Here’s an entry from the “Only (Not) in America” file.
The chronicles of Barcelona’s exploits this season are well documented. Lionel Messi has become the first player in the history of Spanish football to tally 50 goals in a season (with just over a month left, to boot), the Blaugrana are on the verge of their third straight league title and three wins away from a Champions League title.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of this season’s travails isn’t played out at the Nou Camp every week. No, arguably Barca’s most impressive entity is reserved for the fields once populated by the defunct Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe and the Andorra national team.
The field is Barcelona’s Mini Estadi, just across the street from the Nou Camp. It’s occupied for a reserve squad that is arguably among the best in the world, fueling a pipeline of talent unmatched in European football.
Thanks to a quirk particular to Spanish football, reserve squads are allowed to contribute in league football rather than just reserve leagues, as is the norm in places such as Italy and England (German reserve squads also can participate in the DFB-Pokal Cup, a 64-team tournament that has spots reserved for regional non-league football qualifiers). Other nations differentiate youth teams and reserve teams; for example, Milan’s reserve squad, Primavera, is reserved for under-20 prospects with older reserves generally heading out on loan or co-ownership deals, while Bayern Munich II sets a general guideline of 18 to 23 for the ages of its players.
Barcelona B, however, can compete in the same league system as its parent club, with the sole caveat that they can’t compete in the same competitions (meaning no Copa Del Rey and no chance of promotion to La Liga). The history of Barcelona B, or Barcelona Atletic, as it was temporarily known, has unsurprisingly experienced plenty of splits, mergers and logistical shuffling thanks to its wealth of talent.
The 2010-11 edition is no exception when it comes to ability. They currently sit fourth in La Segunda, just two points out of the third and final promotion spot that it unattainable by rule. They had long occupied that rung on the ladder, but have grabbed only one point from their last two matches, both against teams (Real Betis and Recreativo Huelva) who last played in La Liga two years ago. All this from a team whose oldest member is 26.
The implications are truly remarkable. Imagine a New York Yankees team so loaded with talent that its International League team warranted inclusion in the American League East. Or if the Philadelphia Phantoms were worthy of joining the NHL.
It’s no wonder why Barca is always in the conversation of Europe’s most dominant teams. The B squad’s alumni reads like Barca’s starting lineup; in fact, only four of Barca’s first-choice starting XI (David Villa, Eric Abidal, Dani Alves, and Gerard Pique) didn’t play for the B team, though Pique was developed in Barca’s youth system before a time in Manchester United’s youth program. It’s also a popular training ground for coaches, yielding such figures as Juande Ramos and Pep Guardiola.
Barcelona has managed to develop a sustainable system that doesn’t involve splashing out millions every transfer window on short-term fixes when they invest smaller amounts on long-term assets that get better with age. The next of those stars looks to be Thiago Alcantara, who’s already made several appearances for the senior side and projects as a natural replacement for the 31-year-old Xavi.
Chances are he won’t be the only name from this La Liga-threatening side that will become a household name in years to come.