Barcelona’s La Masia academy has now secured its place in footballing folklore.
A breeding ground for footballing geniuses, it has honed and crafted the skills of one the most gifted groups of footballers in the history of the game.
Taking natural talent as a foundation, the coaches there indoctrinated the likes of Messi, Cesc, and Pique with a lethal fusion of non-stop, high intensity work-rate off the ball and a fast, fluid tiki-taka artistry on it.
The golden generation of Masia graduates, born between 1984 and 1987, are all approaching the peak of the powers as they near their twenties’ end (except elder maestro Xavi, goalkeeper Valdes and general Puyol) and have achieved every success that football has to offer.
Three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues under their mentor Pep have since been added to with another title in 12/13. These also coincided with four consecutive Ballon D’Ors for Barcelona’s star pupil as well as international dominance for its Spanish born stars.
Messi’s class of masters have since been complemented by the emergence of further graduates, Pedro and Busquets, and a new class of freshman including Marc Batra and Sergi Roberto showing promise.
Yet in the years between Pep’s promotion from Barca B boss to first team coach and his temporary exit from the game, an entire class of Masia stars dazzled within its confines before finding themselves on a downward spiral out of Barcelona and out of the spotlight.
Jeffren (born in 1988)
Stylistically, Jeffren was Pedro Rodriguez’s match: a winger offering penetration with his immense pace, but their careers have panned off in completely different directions. Jeffren’s journey began smoothly enough, starring for Spain at every youth level from U-16 to U-21 and making an impressive transition from Barca C to Barca B.
He attracted the expected attention of talent thirsty scouts from potential poachers around Europe; a host of Premier League clubs including Arsenal (who so infamously lured away Cesc) reportedly lined up offers. Jeffren stayed. It seemed that he, like Busquets and Pedro, would benefit from Pep Guardiola’s ascension.
Yet, despite being called into the first team squad for 08-09, he did not make the same breakthrough as Pedro. His goal as a sub in the 2010 Clasico was the crowning glory of the definitive game of Guardiola’s tenure, 5-0 against Real, and thus far has been the pinnacle of his career. Sold to Sporting Lisbon in 2011, with a cautious buy-back clause inserted, there seems little chance of the clause being exercised as Jeffren struggles to get a game in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
Giovanni Dos Santos (born 1989)
In 2005, Ronaldinho was the most mesmerising player at senior level, Leo Messi was bewitching all at the U-20 world cup, and Giovanni Dos Santos was earning rave reviews for orchestrating Mexico’s 3-0 victory over Brazil in the U-17 World Cup final. Giovanni, as he was known (despite potential confusion with Giovanni “Gio” Van Bronkhurst, the clubs left back) was a guaranteed future star.
Comparisons to Ronaldinho were based on more than just his wavy mane. He possessed similarly skilful dribbling, creativity, and vision. Ultimately, Giovanni struggled for opportunities; his competitive debut in September 2007 coming at a time when Leo Messi had just cemented his place as first choice right winger and Thierry Henry’s arrival had added more competition on the other flank. His impressive hat-trick against Real Murcia in 2008 was an endnote that helped attract suitors such as Tottenham Hotspur.
Competition would again get the better of Dos Santos, with Aaron Lennon, Kranjcar and the evolution of Gareth Bale hindering his progress at Spurs. Rock bottom for Giovanni was the fall down a league into the grateful grasp of Ipswich Town (for whom he did fire four in eight Championship games). This from a player who Henry suggested would be “one of the best players in the world.” A return to La Liga seems to have benefitted him though, and first with Mallorca and now with Villarreal, he is showing at least a fraction of the talent he was professed to possess.
Bojan (born in 1990)
Barcelona’s biggest teenage sensation since Lionel Messi. In many ways, Bojan’s rise through the youth ranks had arguably generated more excitement than the Argentine maestro, as the lethal forward set about obliterating and superseding Leo’s early achievements. A youth team goal ratio of a 100 goals a season carried the 16 year old into Barca B, where his 10 goals in 22 was superior to Messi’s record, at the same age, of six in 22. His first team career began with more record breaking. Debuting in 2007 against Osasuna at 17 years and 19 days old, he replaced Messi as Barcelona’s youngest ever La Liga player.
Despite mirroring Messi in his arrival into the first team, it was a rivalry with another older La Masia graduate that seemed to slow Bojan’s progress. Despite hitting double figures in each of his first three seasons between 2007 and 2010, the out and out goalscorer offered less to Barcelona’s tiki-taka than the hardworking Pedro, who became a Pep favourite from 2008 onwards. Spells at Roma, Milan, and now, Ajax have been far from prolific but there is hope: he at least is playing Champions League football and by virtues of a loan deal, is still technically a Barcelona player
Gai Assulin (born 1991)
Once the poster boy of La Masia, he was the exemplorary player chosen to star in Barcelona’s series of YouTube coaching clips for Nike in 2008. Since then he suffered the most dramatic fall into anonymity. The “new Messi” tag was immediately thrown his way, partly due to the Israeli’s physical appearance, sporting the same shoulder length hair as the teenage Messi. In 2010, he was seduced by the new found riches of Manchester City, defecting from the Catalan cause. Yet he failed to make the transition from City’s hastily collected youth talents in their development squad to the expensively assembled starting eleven of pseudo-Galaticos.
A grand total of zero Premier League appearances, fitness concerns, and a loan to Brighton preceded his release by Manchester City. Like Dos Santos, he has sought solace and the chance of revival with a move to one of La Liga’s smaller clubs. Granada snapped him up in the summer, but even they have yet to trust his ability in their first team, farming Gai out to Segunda Division side, Hercules CF.
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