. Many fans who didn’t realise how valuable he was to the team came to know of that after he was injured in his final season with the club because Barcelona’s title challenge and cup runs were affected without his presence.
Valdes had to wait for a long time to become Barcelona’s number one and once he got the chance to prove himself between the sticks, he held on to the number one role for over a decade. He became the undisputed number one from the 2004/05 season and ended the season by winning the Zamora trophy for having the best goals conceded to games ratio.
The Spaniard did have his moments of madness on the pitch, but his overall performance for Barcelona was quite impressive considering the fact that Barcelona’s defence wasn’t always the best. A shuffle or readjustment in the backline was common at one point, but even in those dire situations Valdes performed well.
If all other arguments fail, then Valdes’ performance in the Champions League finals of 2006 and 2009 are enough to give an account of his performances. In 2006 he made two crucial point-blank saves against Thierry Henry to keep Barcelona in the game and in 2009 he would deny Cristiano Ronaldo – a sight that fans got accustomed to later on.
- Zamora trophy winner on five occasions – a joint record
- La Liga goalkeeper of the year: 2009/10 and 2010/11
#9 Pedro Rodriguez
Pedro had to wait for a long time to become a first team regular. In fact it was only after he turned 21 that he had a starting role with the senior team.
The Spaniard’s passing skills and vision helped him to settle into the squad easily, but it was his speed and attacking positioning that helped him prosper. He formed a great partnership with Messi during his initial years with the club. One of his favourite oppositions was Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid as he has managed to score five times against them.
The Spaniard scored 99 goals for Barcelona in 321 appearances for the club and his last goal for Barcelona was an extra-time winner in the 2015 UEFA Super Cup. Pedro adapted very well to Barcelona’s game and was a team player. While other talented forwards like Tello and Bojan emerged and faded away, Pedro’s perseverance came to his aid.
- La Liga breakthrough player: 2009/10
- First player to score in six different club competitions in one season and in the same year.
#8 Gerard Pique
La Masia is well known for producing brilliant midfielders and forwards, but very few defenders from the academy have gone on to excel at the club. The club did recruit many centre backs in recent years, but none of them have been able to match the performance delivered by Pique. His ability to calmly bring the ball out of defence even in tight situations is amazing and this helps Barcelona keep possession and play out from the back.
The Barcelona defender is very strong and has good technical ability as well as passing skills. His height also gives him excellent aerial abilities and is of great use for the club while attacking set pieces.
Pique initially joined the Catalan club in 1997 but left the youth set up in 2004 to join Manchester United. However, four years later he returned to Barcelona after Pep Guardiola took over as manager. He quickly formed a good partnership with compatriot Carles Puyol in the heart of the Barcelona defence.
After Puyol’s retirement, Pique’s responsibilities grew and, during the 2014/15 season, he was one of the best performers for the club as they clinched another domestic treble. On the international scene, Pique was one of the starters for Spain during the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2012. His brilliant partnership with Puyol at the World Cup saw Spain concede just two goals in seven games and they kept four consecutive clean sheets in the knockout stages.
- La Liga best defender: 2009/10
- La Liga breakthrough player of the year: 2008/09
- FIFPro World XI: 2010, 2011 and 2012
#7 Guillermo Amor
Guillermo Amor is considered to be the first notable graduate from the La Masia academy who went on to have a long and successful career with the club. He joined the club in 1980 aged 12 and made his first team debut eight years later under Johan Cruyff.
Amor quickly became one of the most important players under the Dutchman and was instrumental in helping the club win four La Liga titles on the trot as well as the European Cup in 1992. The Spaniard represented Barcelona in 421 official games during his 10-year spell with the first team (eighth in the all-time appearance list). He also managed to score 68 goals in those games despite not finding the back of the net in his last two seasons with the club.
What makes Amor stand out is the fact that he played in a Barcelona team that wasn’t as star-studded or as dominating as they are now and yet he was incredibly successful. He was the first player to set a benchmark for Barcelona midfielders, but some of the club’s recent midfielders have raised that bar considerably.
Amor also represented Spain in 37 games and played for them at the 1996 Euro and the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
#6 Pep Guardiola
Before midfielders like Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets emerged from the academy, Pep Guardiola became one of the most famous midfielders to have come out of La Masia. Guardiola’s association with Barcelona started at the age of 13 as a youth player in 1983 and he made his first team debut in 1990. Johan Cruyff had an inkling that Guardiola would perform better as a midfield pivot and thus he was moved to that position from the right side of midfield.
Initially, Cruyff would use Guardiola in the absence of Guillermo Amor, but he became a first team regular from the 1991/92 season. The Spaniard became an important figure in Cruyff’s dream team that won four consecutive La Liga titles and the European cup. Many of the players from the dream team left the club over the next few years, but Guardiola kept his place in the team.
His performance as a defensive midfielder set a benchmark for future players in the role. However, Guardiola himself changed that when he returned to the club as a manager and introduced Sergio Busquets into the team.
The Spaniard’s time with Barcelona was hampered by injuries during his final years with the club and he couldn’t rediscover his form after moving to Italy at the age of 30. His peak years were short-lived but he was highly effective and successful during that period.
- UEFA Euro Team of the Tournament: 2000
- Bravo Award: 1992
#5 Sergio Busquets
Sergio Busquets was one of the La Masia graduates that worked his way into the senior side during Pep Guardiola’s tenure as Barcelona manager. Not only did Busquets quickly establish himself as a starter in the defensive midfield role at a very young age, he did so by benching players like Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita. Even players such as Javier Mascherano and Alex Song couldn’t replace him in the side.
Busquets excels in breaking down the opposition’s play with his positional sense, brilliant interceptions and his ability to read the game. He showed the world that a defensive midfielder doesn’t have to be a hard tackler and instead the job can be done with tactical intelligence.
