By IESE Insight
It’s not every year that a top-flight club wins all six competitions in which it participates. Even more unusual is for a club to do so with a coach and 10 players who have risen through the ranks of the club’s reserve teams. Most unusual of all is that three of those players were shortlisted to win the most prestigious individual prize in the soccer world.
By all accounts, Barça appears to have perfected the art of winning. But what are the secrets of its success? How does it manage talent? Is its model sustainable? How does the club ensure that its philosophy and style of play take precedence over the interests of individual players?
These are just some of the questions that IESE Prof. Pablo Cardona and research assistant Borja Lleó address in their case on the club that is “more than a club.”
A Center for Talent
The cornerstone of the club’s successful model can be traced to La Masía de Can Planes, a former farmhouse that has been home to more than 500 players over three decades. Oriol Tort, father of Barça’s talent-development model, decided to convert the building into a residence for promising players in 1979.
The aim of this pioneering project in European soccer was to develop players as athletes, as well as individuals. The academy sought out players who were not only talented, but who also had a drive to win and the ability to work as part of a team.
When identifying talent, the academy’s management looks at much more than a candidate’s physical and technical abilities. Tort’s successors cite the examples of Pep Guardiola and Carles Puyol. While physically slow and weak, Guardiola’s intelligence was so strong that it overrode all other considerations. Puyol, meanwhile, did not stand out as a brilliant player, but his competitive drive and work ethic were decisive strengths.
Choosing the right talent is a key success factor for any organization. In soccer, scouts play a critical role, since they carry out the initial screening, while the technical team takes final decisions.
But how has Barça managed to attract the best talent year after year? How does it convince parents from outside Barcelona to allow their children to be raised and schooled so far from their families and home environments? In this, La Masía’s prestige as a school that teaches strong values plays a vital role.
First of All, People
La Masía has managed to make personal development and athletic performance inseparable. The players’ education is based on three dimensions: physical/athletic, intellectual and moral. The goal of the club is to develop outstanding individuals who are academically responsible, have healthy habits and who are happy with the lifestyle they have chosen.
The demands of a sports career, the daily stress of schoolwork and separation from families can affect the mindset of promising players. Andrés Iniesta recalls the day he arrived at La Masía at the age of 12: “It seemed like the world was ending; it was like a new life was starting, and it made a huge impact.”
For this reason, support from teachers, psychologists and other professionals who have contact with the young athletes is essential.
The development plan is simple. Training is completely compatible with academic classes, and players are expected to do their best in their studies. In addition, youths who come from other countries are given special attention. The educational team also gives personalized attention to help players plan their careers.
A Clear Philosophy
On the field, players must adapt to the club’s philosophy of technical and attractive play. They have to understand the starting team’s system, so they will be able to integrate quickly when the time comes.
In the lower ranks, everyone plays the same number of minutes, which allows players to mature successfully. As they develop mentally and physically, competitiveness is increasingly stressed.
José Ramón Alexanco, the former technical director for youth soccer at Barça, explains that some high-potential players, such as Bojan Krkic, may be moved up more quickly than others. The team’s coaching staff carefully analyzes such decisions, since a mistake can damage the self-esteem of a young player, and, consequently, his successful progression.
One particularly delicate moment comes when players reach the juvenile category. Only the best – those who have real potential to play on the starting team – are selected. This is also the time when players are freed from their commitments to the club, which often prompts attractive offers from other national and international teams.
So how is talent retained? As Alexanco explains, “This is where Barça’s value comes in.”
Young players know that the club has confidence in them and believes they can make it to the starting team. For that reason, budding stars are more inclined to put their career prospects ahead of earning a fast buck elsewhere. From the club’s perspective, earning this commitment from young players is critical. Seeking to retain players at any cost, who may later leave the team, brings high risks and huge potential financial losses.
New Times, New Ideas
The 21st century has ushered in the need for a more globally focused system for La Masía. In order to recruit talent in Latin America, the club decided to open a similar academy in Argentina in 2007. This initiative has expanded the organization’s player base and boosted Barça’s brand value, while allowing players to train and develop in a more familiar environment. The club also has other diverse schools around the world with a social focus and that promote Barça’s brand and values.
The recent establishment of a new training complex – Sport City in Sant Joan Despí – has provided a more modern residence for the young players. A maximum amount of care and attention is given to the youths, and their training routines are totally unaffected by any professional team activities taking place at the same time.
The academy is an ambitious, modern and pioneering project aimed at enabling the club to remain the most effective producer of new soccer talent in the world – meaning that Messi, Xavi and Iniesta are sure to have worthy successors.