The Hogwarts of sports is a sparkling steel-and-glass building in Sant Joan Despí, a sleepy suburb not far from the Gaudí-bejeweled center of Barcelona. On a starlit night with breezes blowing in off the Mediterranean, the teams of FC Barcelona's youth academy descend in waves of yellow onto a manicured practice field. They march down from La Masia (the Farmhouse), the name given to the 300-year-old residence that housed Barça's first academy and transferred to the decidedly less bucolic school at the club's new $87 million training headquarters.
It's a special evening, a chance for Barça to shoot team photographs under the floodlights and present its best and brightest to a gathering of proud parents in the stands. A phalanx of taxis waits in the parking lot, meters running, ready to ferry teen and preteen prospects from Catalonian towns back to their homes, as they do every night at the club's expense. Most of the remaining two thirds of the academy's players—boarders from other Spanish regions and a dozen countries—live on site in an educational and sporting laboratory that is both nurturing and fiercely competitive.
The children draw closer. You study their faces and can't help but wonder: Which of these eight- and 12- and 14-year-olds might turn into the planet's best soccer player, the closest thing in sports to King of the World? Which ones will help add to Barça's Champions League titles, three in the last seven seasons? Usually such questions are preposterous. Most top European clubs—Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea—are lucky to have even one homegrown player in their starting lineups. But La Masia's track record of developing champions is unprecedented, the evidence visible every time FC Barcelona takes the field.
In Barça's Champions League game against Spartak Moscow on Sept. 19, eight of the team's 11 starters—including Lionel Messi, the world's preeminent player—were products of the club's youth academy. On Barça's first goal, forward Tello (who joined the club at age 13) cut inside on a dime and blasted a shot from distance into the right corner. Later, with Barça down 2--1, Tello slalomed past a defender and fed Messi (who also joined at 13) for the tap-in equalizer. Finally, as Spartak desperately crowded all 11 players behind the ball, Barça unspooled a majestic sequence from its own half: 18 passes, short and long, on the ground and in the air, using the full width of the field.
There's a tantric rhythm to Barcelona's scoring buildups that Sting would love. Pass and move, pass and move. Each man on the ball has at least two options, creating triangles large and small, a blend of movement and geometry that calls to mind the turning wheel of a kaleidoscope as the attack proceeds inexorably downfield. Spartak was powerless. Barça's passing sequence involved nine players in 55 seconds, including academy products Xavi (from age 11), Cesc Fàbregas (from 10), Pedro (from 17), Sergio Busquets (from 17) and, as ever, Messi. The 25-year-old Argentine is capable of astonishing individual pyrotechnics—see his snaking 60-yard scoring run to beat six Getafe defenders in 2007—but his game-winning header against Spartak off Alexis Sánchez's cross was something else, a true team goal, the difference between a cobra strike and a python's slow asphyxiation. Both, in the end, are lethal.
Today's Barça academy members know all of Messi's greatest hits. Only a few of these boys will survive the club's ruthless cuts and join him on the first team someday, but by the time they do they will feel FC Barcelona—the history, the identity, the style—in their blood and in their bones.
Barça's president, Sandro Rosell, knows this. On a hope-filled night with soccer's school of wizardry looming behind him, Rosell addresses the future Messis and Xavis and their parents in Catalan, waxing philosophical about the role of La Masia. "This is the essence of the club," he concludes, his hands outstretched, before leading everyone in a thunderous chant.
History matters. And so, after Barcelona won the Champions League final in May 2011, pounding Manchester United 3--1 in soccer's most thrilling display of the past 25 years, defender Gerard Piqué did something no one else had tried at the sport's marquee annual event. He cut down the net. All 452 square feet of it. As he strode across the field, piles of nylon billowing over his shoulders, Piqué resembled a Catalonian fisherman bringing in a prize catch. "When I see a basketball team win, they cut down the net," explains Piqué, 25, a Barça academy product. "So I said, Why not us?"