Football Features

La Masia’s lost sons: The players you might not know have Barcelona ‘DNA’

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:00, 23 March 2021

La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy, is one of the best places in the world to develop footballers.

It has produced such historic legends as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdés, Gerard Piqué and, yes, Lionel Messi too. It’s produced many great players besides them, like Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Marc Bartra.

It’s a production line for quality footballers that usually succeed at Barcelona, allowing the Catalan club to be one of the best sides in the world. But not all of the players go on to wear the famous Blaugrana; or if they do they wear it, they do so just briefly before making such a name for themselves elsewhere that people often forget their roots.

Here’s a list of 12 of the most memorable of La Masia’s lost sons:

1. Mauro Icardi

Position: Striker

Career path: Barcelona, Sampdoria, Inter, PSG

Once Inter’s fearsome striker, the mercurial Argentine whose goalscoring prowess is only overshadowed by his interpersonal relationships, the player whose very essence as a “bad boy” runs counter to everything Barcelona allege to stand for, was once a Barcelona youngster!

Icardi joined the club at the start of the Pep Guardiola era and progressed through the youth teams there for two-and-a-half seasons. He was impressive, but the first team had shifted to using a false nine and with that system permeating through all teams, Icardi lost his spot to Rafinha before, in the end, deciding to leave for Sampdoria.

No one could blame him, and he shone brightly for Sampdoria before eventually joining Inter. In Milan, he amassed more than 200 games and over 100 goals. Things deteriorated for the Argentine, culminating in a move to PSG (initially on loan and since made permanent) where he’s largely managed to find his groove once more; scoring goals without any of the off-field drama that dogged him in Milan.

2. Hector Bellerin

Position: Right-back

Career path: Barcelona, Arsenal

Héctor Bellerin is so North London that you’ve probably forgotten he is a product of the famed La Masia academy. The Catalan moved to Arsenal as a 16-year-old winger and there, in the Gunners’ youth teams, was moulded into a full-back.

This was the change Bellerin needed and he’s been an ever-improving talent since. Injuries have dogged his most recent seasons, stunting his growth somewhat, but there can be no doubt that when healthy he is a genuinely gamechanging force from right-back. He is currently one of Arsenal’s more senior players whilst also being a style icon and a genuine role model for the kids with his kindness and compassion.

3. Nayim

Position: Midfielder

Career path: Barcelona, Spurs, Zaragoza, Logrones

Remember Nayim? Even if you’re not a Spurs fan you’ll probably recall him as the Spaniard who came on for Paul Gascoigne in the 1991 FA Cup Final. Nayim played well as Spurs came from behind to win; it was even his corner that led to Des Walker’s unfortunate own goal.

At Barcelona, he came through the ranks of La Masia (after joining as a teenager) but because chances were limited under Terry Venables, he left for Spurs. Venables would later join him there. When Nayim left Spurs he joined Zaragoza, where he had one final gift for Spurs fans, lobbing David Seaman from 45 yards out to win the Cup Winner’s Cup against Arsenal.

4. Pepe Reina

Position: Goalkeeper

Career path: Barcelona, Villarreal, Liverpool, Napoli (loan), Bayern Munich, Napoli, Milan, Aston Villa (loan), Lazio

Perhaps it was because they signed him from Villarreal, but even Liverpool fans would be likely to forget that Pepe Reina came through the ranks at La Masia. In fact, before Victor Valdés it was Reina who was the club’s big hope, so much so that he was in goal when Liverpool knocked them out of the 2001 Uefa Cup.

He obviously left Catalunya and would excel for every team he turned out for. His cheery personality was so infectious he was a constant feature in the Spanish national side during their golden era, even if he barely played.

Reina spent half a season back in the Premier League helping Aston Villa avoid relegation, but is now back in Italy with Lazio where he is number one ahead of Thomas Strakosha.

5. Mikel Arteta

Cazorla and Arteta in Arsenal training

Position: Midfielder

Career path: Barcelona, PSG (loan), Rangers, Real Sociedad, Everton, Arsenal

Everton and Arsenal’s midfield metronome was once a Barcelona boy! Arteta began his career at Barcelona as a Guardiola-esque defensive midfielder but found his path to the first team blocked by, well, Guardiola. Xavi, too. So he left, linking up with Ronaldinho and Mauricio Pochettino at PSG prior to moving to Rangers for a couple of years.

Once in the Premier League, he spent over a decade showing his undeniable quality on the ball before becoming an assistant manager at Man City. There he found history repeating itself as his path to being a manager was blocked by Pep Guardiola, so he took the Arsenal job and aims to turn the club around from the shambles it has become – though it is proving a tough task even after winning the FA Cup.

6. Jordi Cruyff

Position: Midfielder

Career path: Barcelona, Manchester United, Celta (loan), Alavés, Espanyol, Metalurh Donetsk, Valletta

When your dad is one of the greatest figures in Barcelona, and indeed world football, history then you know you’ve got a lot to live up to. Jordi Cruyff came through La Masia but even with his dad’s presence, he was never going to cut the mustard.

