FC BARCELONA IS MORE THAN A CLUB, MORE THAN A CHAMPION AND MORE THAN LIONEL MESSI—IT IS THE EMBODIMENT OF A SPORTING IDEAL THAT HAS MADE IT BELOVED ACROSS THE GLOBE
The Hogwarts of sports is a sparkling steel-and-glass building in Sant Joan Despí, a sleepy suburb not far from the Gaudí-bejeweled center of Barcelona. On a starlit night with breezes blowing in off the Mediterranean, the teams of FC Barcelona's youth academy descend in waves of yellow onto a manicured practice field. They march down from La Masia (the Farmhouse), the name given to the 300-year-old residence that housed Bar√ßa's first academy and transferred to the decidedly less bucolic school at the club's new $87 million training headquarters.
It's a special evening, a chance for Bar√ßa to shoot team photographs under the floodlights and present its best and brightest to a gathering of proud parents in the stands. A phalanx of taxis waits in the parking lot, meters running, ready to ferry teen and preteen prospects from Catalonian towns back to their homes, as they do every night at the club's expense. Most of the remaining two thirds of the academy's players—boarders from other Spanish regions and a dozen countries—live on site in an educational and sporting laboratory that is both nurturing and fiercely competitive.
The children draw closer. You study their faces and can't help but wonder: Which of these eight- and 12- and 14-year-olds might turn into the planet's best soccer player, the closest thing in sports to King of the World? Which ones will help add to Bar√ßa's Champions League titles, three in the last seven seasons? Usually such questions are preposterous. Most top European clubs—Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea—are lucky to have even one homegrown player in their starting lineups. But La Masia's track record of developing champions is unprecedented, the evidence visible every time FC Barcelona takes the field.
In Bar√ßa's Champions League game against Spartak Moscow on Sept. 19, eight of the team's 11 starters—including Lionel Messi, the world's preeminent player—were products of the club's youth academy. On Bar√ßa's first goal, forward Tello (who joined the club at age 13) cut inside on a dime and blasted a shot from distance into the right corner. Later, with Bar√ßa down 2--1, Tello slalomed past a defender and fed Messi (who also joined at 13) for the tap-in equalizer. Finally, as Spartak desperately crowded all 11 players behind the ball, Bar√ßa unspooled a majestic sequence from its own half: 18 passes, short and long, on the ground and in the air, using the full width of the field.
There's a tantric rhythm to Barcelona's scoring buildups that Sting would love. Pass and move, pass and move. Each man on the ball has at least two options, creating triangles large and small, a blend of movement and geometry that calls to mind the turning wheel of a kaleidoscope as the attack proceeds inexorably downfield. Spartak was powerless. Bar√ßa's passing sequence involved nine players in 55 seconds, including academy products Xavi (from age 11), Cesc F√†bregas (from 10), Pedro (from 17), Sergio Busquets (from 17) and, as ever, Messi. The 25-year-old Argentine is capable of astonishing individual pyrotechnics—see his snaking 60-yard scoring run to beat six Getafe defenders in 2007—but his game-winning header against Spartak off Alexis Sànchez's cross was something else, a true team goal, the difference between a cobra strike and a python's slow asphyxiation. Both, in the end, are lethal.
Today's Bar√ßa academy members know all of Messi's greatest hits. Only a few of these boys will survive the club's ruthless cuts and join him on the first team someday, but by the time they do they will feel FC Barcelona—the history, the identity, the style—in their blood and in their bones.
Bar√ßa's president, Sandro Rosell, knows this. On a hope-filled night with soccer's school of wizardry looming behind him, Rosell addresses the future Messis and Xavis and their parents in Catalan, waxing philosophical about the role of La Masia. "This is the essence of the club," he concludes, his hands outstretched, before leading everyone in a thunderous chant.
History matters. And so, after Barcelona won the Champions League final in May 2011, pounding Manchester United 3--1 in soccer's most thrilling display of the past 25 years, defender Gerard Piqué did something no one else had tried at the sport's marquee annual event. He cut down the net. All 452 square feet of it. As he strode across the field, piles of nylon billowing over his shoulders, Piqué resembled a Catalonian fisherman bringing in a prize catch. "When I see a basketball team win, they cut down the net," explains Piqué, 25, a Bar√ßa academy product. "So I said, Why not us?"
