Barcelona v Celtic: Teams both have homegrown talent but transferring it to the first team is the tricky part
WHEN Celtic recorded their historic 2-3 away win over Spartak Moscow in the last round of games in the Champions League, only two of the 13 players they used were Scottish – Charlie Mulgrew and Scott Brown.
The club’s cosmopolitan make-up is a far cry from the days of the “Lisbon Lions” when the team Jock Stein rustled up to become the first British outfit to win the European Cup all came from within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park.
According to a study published earlier this year by the Professional Football Players Observatory of the top-flight leagues from 33 national associations, Celtic has the highest percentage of expatriates in its squad from 500 teams.
FC Barcelona, in contrast, who they play in Tuesday night’s Champions League tie at the Nou Camp, draws the majority of their players from inside Catalonia in the north-east of Spain.
But Celtic has been a bastion of multiculturalism for quite a while now. Back in 2001, for instance, when current team manager Neil Lennon picked up his first Scottish Cup winner’s medal with a 3-0 win over Hibs, again only two of the starting XI were Scottish – goalkeeper Robert Douglas and Paul Lambert in midfield.
The first signs of a noticeable overseas influx occurred some time in the mid 1990s when the likes of Pierre van Hooijdonk, Paolo Di Canio and the immortal Henrik Larsson kicked up at the gates of Celtic Park. Previously, there had been the occasional conspicuous Pole or two and, of course, the Canadian goalkeeping stalwart Joe Kennaway in the 1930s but, otherwise, the only non-Scots tended to be Irish or English.
A few factors have helped to transform the demographics at Celtic.
First, British players’ wages and transfer fees are over-priced compared to their international counterparts.
Second, if Lennon is looking to land, say, a new centre forward he’ll be fishing in a small pool if he stays local.
Third, because he has to marshal a team capable of winning the championship every season, he doesn’t have the luxury of being cavalier in blooding young players.
“The talent is there at Celtic, they have a fantastic youth set-up, but a team like Celtic need ready-made,” says Jim McArthur, the former Hibs goalkeeper who now works as a FIFA-licensed agent.
“They need a long-term plan and a short-term plan. The long-term plan is the young boys like Tony Watt who are coming into the team but, in the short-term, they need the success.
“In the shorter term, they’ve got to win the league. They’ll make sure they get the best players for each position in the meantime.”
Celtic’s remorseless focus on winning the SPL title every season is similar to Real Madrid’s in La Liga.
At under-age level, the Real Madrid teams are as good as the much-vaunted youths who emerge from Barcelona’s La Masia academy, but it is rare for any to make it straight into the club’s first team.
Raúl González, Guti and Iker Casillas have been the only successful graduates in the last 20 years.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are renowned for the way they transition players from their youth system into the first team. Eight of the 11 players who started against Benfica in the last Champions League group game were La Masia graduates.
But why wouldn’t they hurl extraordinary talents such as Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernández into the first team at 17?
Well, it’s easy said but not so obvious, however, with players such as Pedro, right, and Sergio Busquets who were floundering in the fourth level of the Spanish football league two years before winning a World Cup final with Spain at Soccer City, Johannesburg in July 2010.
It took real cojones for former coach Pep Guardiola – himself plucked by legendary Nou Camp manager Johan Cruyff from third-team obscurity at Barça in 1990 – to parachute them into his starting line-up.
But he could do it with confidence because they were fitting into a system.
“From the seven-year-olds to the senior team, everyone plays the same way,” says Albert Puig, La Masia’s technical director.
“Barça has 30 or 35 years doing the same thing. That is the secret – here everybody knows how to play the same way. In Britain, a tackle is applauded, here it’s not.
“We keep the ball on the ground, we pass it, and wait until the opponent makes a mistake. Then we score a goal.”
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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