Cesc Fàbregas can close his eyes and remember the exhaustion he felt as a 10-year-old. Every weekday at 5 p.m. a taxi would pick him up at his house in Arenys de Mar, 25 miles outside Barcelona. In the next two hours the taxi would make five other stops before delivering the half-dozen boys to practice at the Barça youth academy, which in those days was next to the Camp Nou. A 90-minute practice would follow, and then another two-hour cab ride home, followed by dinner, homework, a few hours of sleep and back to school the next morning at seven. "I was too tired as a young boy, and I couldn't sleep very well, but this is what I loved," he says. "So after three years I moved to La Masia."
They all have their sacrifice stories, from Fàbregas to Messi (who moved from Argentina to Barcelona with his family in early adolescence) to hundreds of other prospects who didn't make the grade. Founded in 1979 as the brainchild of Cruyff, Barcelona's youth academy is based on the one run by Ajax, the Amsterdam club that gave the Dutchman his start. The guiding principle is to instill the same skill-based philosophy that guides the senior team. "It's like getting a master's in soccer," Xavi says. "In each session they teach you objectives. Why do we do this exercise? Many teams train just to get physically fit, but the key is to understand the game, to choose the moment you play the ball short in order to then play it long. To know how to decide on the field is the most important thing they teach at La Masia. But it's also a school of life because it teaches you the values of respect, humility and camaraderie. It's a way to live soccer and life."
The emphasis is on quality over quantity of practice time. Training sessions take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m.—three times a week for academy members under 13, four times for older ones—with a game on the weekend. For boarders, the typical day involves attending school from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., returning for lunch and then homework until six, followed by practice. Of the 80 current residents at La Masia, 58 are there for soccer, the rest for basketball, handball and ice hockey. Merely by being admitted to the academy, youngsters have survived a competitive winnowing process. "You always seek talent," says Guillermo Amor, a former academy graduate and Barcelona player and now La Masia's sporting director. "That's fundamental, to have very good players at a young age. Before, you sought out 14- and 15-year-old kids. Now you have to go younger. That makes us work hard to get the best players in our seventh soccer division, who are the smallest and start with seven-year-olds."
The way Amor sees it, La Masia's success comes from having the confidence to place faith in young players and train them to excel on the global stage. When in doubt, most top teams choose to spend millions to bring in a proven star. While most major European clubs have youth academies, few are as committed to inculcating in their young players an entire philosophy. Barça has selectively tabbed established players, such as David Villa and Ronaldinho, but its preference is to dip into the prospect pool. It helps that everyone can see the results of the process every time Barcelona's senior team takes the field. But unlike the first team, the youth academy isn't about the unceasing pursuit of trophies. "We never tell kids, 'Go out and win, win, win; we want titles,'" says Amor. "We're forming players—people—and there will be time to win the day they play on the first team. But not to win at any price. We want to win by controlling the ball, bringing it up from the back, taking the initiative, dominating. That's our style."
There's a human side to the academy, of course. Only a handful of chosen ones will reach the senior team. At the end of every spring the academy directors make their cuts—"the hardest moment," Amor says, in part because the emotional bonds are so tight.
"When we talk about La Masia, we do so as if it were a family for these kids," says Folguera, the academy director. "We know about their grades, their nutrition, the problems they have, how they get along with their families, if they have girlfriends. We're always with them." For the same reasons, those who do make it feel as if the club is part of their fundamental identity. For them, the Barcelona shirt is never just laundry.
Nor for Barça is producing players the same as making widgets. "We're not going to clone Xavi, Messi or Iniesta just because in X number of years they're not going to be around anymore," says Andoni Zubizarreta, Barça's football director, "but the idea behind our style will be."
Who will be La Masia's gems of the next generation? Perhaps Gerard Deulofeu, 18, a forward from nearby Girona who has already debuted with the senior team. Or Jean Marie Dongou, 17, a marvelously talented Cameroonian striker. Or Alejandro Grimaldo, 17, a gifted left back from Valencia. Who knows? For the first time there's even an American at La Masia: Ben Lederman, a midfielder from the Los Angeles area. After being chosen in a tryout, Lederman moved to Barcelona with his family last year so that he could join the academy.
More than a club. The reminders of Barça's transcendence are large and small, global and domestic. During a Champions League game at the Camp Nou last month, large sections of the stadium dusted off the old chants for Catalan independence, amid Catalan political leader Artur Mas's calls for fiscal sovereignty from the rest of Spain and a subsequent march of 1.5 million Catalans in the streets of Barcelona on Sept. 11.