Part of the net now hangs on a wall in Piqué's home, a tangible reminder of the day Barcelona reached a new pinnacle. It wasn't just that it had outclassed England's most storied team, or that it claimed another coveted winner's trophy, one of a remarkable 14 in 20 competitions over the past five seasons. (No other team has come close.) The spectacle also hailed the triumph of an idea: that beautiful, intricate soccer can be winning soccer, and that it can be homegrown. Two years ago all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d'Or, given to the world's best player, had developed as children at FC Barcelona: Messi, the winner, and midfield string pullers Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. It was as though three people from the same middle school had won Nobel Prizes.
Imagine that nearly all the members of the New York Yankees lineup had played baseball in the organization since their early to mid-teens, and you'd have Barcelona, which meets Real Madrid this Sunday in the latest edition of the sports world's fiercest rivalry. "I've played with some of my teammates since I was 12," says F√†bregas, now 25. "When Messi first came, we were both 13. He was so tiny! We're all more like friends, and we fight for each other. I could go with this team to the end of the world."
Experts have scrambled to put Barcelona's feats in historical context. "In my time as manager, it's the best team we have played," said Sir Alex Ferguson, Man United's coach since 1986, after the 2011 defeat. Where does the Barcelona of the past five years rank among the top soccer teams of all time? "The short answer is by far the best," says Ray Hudson, the poet laureate of Spanish soccer for beIN Sport television, launching into a six-minute ode that is anything but a short answer. "I can't imagine anybody going beyond this purest example of football. They have spoiled the game for me. When I try to watch other teams and other leagues, it's like I've just read a wonderful novel and gone back to nursery-rhyme books."
As Barcelona aims for its third Champions League title in five seasons, its popularity, like Piqué's clever net removal, transcends soccer itself. In 1992 the Dream Team swaggered into the Barcelona Olympics with the signature basketball players of a generation—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird—and changed the face of global sports. Now, 20 years later, it's as though Barcelona is returning the favor, mesmerizing hard-core f√∫tbol followers while winning new hearts and minds for the Beautiful Game. When SI conducted a Facebook survey asking users to name their top sports moment of 2011, Messi's Champions League final performance received more first-place votes from the U.S. than the champions of the NFL, NBA and NHL. In New York City's Times Square, chances are you'll see as many Messi Barcelona jerseys on people as the shirt of any other athlete. Bar√ßa's Facebook page has 35 million subscribers, more than any other sports team.
There have been other international sports dynasties—Jordan's six-time NBA champion Bulls, for example—but at least one authority on soccer and the NBA thinks Barcelona has left those teams behind. "To win in Spain and around Europe and the world club competition the way they have, it's unprecedented in the modern era," says two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, an ardent culé (Bar√ßa fan) who dragged his girlfriend to watch Messi's Marauders on a pub TV during a Jamaican vacation last year. "And to do it with the style and beauty they've done it with, you've got to give them extra credit. Not that the Bulls weren't fun to watch, but this is something else."
In an era in which supporting the Yankees and the Heat feels like cheering for Microsoft, you can root for FC Barcelona and feel good about it on every level. Bar√ßa is the paragon of a championship sports team: exciting, homegrown, tied to the community, with an inspiring social mission and the world's most magical player. What's more, Barcelona players are the core of Spain's national team, the first to hold the World Cup and two European crowns at the same time.
History matters. Barcelona is already pulling away in the Spanish league, and it's favored to win the Champions League. If the club can raise both trophies again, there will be no doubt: Bar√ßa is the team of our time.
Lionel Andrés Messi has inspired millions of words in a babel of tongues, but perhaps the best way to summarize him is this: When he is in the game, even hard-core fans might witness something they have never seen before. Take Barcelona's 2--0 victory over Granada on Sept. 22. Late in the game Messi dribbled from the left side into the penalty area, where two defenders sandwiched him, briefly dislodging the ball. In a split second, at full speed, Messi flicked his foot behind him to tap the ball, ran around the defender to meet the ball again and pinballed a low cross off Granada defender Borja Gómez and into the net.
