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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 22:39 GMT
Celtic follow Barca road to success

By Jonathan Stevenson

As the English Premier League discusses the merits of cashing in on its popularity by playing matches abroad, in Spain, one of the world's biggest clubs continues to serve and be run by the people of its region.

Against AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday, Arsenal are likely to field a team without a single Englishman.

At Celtic Park on the same evening, FC Barcelona will have three born-and-bred Catalans in their line-up, with another - Oleguer - only absent because of injury.

Barcelona is special... it was the conduit for a feeling when people could not express themselves

Barcelona's Oleguer Presas

Add the likes of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Giovani dos Santos and Bojan Krkic, who have all risen through the Barcelona academy from a young age and you have a group of players who passionately know what it means to represent their club.

Oleguer, in particular, is aware of Barcelona's heritage. Barca's old stadium Les Corts was one of the only places Catalans could speak Catalan during Franco's dictatorship and Oleguer believes Barcelona is about more than just football.

"Barcelona is genuinely special. It is the invocation of a country, representing Catalan identity and culture," said Oleguer in his autobiography.

"Barca was a conduit for a feeling when people could not express themselves and, for me, it's a dream to be here at such a successful time."


Football consultant Alex Fynn, who has advised clubs and federations on media marketing, says English clubs in particular are severing the strong ties they have built up with their supporters.

"Look at Barcelona - they have an affinity with the audience and are a symbol of national pride and that's part of their raison d'etre," Fynn told BBC Sport.

"The club is a spokesperson for their region and for that reason they have to prioritise growing their own players in the way no English club does."

Having seen Barcelona's success at grooming homegrown players Celtic, it seems, are keen to get in on the act, with the completion of a multi-million pound training facility at the end of last year.

BBC Sport finds out how the Barca academy consistently churns out such top-quality, largely local players and what Celtic are doing to close the gap on their European adversaries.


With such a proud history behind them, it is almost an obligation for Barca to pick a team with strong Catalan roots and with Oleguer, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol and Xavi in the ranks, this is a regular occurrence.

That is not to say they ignore other areas of Spain, though, with skilful midfielder Iniesta plucked from Albacete when he was only 12.

Barcelona's Catalan players
(Left to right) Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta

Barca's 1992 European Cup-winning captain Jose Ramon Alexanco is now a coach at their cantera - literally meaning mine - and he told BBC Sport how crucial it is that the Blaugranes continue to produce world-class footballers.

"It is an essential part of what we try to do at the academy, to take kids and let them progress through the club so they have a chance of getting in the first team," he said.

"Whatever their age when they arrive, the kids know they have the opportunity to evolve - not only as footballers but also as people, too.

"They know that if they are trained in the football environment from early on and fulfil their potential, they will get the chance here to play at the top level and that is something they value greatly."

At Barca, I hardly ever trained without a ball at my feet

Barcelona's Lionel Messi

The cantera comprises 15 teams, 290 players and 110 employees and of the current squad, Valdes, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Oleguer, Dos Santos, Messi, Bojan and Albert Jorquera have all come up through the ranks at the Camp Nou.

Throw in Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, Liverpool's Pepe Reina, Everton's Mikel Arteta and Manchester United's Gerard Pique and it is easy to see why there is so much interest in Barca's youth set-up.

Despite spending about 45m in the summer of 2007 on Eric Abidal, Gabriel Milito, Yaya Toure and Thierry Henry, it is cantera graduates Bojan, 17, and Giovani, 18, who have arguably made the biggest impression at the club this season.

"I believe Barcelona has become a club from which many players do develop through the youth system and manage to break into the team on a regular basis," added Alexanco.

Bojan Krkic and Giovani dos Santos
Bojan and Giovani are the latest products of the Barcelona academy

"In this sense, we are an example of a club that can construct a team of both large signings and youngsters who have worked to get through from the academy.

"Everything we work towards is for the result that we produce players like Messi, like Giovani, like Bojan.

"Both Giovani and Bojan have many qualities that suggest they are ready for first-team football.

"But the most important part is that the manager Frank Rijkaard counts on them and gives them minutes of play because it is crucial that they gain this experience of playing at the top level."

Messi, who continues to make a case for being the world's best player, has spoken in the past of the importance of his footballing education at Barcelona.

"The Barcelona youth programme is one of the best in the world," said the 20-year-old Argentine. "As a kid they teach you not to play to win, but to grow in ability as a player.

"At Barca, we trained every day with the ball, I hardly ever ran without a ball at my feet. It was a form of training aimed very clearly at developing your skills."


If Barcelona have designed the template for the modern-day football club to thrive, it would seem Celtic are happy to follow their lead.

On 9 October 2007, the Scottish champions opened their 8m training centre and youth academy at Lennoxtown, East Dunbartonshire, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

The 46-acre site, situated near Campsie Fells, includes indoor and outdoor pitches, grass and artificial surfaces and state-of-the-art medical and sports injury recovery facilities with, on spare land nearby, a view to building conference facilities and live-in dormitory areas for young players.

There will always be an emphasis on skills at Celtic - the philosophy of the club is based on technique

Celtic head of youth development Tommy Burns

Head of youth development Tommy Burns travelled the length of Europe studying the facilities of several top-class clubs and managers past and present, Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan, were also heavily involved.

Bhoys former chairman Brian Quinn knew just how important Celtic's new base was to their playing future as well as strengthening their ties with the local area.

"These excellent training grounds allow us to bring our traditional work with the community to East Dunbartonshire," said Quinn at the opening of the complex.

Aiden McGeady
McGeady's trickery has delighted Celtic fans this season

"Football clubs risk losing their unique appeal if they fail to keep their ties within the community in good order. That is what distinguishes them from other enterprises."

It is not only the local community that stands to gain though because the Celtic youth system could become the major beneficiary of the club's glamorous new surrounds.

Whisper it quietly but their coaching methods also appear to take a leaf out of the continental handbook - with that infamous word 'technique' featuring highly on their wish-list for young players.

Burns has said he believes the form of Celtic's outstanding young playmaker Aiden McGeady is making it easy to impress upon the club's youngsters just how important it is to play football in the right way.

"There will always be an emphasis on skills at Celtic," he stated. "The philosophy of the club is based on technique.

"Look at McGeady, he combines the more physical side of the game with the technique aspect and he is the perfect example for every youth player at the club who is striving to reach the first team."


Celtic are some way behind producing the quality of players from their academy that Barcelona will have at their disposal at Parkhead on Wednesday night.

But by basing much of their future on their ability to produce homegrown players, Celtic are going some way to ensuring that they do not lose sight of the heritage that helped make them a great club.

With 'globalisation' almost a watchword in football right now, both Barcelona and Celtic provide refreshing optimism for the traditionalist.

  • Alexanco translated from Spanish by Dominic Stevenson

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