They come from an academy known as the farmhouse. They are collected from around the world but the vast majority came from the heart of Catalonia, a north-eastern region of Spain that still bears the scars of that country's long civil war. They begin as early as 10, an age that some in soccer consider late. They are ruthlessly sorted, with the best players collected off the top each year, the rest discarded.
The academy belongs to Barcelona, and the players La Masia de Can Planes has produced are legendary. Xavi Hernandez. Lionel Messi. Andes Iniesta. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas. They have seeded teams across the planet, and inspired countless other coaches, training centers and teams. They are rightly credited with forging the World Cup-winning Spain side of 2010, and they have made Barcelona into what many argue is the greatest team of this generation.
Saturday, that team will line up against Manchester United in the Champions League finals as the favorites. Barcelona may be the ultimate team, built around a core of home-grown talent and still run in a manner that is increasingly alien to the rest of world soccer.
The ability to indoctrinate players early into a system pioneered by Johan Cruyff in the 1980s, commonly called "tiki taki," has proved invaluable. Players are relentlessly drilled in movement off the ball and in technical control while dribbling with the ball. Players spend hours in tight circles, trying to steal possession from their teammates with quick darts and feints. It has led to a mentality that now permeates European soccer, with a premium placed on spatial awareness, fleet passing and maintaining possession.
And it's possible because Barcelona is a true sports club, with thousands of members instead of a lone billionaire at the top (as has become increasingly common in world soccer). With a power base of thousands, they have a diffuse - and sometimes rowdy - electorate that has a direct say in the running of the club. It’s the kind of involvement fans elsewhere in the world envy, input that would be anathema to corporate American sport.
Barcelona also does'’t need a sugar daddy. It is enormously wealthy, with revenues second only to their arch-rival Real Madrid: an estimated $557m in 2009-2010, according to Deloitte. In fact, Barcelona got wealthier this week, formally unveiling its new partnership with Qatar, the embattled holder of the 2022 World Cup. The deal, pegged at $231m over five seasons is the first sponsorship the Catalans has worn on its shirts in five seasons (after famously giving the space over to UNICEF).
That said, the pressures of being at the top are starting to catch up with Barcelona’s balance sheet. Despite having so many players produced on its home soil, Barcelona pays out a whopping 70% of its revenue in wages. It was also behind two of the biggest all-time transfer deals with forays for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa.
Yet, for now, that money has allowed it to assemble a powerhouse. With that core of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta and the judicious addition of men like Brazilian Dani Alves, France’s Eric Abidal and the Langreo-trained David Villa, this Barcelona side may be the best squad on both sides of the ball playing the game today.
In fact, the squad has become better and better as time has worn on, peaking this year with its ability, despite injuries, to hold the ball nearly 75 per cent of the time in big games. That’s a remarkable achievement considering it played powerhouses like Real Madrid and Arsenal along the way.
Saturday, the gritty counterattacking side of Manchester United will be the last hurdle standing in the way of its second European Cup in three seasons. Don't bet against the kids from the farmhouse.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.