The stat sheet would list it as an own goal, but the rest of us could only watch in disbelief. A backheel to himself. In the box. Even Hudson, calling the game on TV, was at a loss for words: "Just another out-of-body experience for Lionel Messi." Indeed, it's hard not to get spiritual watching Messi. Just as the Bulls' triangle offense needed a sporting genius for it to enter the pantheon, so too does Barcelona's triangle offense. "It's a special group of players with obvious talent," says F√†bregas, "and the best player that there has ever been."
The résumé Messi has already produced at age 25 only begins to make the case: a world-record 73 goals in all club competitions last season, including an unprecedented five in one Champions League game; 252 goals and 89 assists in 331 Bar√ßa appearances at week's end; three Champions League and five Spanish league titles; and three straight world player of the year awards, also unprecedented. Already he has joined Pelé and Diego Maradona in the debate over the greatest player of all time, and while detractors note that Messi has yet to win a World Cup (Pelé won three, Maradona one), it's also true that the sport has changed since the days of those older stars. The Champions League is now viewed in many precincts as a superior competition to the World Cup because it features more top players, a bigger sample size and a higher level of play that international soccer's marquee quadrennial event. Pelé never played club soccer in Europe, while Maradona never won the top European club crown, which was decided by a smaller-scale tournament during his career. If Messi keeps winning the most important club trophies and putting up off-the-charts numbers with Bar√ßa, he may not need the World Cup to be called the greatest.
Messi's relationship with his Barcelona teammates is strikingly symbiotic. For all of Bar√ßa's ball possession, little of it would matter if Messi were not there to finish. To understand what Bar√ßa might be like without Messi, look at Spain during much of Euro 2012, when La Roja kept other teams from scoring but had trouble doing so itself. Yet Messi needs his Bar√ßa teammates if he's to play at his highest level. Without them—and especially without the intuitive understanding he shares with Xavi and Iniesta—Messi can sometimes be frustrated and diminished, not least when he's playing for Argentina.
When fans from his home country want to sting Messi, they say he's more Catalan than Argentine. It's not true. Messi still consumes Argentine beef and maté tea, speaks Spanish with an Argentine accent and is awaiting the birth of his first child with girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo, who's from his hometown of Rosario. Then again, Messi also embodies traits more commonly associated with Catalans, who are known for dealmaking, efficiency and a cleverness that has a softer edge than its Argentine counterpart. While Maradona's brilliance came by any means necessary—including scoring a goal with his fist in the 1986 World Cup—Messi is known for his fair play. Despite the sometimes brutal defending he faces, he does not dive. Messi's rise into the sporting stratosphere has paralleled Barcelona's. Small wonder that Bar√ßa's fans in the Camp Nou consider him one of their own.
The 5'7" Messi is a master of many things, from balance and coordination to speed and a seemingly limitless imagination on the field. Alas, describing his talents in his own words, as many have learned, is not among them. Perhaps by design, Messi is as reserved as Maradona is bombastic. Fortunately, Messi's teammates are happy to speak for him. They grow animated when asked the question, As someone who has reached the top of the sport yourself, what do you see in Messi that impresses you the most?
On a sun-filled morning at the team's training complex, Xavi's eyes widen and he gets jazz hands as he talks about Messi. "The hardest thing in soccer is to take on the defender and dribble around him," he says. "Well, Messi dribbles around four, five, six, seven and scores. That's practically impossible today. Everybody is physically strong, tall. In a combination play you can get there, but he does it by himself and does it in each game. In soccer there are two speeds: physical, the speed of your legs, and mental. I only have this one"—Xavi points to his head—"but he has both. That's why he's the best in the world."
Other elements are in play too. F√†bregas explains why he thinks Messi is the real thing: "When the final ball is played he's always on the end of things, but it's because he makes the really big effort to get in the nice positions. His desire is so big that he makes the other players look like they don't want it as bad."
