The suburbs stretching west of Barcelona are dark and quiet on a recent evening. But on one brightly lit hillside, floodlights illuminate perfectly manicured fields, showing a blur of colour and action. About 125 boys, some as young as 11, race back and forth across the grass, kicking footballs in a complex choreography of attack and defence.
If this were any other suburb, it might be a regular after-school sports activity. But these are no ordinary kids. In their sweatpants and jerseys, they are here for one purpose: to break into the exceedingly rarefied global industry of top-flight football (or soccer, to use the American word). The boys have been handpicked by professional scouts and plucked from their small clubs across Spain and sometimes abroad. Then, like valuable orchids, they’ve been planted in La Masia, the training academy of Football Club Barcelona—one of the richest and most beloved professional sports franchises anywhere in the world. When I ask which boy could be the next Lionel Messi—Barcelona’s superstar, and some would argue the best footballer in history—a staff member points to a lanky 11-year-old in neon-orange cleats, darting across the field. He tells me the boy is from a modest North African immigrant family in Barcelona and destined for stardom. “He is one of the best in Spain,” he crows.
To be the best in football is the dream of countless millions around the world—a measure of the powerful allure of the most global sport on the planet, with children and adults from the U.S. to Uganda watching their favourite teams playing in packed stadiums hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Among the elite clubs, few ranks with Barça, as FC Barcelona is commonly known. More than 100 million people follow Barça on Facebook and tens of millions more on Twitter. Barça has cultivated that mammoth following in part through its intensely colorful history. Its slogan is Més que un club, “More than a club.” And FC Barcelona fights not only to win league titles—it has won Spain’s La Liga two dozen times and many European championships—but also to maintain its unique culture within Spain’s semiautonomous region of Catalonia, which has battled for its separate rights from Madrid for more than a century. Through all that, Barça has kept millions glued to its televised matches, thanks to the fast-paced style it developed in the 1980s, dubbed tiki-taka, in which players rapidly pass the ball as they swap positions. The question now is, Can Barça retain its uniqueness, in an industry that is ever more focused on big money?
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