BARCELONA, May 25 (Reuters) - 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 interview.
“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 every way.”
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 unbelievable success.”
Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org