BARCELONA May 25 Albert Benaiges was watching
on television at home with his mother and some friends when his
former prodigy Andres Iniesta scored the dramatic goal against
Chelsea that put Barcelona in the Champions League final.
"It was just a feeling of immense joy," the 53-year-old
coordinator of the Catalan club's youth teams, who first came
across Iniesta as a delicate 12-year-old in 1996, said in an
"Our neighbours were also watching and through the wall we
could hear each other screaming and clapping," he added,
referring to Iniesta's strike in added time in the semi-final
second leg in London. "We were ecstatic, jumping up and down."
Benaiges helps to run Barca's famed youth academy, which as
well as producing Iniesta has honed the skills of former player
and current coach Pep Guardiola, Argentine maestro Lionel Messi
and Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas.
Seven players likely to start Wednesday's final against
Manchester United in Rome have passed through: goalkeeper Victor
Valdes, captain Carles Puyol, defender Gerard Pique, midfielders
Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets and forward Messi.
"They are very happy memories," Benaiges said. "Seeing them
where they are now fills me with joy and sharing the experience
of these kids adds a lot to your life."
The academy has become affectionately known as La Masia,
after the stone farmhouse built in 1702 which houses around 60
young recruits from all over Spain and beyond and which has been
dwarfed by the Nou Camp since the massive stadium was built in
the late 1950s.
There they learn what makes Barca such a source of pride for
many Catalans and are imbued with the club's special brand of
stylish, attacking play that their demanding fans insist on.
"The Masia is special because here they learn a little bit
about what Catalonia is," said Benaiges, who has been involved
in the youth academy since 1991.
"They are able to feel what it means to play for a club like
Barcelona and that we are representing a whole nation."
Since 1979 more than 440 youngsters have left their homes
and families to live at the Masia, about half from Catalonia and
the rest from Spain and beyond, including 15 from Cameroon,
seven from Brazil, five from Senegal and three from Argentina.
More than 40 have made it into Barca's first team and almost
as many have played for other sides in Spain's top division.
Benaiges said that what sets the Barca academy apart is the
insistence that the recruits always have a ball at their feet.
"The most important aspect of our programme is always ball
work," he said.
"In all the exercises they do, whether it's physical
preparation or any other kind of training, the ball is always
there. That's what distinguish us from other academies and makes
us very different from other clubs."
When Iniesta arrived at the Masia it was clear he had a
special talent but he was one of the youngest there and had
problems adjusting to life without his family, Benaiges said.
"At the beginning he was suffering. He was very close to his
family, which is very tight-knit, but he adapted after a couple
of months. He is an example for the Masia and a special kid in
Messi stood out for his diminutive size when he moved in as
a 13-year-old but it was obvious that the Argentine, now 21, was
also blessed with special gifts, Benaiges said.
"Leo was very quiet and didn't speak much. He was more of an
introverted kid even though he played well. He was reliable,
always on time, polite.
"Pique, on the other hand, was a little monkey, very naughty
and always on the move, very extrovert with a very open
character. You always had to keep an eye on him."
A typical day at the Masia begins at seven a.m. and recruits
spend the morning at school until lunch at one p.m.
After a short rest, they study for an hour-and-a-half and
then at six p.m. train for two-and-a-half hours at the club's
facility at Sant Joan Despi. Dinner is at 9.15 p.m. and lights
out at 11.30.
"At the moment there are players from Barcelona's youth
academy in almost all the clubs in Spain," Benaiges said.
"The kids who don't live at the Masia are less likely to
make it," he added. "There are limited places in the first
division and it's hard to distinguish yourself."
Benaiges said he never trained Guardiola, who was 13 when he
moved into the Masia from his home village of Santpedor around
70 kms outside the city.
"He was an exceptionally intelligent soccer player and a
born winner," he said.
"And as a coach, well you can see what he has done in his
first year in charge. If they win on Wednesday it will be an
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story