He quickly formed a potent partnership with Xavi and Andres Iniesta and midfield and he slotted in seamlessly with these players because of his passing ability and ball retention skills. He even finished his first season with the senior side as a treble winner.
The midfielder’s performance in his debut season with the senior side was so impressive that he was called up to Spain’s senior side by Vicente Del Bosque who stated that he is a huge admirer of the player and that is probably why Busquets is an undisputed starter for Spain. He was even used as the defensive midfielder during the 2010 FIFA World Cup ahead of Marcos Senna, who operated in that role during Spain’s successful Euro campaign in 2008.
- Bravo Award: 2009
#4 Carles Puyol
At 5’10”, Carles Puyol was not the tallest of defenders. But he was certainly one of the best to have played for Barcelona and Spain.
Puyol was known for his leadership skills, his commanding presence in the air despite his small stature for a centre back and his strength. The Spaniard was technically not the best defender, but his work ethic and commitment to his trade made him stand out. In addition to all of this Puyol is famous for his fair play which has come to the fore on several occasions.
In 1998, Barcelona were willing to sell Puyol to Malaga, but he refused to leave in order to play for Barcelona’s senior side. In the end, it was only in 1999 that Puyol made his La Liga debut and that too as a centre back despite playing as a right back or as a defensive midfielder for the youth teams. He was ready to play anywhere his team needed him to and that is the sort of attitude that made him special.
Puyol’s never-say-die attitude and his charisma on the pitch was often a motivating factor for the team and he also ensured that this was rubbed off on some of his teammates before he left the club. Before Pique’s arrival, Puyol never had a constant partner in defence nor was the team known for its defending. Puyol was the glue that kept the Barcelona defence intact during the club’s initial years of success in the 2000s.
- La Liga breakthrough player of the year: 2001
- FIFPro World XI: 2007, 2008 and 2010
#3 Andres Iniesta
Iniesta started his career as a defensive midfielder, but his skill-set, including an exquisite ball control, which could even make Lionel Messi jealous, meant that he warranted a more advanced midfield role. Iniesta possesses great balance, agility, dribbling ability, work rate and tremendous skill on the ball. This coupled with his ability to play as a central midfielder, an attacking midfielder or as a left winger makes him a complete midfield player and any manager would love to have a player like him in the side.
At first sight, Iniesta may not look like a flamboyant player, but when the need arises he often produces moments of magic on the ball to beat one or more opponents at ease and create an attacking threat. His ability to spot spaces and give perfect through balls to the Barcelona forwards who love to run in behind the defence often lead to goals. And it is his incredible consistency that makes him one of the best players the academy has produced.
The 31-year-old is regarded as a big game player as he often steps up his game by a notch and makes a huge impact. Some of his notable performances in big games were in the Champions League semi-final in 2009, the Champions League final in 2015 and the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup – Spain’s most important goal in their history.
- UEFA Best Player in Europe: 2012
- Euro 2012 Player of the Tournament
- FIFA Ballon d’Or runner-up in 2010
- La Liga’s best attacking midfielder: 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014
#2 Xavi Hernandez
Xavi Hernandez spent 24 years of his career with Barcelona after joining them as an 11-year-old in 1991. He went on to have a stellar career with the club and left the club on a high in 2015 after completing his second career treble.
The Spaniard progressed through Barcelona’s academy and he was eventually handed his club debut in 1998 in a Super Cup final against Mallorca in which he scored. His consistent performances for the first team ensured that it didn’t take him long to become an indispensable first team player.
In 2008, Xavi was in talks with Bayern Munich over a move, but Pep Guardiola convinced him to stay and play under him. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets redefined the concept of a midfield three and Xavi would use his ability to find and exploit space with short crisp passing, rarely relinquishing possession. His ability to control the tempo of the game and dictate play with his vision and pin-point passing is one of the reasons why Xavi is considered as one of the greatest central midfielders of all time.
He was a regular starter in the Spain team that won two Euros and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In the process, he became the first player to provide assists in two separate Euro finals.
- UEFA Euro 2008 – Player of the Tournament
- Ballon d’Or Third Place – 2009, 2010 and 2011
- La Liga midfielder of the year – 2009, 2010 and 2011
#1 Lionel Messi
Was there ever any doubt about the No.1 spot? Lionel Messi is arguably the greatest football player of all time and so it is difficult to argue that he isn’t the best player to have come out of Barcelona’s fabled La Masia.
The diminutive Argentine is well known for his quick feet, his ability to change directions at ease, his immense ball control and his exceptional dribbling ability which comes naturally with the above mentioned traits. In addition to this, he is also known for his finishing, positioning, his ability to make well-timed forward runs and his incredible vision which also makes him a good playmaker.
The 28-year-old starter his career on the right wing to utilise his dribbling ability to go past full backs and to cut in and shoot with his favoured left foot. When Guardiola was appointed as Barcelona manager, he sold Ronaldinho and built his team around Messi. Guardiola made a bold move to move Messi from the right wing and play him as a false nine. This move worked like magic as the Argentine ended the season 38 goals in all competition – 22 more than he scored in the previous season.
The Argentina captain is easily the best player to have come out of La Masia not just because of his obvious talent, but also because of the sheer volume matches he has won due to his individual brilliance. Even if Messi doesn’t score, his ability to draw players out of position creates space for his teammates.
Messi played a crucial role in Barcelona’s success in recent years as he contributed to the side with a jaw dropping 418 goals in 493 matches!
- Four time winner of the Ballon d’Or
- Barcelona’s all-time leading goal scorer
- La Liga’s all-time leading goal scorer
- FIFA World Cup 2014 Golden Ball
Honourable Mentions: Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Luis Garcia, Sergi Barjuan and Thiago Motta.