What's more, Messi's teammates say, he's the last person you'd expect to issue an Are we talkin' about practice? rant in the Allen Iverson mold. "[He] could say, 'O.K., I'm the best, but in training I don't care, I can be lazy,'" says Piqué, "but he's working at the same level in training as well. It's unbelievable."
Xavi thinks Messi will spend his entire career at Barcelona. "He's happy, and he was raised here," Xavi says. "I don't think he can leave for another club." That's not to say Messi will stand still. In the face of new challenges, remaining at the top requires reinvention. Barcelona lost enough of its edge last season to finish second in the Spanish league behind Real Madrid and go out in the Champions League semifinals to the eventual surprise winner, Chelsea. Pep Guardiola, the Bar√ßa coach and mastermind who also developed as a player at La Masia, left his job at age 41 after a remarkable four-year run. (He's taking a year's sabbatical with his family in New York City.)
Can Barcelona return to dominance under Guardiola's former assistant, Tito Vilanova? And can Messi and Bar√ßa find ways to beat teams that follow Chelsea's playbook and pack as many players as possible in the defensive end? "That's the key about Messi: As a player he's reinventing himself each season, improving year after year," says Carles Folguera, the director of Barcelona's youth academy. "He's not only a top scorer but an assist leader as well. He can play on the wings and up the middle. That's his own ability to grow and improve and take a hard look at himself."
With all the changes, there's a sense that Messi is entering a new phase of his career, like Picasso making the transition from his Blue Period to Cubism. In that case, Messi has chosen the right place, a city in which soccer and art are one and the same.
The procession never stops. In the shadow of the Camp Nou, Barcelona's 98,000-seat stadium, the FC Barcelona museum attracts an endless stream of visitors. Foreign tourists are among the pilgrims, of course, but so are waves of Catalans: schoolkids on field trips, old-timers reliving childhood memories, teenage girls tittering over giant photographs of Piqué and Messi and F√†bregas. The shrine to Bar√ßa's past and present is the most visited museum in the city, more than those devoted to Picasso and Miró, more than the museum at La Sagrada Família.
The FC Barcelona motto—Més que un club, Catalan for "More than a club"—is deliberately open-ended. In one sense it refers to Bar√ßa's social mission as a 113-year-old organization with 118,000 dues-paying members who vote in elections for the club's leaders. For years Bar√ßa was the only major soccer team that refused to sell space on its jersey to a corporate sponsor, before making the novel decision in 2006 to donate about $2 million a year and put UNICEF's logo there. (The big-spending Qatar Foundation replaced it last season in a $225 million sponsorship deal as Bar√ßa addressed a $430 million net debt amassed largely through bank loans to pay for transfers; but UNICEF remains on the back.)
In another sense the motto highlights Barcelona's place as a touchstone for Catalan identity. "It's the people's club," says Rosell, a former Nike executive who once served as a ball boy at the Camp Nou. "It's a club that understands what it means to be from Barcelona and Catalonia, what it means to be a club that had run-ins with a dictatorship for 40 years and survived with values opposed to what the dictatorship stood for."
FC Barcelona first became a political force in 1918, when it joined a campaign for the autonomy of Catalonia from Castilian Spain. After Bar√ßa fans booed the Spanish national anthem in 1925, the military regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera shut down the club for six months and forced its founder, Joan Gamper, and his family to leave the country. During the Spanish Civil War police supporting General Francisco Franco arrested and executed Bar√ßa's president, Josep Sunyol, after he tried to visit Republican troops protecting Madrid against a right-wing siege. Catalonia bitterly resisted Franco's coup, and when Barcelona finally fell, the general's troops bombed the building that held Bar√ßa's trophies. Problems between the club and the Spanish state only continued during Franco's 36-year rule. The dictatorship forced the club to change its name to the Spanish Club de F√∫tbol Barcelona and ended its direct elections. Yet Bar√ßa's stadium remained the only place where 100,000 Catalans could voice their fury at Franco, who refrained from crushing their protests.
