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As Barcelona's famed factory of fine players finally closed its doors yesterday, Goal.com takes a look at the 11 best talents to come from the club's prolific youth academy

FEATURE
By Ben Hayward

It was more than just a youth academy. Barcelona opened La Masia in the late 1970s on the advice of departing player Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman had been successful at Barca, but the Catalan club was still living in the shadows of fierce rivals Real Madrid. So Cruyff told incoming president Josep Lluis Nunez that to compete with the capital giants, they would need an academy like the one that had proved so successful at his previous cub, Ajax.

Housed in an old farmhouse within kicking distance of Camp Nou, that academy had begun to bear fruit by the time Cruyff returned to the club as coach a decade later, and today it is the envy of every side in Europe. So as La Masia closes its doors for the final time to move definitively to a bigger and better facility on the outskirts of Barcelona, in Sant Joan Despi, Goal.com takes a look at the top 11 talents to emerge so far from the fabled farmhouse.

Obviously, there are plenty of outstanding players who haven't made the cut, so have your say in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

GUILLERMO AMOR


Age: 43

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain (37 caps, 4 goals)

Career apps: 524 (69 goals)

Barca apps*: 421 (67)

Trophies at Barca: 17

La Masia fact: Amor was the first player to emerge from the academy and be successful for the first team

Guillermo Amor was born in the popular tourist resort of Benidorm, but became a hit further up the coast at Barcelona after graduating from La Masia to star in Cruyff's legendary Dream Team. The stylish midfielder won almost 40 caps for Spain and featured over 400 times for Barca, picking up a hugely impressive 17 trophies in a side that also included current coach Pep Guardiola, as well as an array of talent from abroad, such as Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup, Romario and later, Ronaldo and Luis Figo. After more than 10 years' service at the Catalan club, Amor was sold to Fiorentina by Louis van Gaal in 1998.

SERGIO BUSQUETS

Age: 22

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain (30 caps, no goals)

Career apps: 170 (4 goals)

Barca apps*: 139 (5)

Trophies at Barca: 10

La Masia fact: Busquets is the son of former Barca keeper and fellow academy product Carles Busquets

Sergio Busquets is still only 22, but the defensive midfielder has already racked up 10 trophies with Pep Guardiola's side after making his debut early in the 2008-09 campaign. Busquets followed Guardiola from the club's B side and has never looked back, going on to win a place in Spain's first XI and form part of the side that won last year's World Cup in South Africa. A complete defensive midfielder, Busquets covers ably in defence to allow Dani Alves to go forward on the right and his ball skills and distribution have seen him fit in comfortably alongside Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

CESC FABREGAS


Age: 24

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain (58 caps, 4 goals)

Career apps: 303 games (57 goals)

Barca apps*: -

Trophies at Barca: -

La Masia fact: Fabregas idolised Pep Guardiola, who once told him: "One day, you'll be Barcelona's No. 4."

Cesc Fabregas is the only player on this list to have never played a first-team game for Barcelona, but that could all change soon. The young midfielder was spotted by Barca even though his coach as a youth player would not select him when scouts were present, knowing they would snap him up. The inevitable happened and the player impressed for the club's junior sides, only to think he wouldn't be good enough for Barca and opt for a move to Arsenal as a 16-year-old instead. Cesc is still only 24 and is wanted by the Catalan giants this summer. When his parents were splitting up, Guardiola signed a shirt for the youngster with the following message: "One day you will be Barca's No. 4." Very soon, that could come true.

PEP GUARDIOLA


Age: 40

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain (47 caps, 5 goals)


Career apps: 477 (25 goals)

Barca apps*: 384 (11)

Trophies at Barca : 16 (plus 10 more as coach)

La Masia fact: Pep was a ball-boy at Camp Nou and once celebrated a win with Barca players on the pitch

Pep Guardiola always seemed destined to be linked with Barcelona for his entire life and it now looks as if that will be the case. When he moved to La Masia as a youngster, he phoned his parents and told them, excitedly, how he could almost see the Camp Nou stadium from his bedroom window. Even later in his career, when he went to play in Qatar and then Mexico, that ground was never far from his thoughts. By then, of course, he had left an indelible mark as a central midfield player with extraordinary vision. Guardiola didn't score goals, nor was he quick, but he was the creative fulcrum for Cruyff, Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal. Now he's doing what they did - and with even more success.

ANDRES INIESTA


Age: 27

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain (58 caps, 9 goals)

Career apps: 415 (38 goals)

Barca apps*: 363 (33)

Trophies at Barca: 15

La Masia fact: Iniesta had a picture of idol and future boss Pep Guardiola on his bedroom wall at La Masia

Andres Iniesta hails from the Albacete region of Spain, but his parents knew a Barcelona coach and he persuaded them to let the youngster have a trial with the Catalan club. Barca saw his talents and the player moved to La Masia as a teenager, although it was difficult; he admitted he had "cried rivers" on saying goodbye to his parents. Still a shy type, Iniesta expresses himself on the pitch, and how. The mild-mannered maestro has formed a glorious partnership with Xavi in centre of the park at Barca and was shortlisted for the Ballon d'Or last year. He has also been described as the best midfielder in the world by Wayne Rooney and he has won a thing or two as well; Iniesta has 15 trophies for Barcelona and also scored the winner for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final.

