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Is youth the future for bruised Barcelona?

Sid Lowe
April 5, 2014
It has been another difficult week for the Spanish giants © Getty Images
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At one corner of the Camp Nou, wedged in between the northern end of the stadium and the maternity hospital and dwarfed by the buildings around it, stands La Masia. A little Catalan farmhouse, built in 1702 with a green lawn neatly kept, a tiny oasis of resistance in the big city; since 1979 La Masia was a residence for children who came through FC Barcelona's youth system.

Inside, there was a school, a kitchen and bunk beds from where these hopefuls could see the stadium towering over them, as well as the small first team training pitch that used to be positioned immediately alongside.

Nearly 500 kids lived there over the years until 2011, when Barcelona moved their youth setup to new facilities in San Joan Despi, to the west the city. Pep Guardiola, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta were among them and even those who did not actually live there - when he first arrived, Lionel Messi was put up in the Hotel Rallye two minutes down the road - were considered products of La Masia. They were coached, fed and schooled. Barcelona proudly announced that they were making people as well as players of a very clear, discernible style; there was a moral dimension to it all. They talked of "values" and "Barça DNA".

They were also successful. In 2010, Messi won the Ballon d'Or, and the other two men on the podium were Xavi and Iniesta. It was only the second time all three finalists were from the same club, the first being AC Milan (in 1988 and 1989), and it was the first time that all three had been products of the same club; "sons of the system," in Iniesta's words. "We create Ballon d'Ors; others buy them," then-president Joan Laporta said. The club called La Masia the "cradle of Barcelona's youth system". It stands empty now but it still stands, a symbol of all that was good, and unique, about Barcelona.

Things look a little different now. This week La Masia became yet another focus of the institutional crisis that has afflicted the club over the last two years; another problem for a board of directors whose popularity and credibility is collapsing, from Eric Abidal's departure to Neymar's arrival, from Messi's confrontation with director Javier Faus and his problems with Inland Revenue, to the consultation over the new stadium. The communion with Barcelona supporters is crumbling.

Famously, Barcelona consider themselves "more than a club", an identity long latent but articulated in the late 1960s. What it actually means is contested and open to different interpretations. Laporta once summed it up as: "Cruyff, Catalonia, Masia, UNICEF." That was his personal vision, sure, and it may even have been opportunistic, but it was a neat summary that many shared. Catalonia is still there. But Cruyff has gone; no longer honorary president. UNICEF has given way to Qatar. And now even La Masia has suffered a blow.

This week FIFA banned Barcelona from registering players for two transfer markets because they had broken the rules over the signing of young talents, according to article 19 of the transfer regulations.

The rules are designed to protect children from exploitation and state that clubs cannot sign and register EU foreign players under the age of 16 or non-EU players under the age of 18 except in specific circumstances: The players' parents have to have changed their country of residence first for "non-related" reasons, or the club and the players' home, even if they are across the border, have to be less than 100 kilometres apart, 50 kilometres from the border. In the case of 10 of the 37 players in the club's youth system that FIFA looked into, Barcelona did not fulfill those criteria. Spain's Football Federation was fined too for completing the registration process, albeit their role was in fact to ratify the registrations completed by the Catalan Football Federation.

Barcelona released a statement in which they talked about the pastoral care that they provide the children who join their youth system; they talked about values and education. They insisted that La Masia is a model to follow, something to be very proud of. The president Josep Maria Bartomeu described the punishment as an "injustice" and suggested again that there are dark forces out to get Barca. His vice president, Carles Vilarrubi, said that the punishment was exaggerated.

On one level, Barcelona had a point. It is unrealistic to assume that only Barcelona have failed to comply with some of the criteria and naive to see "unrelated" reasons behind the jobs that players' parents suddenly secure in new countries ... the same new countries where their children then appear at new clubs. The Spanish Federation, theoretically their interlocutor with FIFA, ratified the registrations. And when Barcelona were told of irregularities, they effectively unregistered Lee Seung Woo, the South Korean whose case appears to have been the starting point of the investigation.

The investigation began with an anonymous complaint, and it is natural that Barcelona might see interests that are not entirely pure lurking in the background. It is also true that Barcelona have been communicating often with FIFA, correspondence going back and forth on precisely this issue. Barcelona had requested a change in the laws and appealed for exemption.

Just as it is true that the rules have been made to protect and nurture children and Barcelona are entitled to defend their model as one that does exactly that. Messi, who joined the club at 13, is the example here.

And yet, to talk of conspiracy does them little favours when there is no escaping the bottom line: Barcelona broke the rules. Instead, it makes them look paranoid and irresponsible, the victim complex returning to the fore.

It makes them look like they think that they can ignore the rules and refuse responsibility for their actions. Barcelona issued a statement, but while it contained 14 points, the point was not among them.

Nowhere did they deny breaking the rules. They could not. They knowingly broke the rules. As stated in their 10th point, they thought it was the rules that had to change, not them.

Barcelona knew this was coming: The investigation has been ongoing and they were forewarned, as discussions with the football authorities show. The fact that Barcelona requested exemption is the clearest indication. Barcelona have even published a timeline of their correspondence with FIFA.

But if that shows that they were not seeking to hide anything, if that demonstrates a certain honesty, requesting exemption is not gaining exemption. You can't rob a bank and then say: "Yeah, but it's OK: I sent a letter to the police asking to be allowed to rob a bank. We talked about this."

Barcelona will appeal, taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but even if they are successful it will take time. They will request that the sentence against them is suspended so that they can make transfers in this summer's window, pending the final judgment. If they are granted that wish, they will then have to sign under pressure to build a big enough and talented enough squad to go a year without any new arrivals. They will have to do it in a market where opponents know they are vulnerable, maybe even desperate. Prices will rise, signings will become more difficult.

If that will be a problem, it will be worse if the sentence is not suspended. Problems will deepen. As one colleague neatly put it: last season Barcelona had no manager with Tito Vilanova missing much of the year through illness; this season they have no president after Sandro Rosell resigned in the midst of the Neymar case; and next season they will have no signings now FIFA have banned them for a year.

They need signings. Badly. As a club Barcelona have been unlucky but this punishment may also lay bare how poor their planning has been over the last two years when it comes to squad building. It will exacerbate difficulties that were already there. Their squad is short and has important weaknesses already; this will only deepen that. The plans they did have for this summer, already overdue, are on hold.

Alen Halilovic's agent says that he thinks that he can force through the deal he reached to take his client to Barcelona. That agent is Jean Louis Dupont, the lawyer who changed the game when he represented Jean-Marc Bosman. But that is a legal case that needs testing and at the moment the situation is simple: Barcelona cannot sign until 2015.

Players cannot come and that means players cannot go either; that reduces the ability to generate money and clear out footballers that are no longer wanted. Barcelona may have wanted to sell, for argument's sake, Dani Alves, but they can't now, knowing that they cannot sign a replacement.

There are countless examples of areas that needed strengthening: central midfield, full-back and particularly centre-back. The starkest example is in goal: Victor Valdes is leaving with reports of a deal already agreed with Monaco that will be hard to overturn even if he wants to, and José Pinto was due to leave too. Their replacement was Borussia Moenchengladbach's Marc-Andre Ter Stegen but registration formally occurs on July 1 and as his agent puts it: "If I have understood FIFA's communique right, there is no way he can join Barcelona now."

And yet in a curious sort of way, this obligation may also prove an opportunity; if the ban demonstrates what Barcelona have done wrong, it may also allow them to demonstrate what they have done right too. Throughout the first team squad, they need to strengthen. But they cannot sign. There is only one place they can get new players from: La Masia.

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