Franco was a soccer fan. His favorite team was Real Madrid, which met Barcelona in the semifinals of the General's Cup in 1943, four years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Bar√ßa won the first leg 3--0, but Franco's director of state security entered the locker room before the return leg in Madrid and warned Barcelona's players that the regime had graciously allowed them to return to Spain from wartime exile. During a time of violent reprisals against dissidents, the menace in his hint was unmistakable; Barcelona took the field and lost 11--1.
Bar√ßa won two Spanish titles over Real Madrid in the early 1950s, but in '53 the Franco-controlled national soccer federation settled a dispute between the two rivals over the signing of Argentine star Alfredo Di Stéfano that resulted in his joining Madrid. He would lead Real to an unprecedented five straight European Cup titles from 1956 through '60 and help turn Real into the world's preeminent team.
"When I talk to Real Madrid historians, they always ask me, Was Real Madrid manipulating the military or was the military manipulating Real Madrid?" says Carles Santacana, a historian at the University of Barcelona. The Marshall Plan had given nothing to Spain, a neutral Axis ally that was isolated internationally after World War II. But relations between Franco and the former Allies began thawing in the 1950s, leading to Spain's admission to the United Nations in '55. Real Madrid became a face of that change. "Starting with the European Cup, it was a way for the Spanish authorities to say, We're something in the world, in Europe," says Santacana. "A foreign minister said Real Madrid was Spain's best ambassador."
The turning point for Bar√ßa came during Franco's final years, in the early 1970s, when more backroom intrigue sent the visionary Dutch player Johan Cruyff to Barcelona. After the Di Stéfano controversy, the Spanish federation forbade new signings of foreigners for two decades, unless those players were the sons of Spaniards who had emigrated to Latin America. In 1971 the federation allowed 38 of those so-called oriundos to join Spanish teams but nixed Bar√ßa's signings of two of them. Suspecting it was being singled out, Barcelona sent a lawyer to South America to check the documentation of the 38, according to Santacana. "Only one had legitimate paperwork," the historian says. "The rest falsified theirs. Bar√ßa put the report on the table and came to an agreement with the federation not to release it in exchange for the lifting of the ban on foreigners. And that's how they signed Cruyff in 1973."
One of the greatest players of all time, Cruyff had the attitude to match his stature, and he wasn't afraid to voice his political views: He said he would never have joined Real Madrid because of its association with Franco. In his debut season with Barcelona, the 26-year-old Cruyff led the club to the Spanish league title, its first in 14 years, including a historic 5--0 victory at Real. "You can still get older people to start crying about that day," says Sam Lardner, a former Bar√ßa ice hockey player who has lived in Barcelona since 1997 and served on the board of Cruyff's foundation. "Catalan culture is wrapped up in pact making. Catalans are not an aggressive people. They have never had a decisive strategic military victory in their history. So Johan was walking into a cultural feeling of never quite being able to win that goes way back. When he did that, it was like: wow."
Yet Cruyff's legacy at Bar√ßa has come less as a player than as the embodiment of a philosophy, one that now seeps through every level of the club down to the youth teams. Based on the Dutch school of soccer, it values skill over brawn, ball possession over quick-hit counterattacks, entertainment over pragmatism. Cruyff instilled the idea as Bar√ßa's coach from 1988 to '96, winning four Spanish league titles and a European Cup, and the style is constantly being refined. "Cruyff's first rule or idea was to defend through ball possession," says Xavi, 32. "If there's only one ball in play and you have control of it, you don't need to defend. And then the idea of attacking soccer: triangles, long possessions. We've had this philosophy since Cruyff came, and now we've had the good fortune of having a fantastic generation of players."
How that generation arrived at the top of the soccer world is the story of La Masia.