He left Barcelona for Manchester United, where he played sporadically over four years. A return to La Liga was what he needed and he was one of the key men that helped lowly Alavés reach the 2001 Uefa Cup final, only to sadly lose despite his 88th-minute equaliser.

After retirement, he was sporting director of Maccabi Tel Aviv for four years, and was briefly manager of the Ecuador national team – though left without taking charge of a game in 2020. Cruyff has since returned to China, where he once managed Chongqing Dangdai Lifan, to take charge of Shenzhen.

7. Keita Baldé

Position: Forward

Career path: Barcelona, Lazio, Monaco, Inter (loan), Sampdoria (loan)

The flying wing-forward who made his name at Lazio initially started as one of Barcelona’s many talented young players. Impatience for a first-team chance saw him sign with Lazio before he was even eligible to play first-team games, but once he did debut he played with true verve. He joined Monaco but never really took his game to the next level, and loans at Inter and Sampdoria have so far failed to rejuvenate him.

8. Adama Traoré

Position: Winger

Career path: Barcelona, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Wolves

The human take-on machine, Adama Traoré had all the technical and physical tools to become a Barcelona legend. Unfortunately, he struggled with adopting the tactical demands of the Blaugrana and coach Luis Enrique was hesitant to pick him.

Traoré left, making a bad career move by joining Aston Villa – who gave him such a big contract they ended up benching him just to avoid paying him. He got relegated, joined Middlesbrough and then got relegated again. Strangely, it was Tony Pulis who managed to unlock his potential in the Championship.

Now he’s at Wolves and has finally learned how to marry his superhuman dribbling skill with a viable, consistent end product – becoming one of the most devastating forces in the Premier League.

9. Giovani dos Santos

Position: Forward

Career path: Barcelona, Spurs, Ipswich (loan), Galatasaray (loan), Racing (loan), Mallorca, Villarreal, LA Galaxy, América

Giovani dos Santos broke through at the same time as Bojan and Messi. The three should have been the “trident” of the future, but Dos Santos wanted to get paid sooner rather than later.

He left the Blaugrana for Spurs, where he was such a flop that he spent the next few years being so terrible people genuinely forget he was once almost as bright a prospect as Messi. After a four-year spell in MLS with LA Galaxy, the Mexican is currently playing for Club América in his native Mexico.

10. Alex Grimaldo

Position: Left Back

Career path: Barcelona, Benfica

Beginning his career at Valencia’s youth setup, Grimaldo arrived at La Masia in 2008 when he was 12. A very promising player, he went on to make his Barcelona B debut at just 15 years and 349 days in 2011. This made him the youngest player to play in the Segunda Division. The following season saw Grimaldo establish himself in the B team where he would go on to make 92 appearances in four years. He also appeared in the 2012 European Under 19 Championship Team of the Tournament.

Despite impressing in the B team, Grimaldo failed to make a single first-team appearance for Barcelona. With his contract set to expire in the summer of 2016, Benfica snapped him up in December 2015 for €1.5m. Since moving to Portugal, Grimaldo has progressed steadily. He played 14 games in his first full seasons which was doubled in the 2017/18 season. He is now the superstar he always threatened to be. At Benfica, he has also won eight trophies including back-to-back Primera Ligas.

11. Luis Garcia

Position: Winger

Career path: Barcelona, Valladolid (loan), Toledo (loan), Tenerife (loan), Valladolid (loan), Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Atlético Madrid, Racing, Panathinaikos, Puebla, UNAM, Atlético Kolkata, Central Coast Mariners

He of the ghost goal! To be fair, no one would know Luis Garcia had ever come through La Masia because he played for so many different clubs. Sure, Liverpool signed him from Barcelona, but Barcelona had signed him from Atlético Madrid (just one year after selling him there, gotta love the buyback!) and Rafa Benitez had managed him before, with Tenerife, but he was on loan there from Barcelona after coming through La Masia… it’s very complicated.

Still, he played more for Liverpool than he has for any other club. He helped Liverpool upset the odds against Juventus and Chelsea to win the Champions League. After that, the only way was down, and eventually, he returned to La Liga to play for Atleti again, before embarking on something of a World Tour, playing in Greece, Mexico, India and finally Australia until finally calling it quits in 2016.

12. André Onana

Position: Goalkeeper

Career path: Barcelona, Ajax

Onana joined Barcelona’s youth academy from Samuel Eto’o’s Foundation in his native Cameroon but would never represent their first team. A handful of games at youth level was enough to convince Ajax’s sporting director, and former Barça winger, Marc Overmars to bring him to Amsterdam.

Initially starting in their reserves (Jong Ajax) the Cameroonian goalkeeper would subsequently become Jasper Cillessen’s understudy. A capable back-up Onana got his big chance once Cillessen moved to Barcelona in the summer of 2016.

Since establishing himself as Ajax’s number one he’s not looked back. Onana, who has played over 100 matches for the Dutch giants, was a key member of the side which reached the 2017 Europa League final and remains a formidable presence in their back-five. His performances en route to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 saw him rewarded with a new contract, but he is currently serving a 12-month ban for a doping violation.