LIONEL MESSI


Age: 24

Position: Forward

Country: Argentina (56 caps, 17 goals)

Career apps: 291 (186 goals)

Barca apps*: 269 (180)

Trophies at Barca: 15

La Masia fact: Messi came to Barca after club agreed to pay for his growth hormone deficiency treatment

Lionel Messi is being talked about as perhaps the finest player ever, but he may never have been a player at all. The young Argentine had a growth problem and in the middle of an economic crisis, no club in his homeland was willing to pay for the treatment. Barca did - and the rest is history. Messi was so small when he joined up with the B side at La Masia that defender Gerard Pique claimed none of the other players knew why he was there. But then they saw him play. Messi is now the undisputed star of the best Barcelona side in history and has scored 100 goals in the last two seasons alone. Already an all-time great and a club legend, he looks set to go on wowing the world with his sublime skills.

PEDRO


Age: 23

Position: Forward

Country: Spain (13 caps, 2 goals)

Career apps: 177 (62 goals)

Barca apps*: 122 (45)

Trophies at Barca: 10

La Masia fact: Pedro was one of three players promoted immediately to the first-team by Guardiola

Although always a talented footballer, Pedro is remembered at La Masia for his determination as much as his talent. Born in Tenerife, the forward came to Catalunya as a teenager and impressed Guardiola in the coach's single season at Barca B. So when Pep moved up, so did Pedro. He was Pedrito then, but he has grown up now and has been a key figure in the club's recent successes. The winger became the first player to score in six different competitions in a single season, a record which is likely to stand for some time - unless it is broken by another Barca player next term. Pedro's impressive rise also saw him steal a place in Spain's World Cup squad and start in the final as La Roja beat the Netherlands.

GERARD PIQUE


Age: 24

Position: Defender

Country: Spain (33 caps, 4 goals)

Career apps: 196 (16 goals)

Barca apps*: 145 (11)

Trophies at Barca: 10

La Masia fact: Pique started out as a defensive midfielder, hence his excellent distribution skills

Gerard Pique left Barca as a teenager to try his luck in England, much like Cesc Fabregas. But unlike the midfielder, Pique could hardly get a game in the Premier League. The defender returned to Zaragoza on loan but was back on the bench for United after that. Pep Guardiola then signed the Catalan in his first summer in charge and the defender became a key part of the side, eventually beating off competition from Rafa Marquez and Gabi Milito to partner captain Carles Puyol and become one of the finest defenders on the planet. His excellent distribution has also seen him nicknamed 'Piquenbauer' in reference to the great Germany defender.

CARLES PUYOL


Age: 33

Position: Defender

Country: Spain (94 caps, 3 goals)

Career apps: 605 (15 goals)

Barca apps*: 516 (9)

Trophies at Barca: 15

La Masia fact: Puyol was on the verge of being sold to Malaga when Louis van Gaal spotted his talent

Carles Puyol began his career as a right-back and was given his chance in the first team by Dutchman Louis van Gaal. Although a fixture in the Barca defence for several years, Puyol had to wait until 2004 for his first trophy. Since then, however, he hasn't looked back, winning three Champions League titles, five La Liga prizes and a host of other silverware. He is the undoubted leader at the back, now in central defence, keeping his team-mates in check and making up for his technical deficiencies with hard work, grit and determination. Barca's only defeats last season came when he was missing from the side, which says everything you need to know about the importance of his presence.

VICTOR VALDES


Age: 29

Position: Goalkeeper

Country: Spain (4 caps)

Career apps: 483

Barca apps*: 406

Trophies at Barca: 15

La Masia fact: Valdes left the club for three years to move to Tenerife with his family, but later returned

Victor Valdes began to feature for Barca under Radomir Antic and held on to his place even after incoming president Joan Laporta made Rustu Recber his first signing at the club. Valdes has been the undisputed No. 1 since then, becoming one of the world's most solid goalkeepers in the process. Many believe he is superior to Spain's Iker Casillas, who has blocked his path to the national side. Valdes is strong with his feet and spends long periods of the game outside his area, often operating as an extra player. This showed as he set Dani Alves away with a stunning pass against Real Madrid to set up a fine goal in the sides' last Clasico match of 2010-11. Valdes isn't the only goalkeeper to graduate from La Masia, but he is surely the finest - whatever Pepe Reina fans may say.

XAVI


Age: 31

Position: Midfielder

Country: Spain (101 caps, 9 goals)

Career apps: 638 (62 goals)

Barca apps*: 577 (58)

Trophies at Barca: 16

La Masia fact: Xavi was part of the Barca B side that won promotion to the Second Division in 1998

Xavi was seen as a replacement for Pep Guardiola but was initially weighed down by the comparison. The youngster got his chance in the team following an injury to Guardiola and became his successor after Pep left to join Brescia. However, he later revealed that he had almost left the club because he didn't feel he could live up to expectations. That seems crazy now, because Xavi has become one of the best midfielders in the world and is at the heart of all of his side's best play. He is also the pulse of the Spain team and has won everything there is to win at both club and international level - and he's a nice guy as well. With three years - plus an option of two more - still left on his contract, Xavi is likely to spend his entire career at Barca.

* All Barca appearances refer to first-team games only

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