Cesc F√†bregas can close his eyes and remember the exhaustion he felt as a 10-year-old. Every weekday at 5 p.m. a taxi would pick him up at his house in Arenys de Mar, 25 miles outside Barcelona. In the next two hours the taxi would make five other stops before delivering the half-dozen boys to practice at the Bar√ßa youth academy, which in those days was next to the Camp Nou. A 90-minute practice would follow, and then another two-hour cab ride home, followed by dinner, homework, a few hours of sleep and back to school the next morning at seven. "I was too tired as a young boy, and I couldn't sleep very well, but this is what I loved," he says. "So after three years I moved to La Masia."
They all have their sacrifice stories, from F√†bregas to Messi (who moved from Argentina to Barcelona with his family in early adolescence) to hundreds of other prospects who didn't make the grade. Founded in 1979 as the brainchild of Cruyff, Barcelona's youth academy is based on the one run by Ajax, the Amsterdam club that gave the Dutchman his start. The guiding principle is to instill the same skill-based philosophy that guides the senior team. "It's like getting a master's in soccer," Xavi says. "In each session they teach you objectives. Why do we do this exercise? Many teams train just to get physically fit, but the key is to understand the game, to choose the moment you play the ball short in order to then play it long. To know how to decide on the field is the most important thing they teach at La Masia. But it's also a school of life because it teaches you the values of respect, humility and camaraderie. It's a way to live soccer and life."
The emphasis is on quality over quantity of practice time. Training sessions take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m.—three times a week for academy members under 13, four times for older ones—with a game on the weekend. For boarders, the typical day involves attending school from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., returning for lunch and then homework until six, followed by practice. Of the 80 current residents at La Masia, 58 are there for soccer, the rest for basketball, handball and ice hockey. Merely by being admitted to the academy, youngsters have survived a competitive winnowing process. "You always seek talent," says Guillermo Amor, a former academy graduate and Barcelona player and now La Masia's sporting director. "That's fundamental, to have very good players at a young age. Before, you sought out 14- and 15-year-old kids. Now you have to go younger. That makes us work hard to get the best players in our seventh soccer division, who are the smallest and start with seven-year-olds."
The way Amor sees it, La Masia's success comes from having the confidence to place faith in young players and train them to excel on the global stage. When in doubt, most top teams choose to spend millions to bring in a proven star. While most major European clubs have youth academies, few are as committed to inculcating in their young players an entire philosophy. Bar√ßa has selectively tabbed established players, such as David Villa and Ronaldinho, but its preference is to dip into the prospect pool. It helps that everyone can see the results of the process every time Barcelona's senior team takes the field. But unlike the first team, the youth academy isn't about the unceasing pursuit of trophies. "We never tell kids, 'Go out and win, win, win; we want titles,'" says Amor. "We're forming players—people—and there will be time to win the day they play on the first team. But not to win at any price. We want to win by controlling the ball, bringing it up from the back, taking the initiative, dominating. That's our style."
There's a human side to the academy, of course. Only a handful of chosen ones will reach the senior team. At the end of every spring the academy directors make their cuts—"the hardest moment," Amor says, in part because the emotional bonds are so tight.
"When we talk about La Masia, we do so as if it were a family for these kids," says Folguera, the academy director. "We know about their grades, their nutrition, the problems they have, how they get along with their families, if they have girlfriends. We're always with them." For the same reasons, those who do make it feel as if the club is part of their fundamental identity. For them, the Barcelona shirt is never just laundry.
Nor for Bar√ßa is producing players the same as making widgets. "We're not going to clone Xavi, Messi or Iniesta just because in X number of years they're not going to be around anymore," says Andoni Zubizarreta, Bar√ßa's football director, "but the idea behind our style will be."
Who will be La Masia's gems of the next generation? Perhaps Gerard Deulofeu, 18, a forward from nearby Girona who has already debuted with the senior team. Or Jean Marie Dongou, 17, a marvelously talented Cameroonian striker. Or Alejandro Grimaldo, 17, a gifted left back from Valencia. Who knows? For the first time there's even an American at La Masia: Ben Lederman, a midfielder from the Los Angeles area. After being chosen in a tryout, Lederman moved to Barcelona with his family last year so that he could join the academy.
