By Mike Woitalla
The world's three greatest players have a few things in common.
Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi all stand barely 5-foot-7 tall. They're teammates at Barcelona and they all came out of the club's youth program.
The trio finished tops in voting for the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or, the world player of the year award won by Messi.
2010 World Cup champs Iniesta (age 26) and Xavi (31) joined Barcelona at age 11 and 12, respectively. Messi (23) arrived from Argentina at age 13.
One person who had a close eye on all three of them during their youth days is Albert Benaiges, the coordinator of Barcelona's youth teams, which spawned seven players who played for Spain in its World Cup final win.
After the Ballon d’Or honors, Benaiges recalled his impressions of the trio in their early years.
“No one back then knew they would be world-class players,” he told Germany’s Kicker Magazine. “For sure, Messi’s great talent was already apparent. Also in Iniesta and Xavi one saw early on that they offered something special -- or else we wouldn’t have brought them in.
“But anyone who says that when he saw those three players at age 11, 12 and 13 he knew they were future superstars is a liar.”
Benaiges says that it’s at age 16 when they can predict if a boy might mature into a very good player.
“Before that age it’s nearly impossible,” he said.
Benaiges does recall that Messi was incredibly fast with the ball. That even at 11, Xavi almost never lost the ball. And that Iniesta was a sensitive, considerate boy – shy but always willing to help others.
Messi, during one year, played for teams at five different levels within the club – and never complained whether it was with the A team or C team – always giving his best.
Regarding the type of training Barcelona youth players receive:
“Technical skills we can improve up till the age of 13,” Benaiges says. “But every pro was born a soccer player. Instinct and game intelligence we can’t create. Both of those come within.”
Asked what is trained, Benaiges responded: “Only technique and tactics, not fitness, which they can catch up on later.”
The ball is the focus:
"The most important aspect of our program is always ball work. In all the exercises they do, whether it's physical preparation or any other kind of training, the ball is always there."
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)