Stories

Barcelona's Generation '87: When Messi, Cesc and Pique killed the competition at La Masia

Messi, Fabregas, Pique Ansias

In the early 2000s, three greats played in the same side at Barcelona’s La Masia academy for a season – and blew all of their rivals away

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At 7.30pm on Friday June 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols changed the world. Inside Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, Johnny Rotten’s visceral punks produced a pick-up gig so vital that everyone in attendance was compelled to form Joy Division, New Order, Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Smiths and, er, Simply Red.

Whole books have been devoted to Manchester’s musical epiphany that night, while thousands of people fill internet message boards or bend the ear of anyone bored enough to listen, reciting the gig’s intricate details. Yet most estimates put the attendance at the most iconic of ‘I swear I was there’ moments at around 40. They just all happened to form a band, or a record label, or have written for the NME.

Only a similar number can legitimately lay claim to witnessing football’s equivalent. In 2002/03, Barcelona’s Cadete A side swept all before them, completing their U15s campaign unbeaten and winning the Catalan and Spanish league titles, as well as the Copa Catalunya. Yet thousands more claim to have seen potentially the greatest youth team ever in their one season playing together.

Barcelona’s Generacion del ’87 is the go-to hipster spotter’s badge; a calling card for future greatness and world football legacy. Why? Three names: Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi

Forget about Xavi or Andres Iniesta’s La Masia vintages, or even the fabled Class of ’92 at Manchester United – Barcelona’s Generacion del ’87 is the go-to hipster spotter’s badge; a calling card for future greatness and world football legacy. Why? Three names: Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi.

One sunny Saturday back in 1997, the former Barcelona vice-president Amador Bernabeu turned up at the Blaugrana’s open day for promising young players with his nine-year-old, blond-haired grandson. “His name is Gerard,” he said to Albert Benaiges, a long-time friend – and future head of La Masia – who was then one of Barça’s many youth-team coaches. “Let me know what you think.”

Two hours later, Bernabeu had his answer. “The kid,” said Benaiges, “is a machine.”

Before long, Gerard Pique was joined by a similarly precocious nine-year-old midfielder from Arenys de Mar, a sleepy little town 45 minutes up the coast from Barcelona. So good was Francesc Fabregas Soler, his coach for local club Mataro refused to select him for matches against Barcelona in a vain attempt to hide him from Blaugrana scouts. The ruse didn’t last long.

In December 2000, the last piece of Generacion del 87’s jigsaw was put into place. “I, Charly Rexach,” wrote the former striker on the back of a napkin after witnessing five minutes of a tiny Argentine’s trial, “in my capacity as technical secretary for FC Barcelona, and despite the existence of some opinions against it, commit to signing Lionel Messi as long as the conditions agreed are met.”

We thought Messi was mute. Until he picked up the ball, and then any doubts were gone

- Cesc Fabregas

Deposited from Rosario, Argentina, to Barcelona, Messi struggled to integrate amid ankle and registration problems. He ate and trained with his team-mates at La Masia – the country house where the majority of academy players from outside the city resided – but lived with his father, Jorge, in a flat in the Camp Nou’s shadows on Gran Via de Carles III.

“We thought he was mute,” Fabregas later recalled. “Until he picked up the ball, and then any doubts were gone,” interjected Pique. Messi still calls the central defender ‘el amo’, ‘the boss’, because it was often he who acted as the Flea’s on-field minder. Increasingly, Messi came out of his shell, most notably during the prestigious 2002 Maestrelli tournament in Italy – his first with Barcelona. The team’s four captains – Fabregas, Pique, Marc Valiente and Victor Vazquez – would always play a prank on the newest member of the squad, as a sort of welcome to the fold.

“When we arrived at the hotel, Messi had brought his PlayStation with him and went to his room with Cesc, who he was sharing with,” recalls Vazquez, the team’s centre-forward and most creative player after the Argentine. “Pique decided to go and take everything out of his room, as if it had been robbed. We went down for dinner and Gerard arrived late, as they had ransacked it.

“They took out the bed, his PlayStation, kitbag – literally everything. After we had eaten, everyone went back up to their rooms and Cesc and a couple of other players recorded Messi going into his room. He stood stock-still. His face was a picture! He didn’t know what to say, because he was quite a shy lad, and so he just put his hands on his head. Then we told him it was something that we did to every new player. He really opened up after that.”

La Masia in 2010

Indeed, by the end of the trip – Barcelona having beaten Parma in the final – it was Messi cracking the jokes.

“After that, he was totally different,” midfielder Julio de Dios tells FFT. “He was making jokes, and I think he got Pique back with some prank. ‘Now Messi’s arrived!’ we’d say, patting him on the back. From that moment he became one of us. We were a cohort of brothers.”

I remember a game in which we were winning 3-0 after only three minutes. It’s almost impossible, mathematically. I turned to my assistant and said, ‘And now what do we tell them? What can you say at the break when they’re winning 8-0?

- Tito Vilanova

People of the house

It was as U14s in the Cadete B 2001/02 season that the team began to truly flower, aping the 3-4-3 formation which had been popularised by Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team that won Barça’s first European Cup in 1991/92. 

“There was such talent in that team,” remembers Julio de Dios. “Valiente was so calm in defence, Toni Calvo was a right-winger with real pace, Sito Riera is now playing in the Polish top flight, Franck Songo’o had raw talent and Victor Vazquez was probably the best technician.

“But you could see Messi, Cesc and Pique had something that the rest of us didn’t – an extra ‘plus’, without doubt. We’d even smash teams older than us by seven or eight.”

Franck Songo'o

Franck Songo'o carved out a career in England, playing for five clubs including Portsmouth

That season, Barcelona won the regional league (the Preferente Catalana) ahead of Espanyol’s Cadete A. It was the first time that a youth team playing above their age group had achieved the feat. Continuity, as well as talent, was vital.

“We had such a settled team, and every coach had got the same idea of playing,” explains Victor Vazquez, who now plays alongside Sebastian Giovinco for MLS outfit Toronto. “I started when I was 12 under Rodolfo Borrell, and he, Albert Benaiges and Tito Vilanova were gente de la casa – ‘people of the house’. That makes it all so much easier, because nothing changes from year to year so you know exactly what is expected of you.”