In the last competitive meeting between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the March clasico that served as the fixture’s temporary farewell to Camp Nou while the stadium undergoes its rebuild, Lamine Yamal was still only 15 years old. He was several weeks from becoming Barca’s youngest senior debutant.
Fermin Lopez was still in his teens. He spent that spring weekend on the losing side for Linares, where he was on loan from Barca’s B team, playing in the third tier of Spanish football.
Marc Guiu, 17, was still getting over the emphatic elimination of Barcelona’s under-19s in last season’s Uefa Youth League by Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, who have a fine academy cohort but not one with the fame, the cachet, or the distinguished list of past graduates of La Masia, the Barca youth system.
Seven months on, that trio of youngsters are far better known. They can each look forward to the first clasico of the 2023-24 season, Saturday’s visit of Real Madrid to Barca’s borrowed, short-term home at Montjuic, with genuine hope of participating. They have timed their sudden ascents into grown-up, top-flight football perfectly.
On Wednesday night, at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, Fermin, now 20, made his first Champions League start, taking home plenty of special mementos. From his position in advanced midfield for Barca, Fermin struck the frame of the Shakhtar goal enough times to have scored a hat-trick.
Happily, one of those efforts pinged back off the post to Ferran Torres, who opened the scoring. Another struck an upright on its way in for Barca’s second goal in the 2-1 victory. It was Fermin’s second goal for the club within a month.
A win over Madrid would mean the Catalan club leapfrogging their rivals, the league leaders, in the table. The man – or rather the young lad – responsible for closing the gap to a single point ahead of the biggest clash in club football was Guiu.
Launched from the substitutes’ bench by Barcelona manager Xavi in search of a breakthrough at 0-0 against Athletic Bilbao with 11 minutes of normal time remaining last weekend, Guiu made the perfect first impression as a Barcelona debutant. He scored with his second touch of the ball.
It was a fairy-tale moment. Guiu, a striker, was born close to the city and has been attached to Barca’s youth system since he was seven.
Barca 2 Shakhtar 1: Player ratings
Among the cherished memorabilia of his childhood is a photograph of him posing as a 10-year-old alongside Xavi from when the now Barca coach and former captain met him at a training clinic Xavi was overseeing.
Xavi is himself an exemplar of Barcelona’s home-grown excellence, a Catalan who developed in the club’s academy and went on to star for the first-team during its most successful era, the decade of four Champions League titles from 2006 onwards.
He was Barca’s captain for the last of those, in 2015. He was on the Ballon d’Or podium the one unique year when all three of the candidates with most votes for the award were La Masia graduates: Lionel Messi, who enrolled at Barca as a schoolboy having moved there from Argentina, won the 2010 honour, with Andres Iniesta and Xavi immediately behind him in the polling.
In that era, under the coaching of La Masia alumnus Pep Guardiola, Barca could – and did – line up an XI made up entirely of home-developed players.
But the influence of La Masia has dwindled for periods since, and the tendency since Messi departed in 2021 has been to bring in established, older stars from abroad: Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan were the marquee signings in the past two summers. Within the last year, enduring ambassadors of La Masia have also left, with Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba joining Messi in Miami and Gerard Pique announcing his retirement.
But a combination of injuries – Lewandowski, Frenkie de Jong, Raphinha, Pedri and long-serving academy-product Sergi Roberto are all coming off lay-offs with Pedri and Sergi both ruled out of the clasico – and a tightened budget mean Xavi has had to cover several positions from the club’s own youth stocks. “We’re proud of that,” said Xavi after the Shakhtar win. “In the squad for this game, we had 12 players who came through the academy.”
They have served him effectively. Of Barca’s last five Liga goals, four have come directly from La Masia graduates, younger ones in the cases of Guiu, Fermin and the 16-year-old winger Yamal, who scored their first senior goals against Mallorca and Granada respectively, and an elder statesman in the case of Sergi against Granada.
What’s more, although the clinching goal against Sevilla at the end of last month was a Sergio Ramos own goal, he was deflecting a Yamal header. “La Masia works,” declared a jubilant Guiu after his dream debut. “And the club has to make the most of it when it’s facing challenges.”
Updated: October 27, 2023, 4:55 AM