More than a club. The reminders of Bar√ßa's transcendence are large and small, global and domestic. During a Champions League game at the Camp Nou last month, large sections of the stadium dusted off the old chants for Catalan independence, amid Catalan political leader Artur Mas's calls for fiscal sovereignty from the rest of Spain and a subsequent march of 1.5 million Catalans in the streets of Barcelona on Sept. 11.
What's more, at a time when the unemployment rate in Spain is hovering at 25%, at least one player is acutely aware of the role Bar√ßa plays in society. Messi may be Barcelona's resident genius, but the keeper of Cruyff's flame is Xavi, the figure who most clearly embodies the club's philosophy, now and in the future. Cruyff himself rarely visits anymore, the result of disagreements with Rosell, the club's president. But Xavi has lived the apotheosis of Cruyff's Barcelona, winning three Champions League titles—and, playing a similar style, a World Cup and the last two Euros with Spain. Xavi thinks the game more than any other Bar√ßa player. In the past two seasons he has nine of the top 15 Champions League performances in terms of completed passes in a match. He will almost surely coach Barcelona someday.
In an era in which athleticism, defense and brawn have threatened to take over the world's game, Xavi feels in his core that Barcelona is fighting for the soul of soccer. "I believe in this philosophy of ours," he says, "but years ago, because we weren't winning, people had doubts. Italy had won the World Cup; Greece had won the Euro. The Champions League was won by physical teams. And I thought, No, it can't be. Soccer is talent, you know. For the good of the fans, for the good of the game, talented players should always play the sport. But I'm a soccer romantic, and there are others who only want to win, win, compete, defend. Hell no. Soccer can be very beautiful."
If that sounds romantic, then so be it. Barcelona has taken the game to places it has never been, exceeding what we thought was possible, creating new fans in the process. "They've raised people's appreciation of what they do beyond simple sport, as all greats do," says Graham Hunter, author of Bar√ßa: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. "I don't think it's false to say that in times of economic crisis, when a lot of people around the world are fearful for their daily existence, it's as if God sent this era at Barcelona."
In a sometimes ugly world the team of our time brings a simple joy. When Xavi ventures out into the city, older fans, the ones who know the history, stop him on the street, pulling him close. "They tell me, 'Thanks for playing soccer like that. You make me enjoy it,'" he says. "You can't top that for me."
He smiles. History matters. Beauty too.
"I'VE PLAYED WITH SOME OF MY TEAMMATES SINCE I WAS 12," SAYS F√ÄBREGAS. "I COULD GO WITH THIS TEAM TO THE END OF THE WORLD."
"CRUYFF SAID HE COULD NEVER HAVE JOINED REAL MADRID BECAUSE OF ITS ASSOCIATION WITH THE FRANCO DICTATORSHIP.
INSIDE THE SUPERCLUBS
This is the first installment in SI's occasional series Inside the SuperClubs, which will take an in-depth look at the world's top pro soccer teams. For more stories by Grant Wahl on Barcelona, go to SI.com/soccer
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THEY'RE EVERYWHERE Is there any place on earth without Barcelona fans? A random sampling includes (clockwise from top left) a Syrian rebel in Aleppo; a Haitian bus driver in Port-au-Prince; a Palestinian protester on the West Bank; culés outside Rome's Colosseum; a Muslim at prayer in Pri≈°tina, Kosovo; faux sumos in Yokohama, Japan; a superfan at home in Soyapango, El Salvador; and Kobe Bryant at Kastles Stadium in Washington.
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THE CLOSER Bar√ßa's game plan is to control the ball and ultimately get it to Messi, the most prolific scorer in Europe and three-time world player of the year, whose nose for the net is unerring.
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SCHOOLBOYS Unlike other top European clubs, Bar√ßa draws most of its stars, such as Iniesta (right), F√†bregas (4) and Xavi, from its own suburban academy (far right).
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LAST LAUGH With Di Stéfano (top right), Real Madrid dominated European soccer in the 1950s, but Cruyff (above, in 1989) transformed Bar√ßa (left, during a win over Real last January) into a team that could outclass the Blancos.
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EFE/CORBIS (DI STEFANO)
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JAIME REINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES