After a 2-2 draw in LaLiga against Osasuna in December, Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez didn't know whether to be delighted or despondent about the role three teenagers played in securing a point for his side. Nico Gonzalez and Abde Ezzalzouli scored the goals at El Sadar that day, with Gavi setting the former up during another dazzling display that shows why he is already a regular for Spain's national team at the age of 17. Xavi noted that all three had been "extraordinary," but added it was "difficult to digest" that it was the young players "propping the team up."
Barca's young players have bailed them out several times this season. If it's not Nico, Abde or Gavi, then it's Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo or Pedri. The club's financial crisis -- which saw Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann leave last summer to ease the burden on the wage bill -- has translated to a renewed focus and greater dependence on youth.
In total, eight players from either the B team or the U-19 team have made their LaLiga debuts this season. That number doesn't include Ansu, Araujo and Pedri, who had already established themselves as regulars, although Pedri joined the first team directly from second division Las Palmas in 2020. Ten teenagers have scored in the Spanish top flight in 2021-22, and five of them play for Barca: Gavi, Ansu, Pedri, Nico and Abde (although Nico and Abde have recently turned 20).
This generation shift has been the one sliver of light in a largely catastrophic season for Barcelona. They failed to make the Champions League last 16 this year for the first time since 2003 and are 15 points off the pace in LaLiga. Their sole objective right now is to ensure a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League next term.
Despite that, the mood is lifting around the club, and the youth movement is a big reason. After all, a large part of the club's success over the past decade was built on academy graduates like Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Another one, Xavi, is now back as first-team coach, and several others have grown into the veterans of the team: Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.
November will mark 10 years since Barca fielded an XI made up entirely of ex-youth team players. Eight had been born in Catalonia. Iniesta and Pedro were the only two from another part of Spain and only Messi was from a different country. In contrast, the players coming through now have very different backgrounds and represent the changing face of the club, the academy and society at large. They also show that there are myriad ways to make it to the top in football.
ESPN spoke to coaches, family members and people at the club to find the backstories behind the generation of new talent that Barca desperately hope can bring back the glory days sooner than later.
The reluctant star: NICO GONZALEZ ("Nico")
MF | 20 | Debuted Aug. 15, 2021 (Barca 4-2 Real Sociedad)
Nico's dad, Fran Gonzalez, was part of the Deportivo La Coruna side known as "SuperDepor" that won LaLiga in 2000. When Nico was born, Fran was still playing in the top flight, but being the son of a famous footballer didn't immediately push him down the same path.
"Nico didn't want to play football at first," Fran told ESPN. "When he was 6, he had no interest. I was still playing and maybe he was tired of going from place to place [due to football]. But then one day arrived and, I don't know why, but he just started to play."
Once he started, he had all the tools to develop, including a small pitch at home and a dad who had made 16 appearances for Spain. Fran helped him with his technique, but insists that everything Nico has achieved is down to hard work. Around the age of 10, Nico was playing two age groups up for local side Montaneros at a tournament in Galicia, where he was born. He scored twice against Barca and also impressed against Real Madrid.
"That game was the deciding factor for Barca to say: 'Bloody hell! We've got a player here,'" Fran added. A year later, along with his family, he swapped Spain's west coast for the east coast, turning down a bigger offer from Madrid. "It was an easy decision for the kid to come to Barcelona," Fran said. "He had the chance to go to Madrid or Barca and he chose Barca. Well, him and his mum chose Barcelona!"
From there, Nico progressed through the academy over the past eight years, culminating in his first-team debut against Real Sociedad last August. He's since made 27 appearances, scoring two goals.
Of the new generation, Nico (along with Gavi) perhaps has the most in common with the previous one. A midfielder who can play as a No. 6, a No. 8 or a No. 10 without any issue, he stands out in his position due to his large frame.
"It was difficult when he was 15 because he grew 25 cm [10 inches] and he didn't have much strength," Fran explained. "I was working at Manchester City at the time and when I came to see him he was very thin and very tall. That was perhaps the worst moment for him so far." Nico recovered and has long been singled out as a generational talent by people within the club. There has also been interest from elsewhere, including from Man City when he was around 16.
"He had offers from abroad, very big offers, a lot of money, but his dream was to play for Barcelona," Fran continued. "It's been a huge sacrifice, above all for his siblings, who didn't want to go to Barcelona, but the dream has been fulfilled this season."
The prodigy: PABLO MARTIN PAEZ GAVIRA ("Gavi")
MF | 17 | Debuted Aug. 29, 2021 (Barca 2-1 Getafe)
While Nico wasn't interested in football at 6, his teammate Gavi was already drawing scouts to watch him in the south of Spain.
"You quickly saw that he was not a normal 6-year-old," Manuel Basco, his first coach at La Liara in the town of Los Palacios y Villafranca in Andalusia, told ESPN. "The way he carried the ball and competed. ... It just was not normal. You can teach some things, but it was innate to him. I said to my daughter Ana, 'I'm keeping his registration card because he is going to play in the first division.' She said, 'Dad, he's only 6,' but I said, 'We'll see.' I've still got the card!"
After Gavi moved to Real Betis and scored 96 goals for their U-10 team, Ivan de la Pena, a former Barca midfielder and now Gavi's agent, was alerted to his talent by a scout, sources explain to ESPN. By the time De la Pena made contact, Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal were already pushing for him to sign, but De la Pena managed to convince him to sign for Barca by telling him about his own experiences at La Masia. Plus, at the time in 2014, it was the Barca of Messi, Neymar, Xavi, and Iniesta. Sources say Messi was a particular pull for Gavi.
Like Nico, Gavi boasts elements of Barca midfielders of the past, that "DNA" the club demand. It's become a cliche, but it is true. You need that positional understanding to fit the team's style, even more so now Xavi has replaced Ronald Koeman; he's already complained about some players who don't have it.
"Barca educate you in a model, a philosophy," Fran said. "They give you an understanding of the game. If you don't have the conditions for the Barca DNA, it's difficult for you to play there. Players from the academy know exactly what they must do in their positions, above all in midfield. [Nico and Gavi] are kids that have been educated in positional play.
"Nicolas, being tall and strong, gives the sensation of a different player. But I say if you watch his games, if you go to YouTube, you're going to see that his control is also very good, that he moves the ball well and positions himself well."
While Nico has been in and out of the side this season, Gavi has been an ever-present for Barca and Spain after being promoted directly from the U19s last summer, skipping the B-team. Either as a "false winger," as Xavi explains it, or in his more natural position in the middle of midfield, he's been the revelation of the campaign, scoring twice and setting up three goals in 27 appearances since making his debut against Getafe at the end of August.
The youngest player to ever play for Spain, his technical ability is at odds with his bull-like competitiveness. One LaLiga player who has faced him this season said he couldn't believe how tenacious and strong he is for a 17-year-old -- even if he does often play with untied laces.
"Kids usually stop or go out to the sidelines when their laces come undone, but Gavi was never bothered -- he'd just carry on," Blasco added. "He's still the same now."
The goal scorer: ANSU FATI
FW | 19 | Debuted Aug. 25, 2019 (Barca 5-2 Real Betis)
The talent supply dried up at Barca after the Messi generation, with only Sergi Roberto really becoming a first-team regular over the decade that followed. Midfielder Thiago Alcantara was the one that got away, while players like Bojan Krkic, Cristian Tello, Marca Bartra and Carles Alena have been allowed to build careers elsewhere. Adama Traore has recently returned and Eric Garcia, back from Man City, Riqui Puig, Oscar Mingueza and Alex Collado, currently on loan at Granada, are all on the fringes of the first team.
Former La Masia director Xavi Vilajoana told ESPN that the FIFA ban on signing young players in 2014 set the club back years because it prevented them from creating internal competition within their youth teams. Sources at the club say that not only are they back on track, but they have a generation to match, if not better, the previous one.
Before Gavi and Nico, there was Ansu, who made his debut aged 16 in 2019. He is still only 19, but has inherited Messi's No.10 shirt and is one of the leading figures of the current team, even as injuries have limited his game time to 10 games so far in all competitions this season, during which time he's scored five goals. A new contract signed in late 2021 includes a club-record €1 billion buy-out clause.
Ansu does share a backstory with Gavi in that he was signed by Barca as a prodigious 10-year-old while playing for Sevilla, but he also represents a very modern footballer. Born in Guinea-Bissau, he moved to Andalusia aged six when his father, Bori, found work there. He was eligible to represent three countries internationally, Portugal being the third, but chose Spain, his adopted homeland.
Ansu's migrant story is increasingly common at Barca. Ilaix Moriba, who left the club for RB Leipzig for €20 million last summer, was born in Guinea, whom he now represents at the international level after a handful of caps with Spain's youth teams.
The diamond in the rough: ABDESSAMAD EZZALZOULI ("Abde")
FW | 20 | Debuted Oct. 30, 2021 (Barca 1-1 Alaves)
Less well-known is Abde, who went from Spain's third division to Camp Nou in the space of a few months. Barca signed him from Hercules for €2m last summer for their B team, but he's already made 12 first-team appearances, scoring one goal.
Born in Morocco, the winger's youth coaches aren't sure exactly how or when he arrived in Spain, but they say it was related to his dad finding work. Until he was 16, he was looking for games with small neighbourhood teams in Valencia and Alicante. No one had heard of him.
"He started to play for a small [neighbourhood] side in Elche and one of his coaches contacted us to see if he could have a trial," Jose Antonio Palomino, the former director of Hercules CF's academy, told ESPN. "We put him straight into the B team, but he struggled at first because he didn't have that culture [of a proper set up]. He was a street player and he was very clever, but it wasn't easy at the beginning. We considered sending him down to the youth team."
Watching Abde humiliate the Villarreal defence in one of his early Barca appearances made you wonder how he had gone unnoticed for so long.
"I think because no-one was aware of the talent the kid had," former Hercules coach Antonio Moreno told ESPN. "As soon as I saw him, I saw something different to the players that are in academies now. They're almost over [educated in football terms], positionally, tactically... Abde was a kid who had been playing football in the streets with guys older than him. It gave him something different. From there, he's worked hard and earned everything that has come his way."
Abde eventually settled at Hercules, helping the B team win promotion before becoming a key player in their first team, who play in Spain's third tier. Barca's former sporting director Ramon Planes soon heard about him and scout Alex Garcia was soon dispatched to Badalona, just a few miles up the coast, to watch him play. Within 10 minutes, a source told ESPN, he had phoned Planes telling him "we have to sign this kid."
"He's a very direct player," Palomino added. "If you give him space, he's going to take on opponents with his pace and change of direction. He had other big offers -- I think Valencia were also there. But Barca paying that kind of money for a kid from Alicante in the third division shows how highly they rated him."
Even so, the speed of his progression has still been a shock. "He has gone from a kid to a man in very little time," Moreno said. "And while growing into a man, he has also been growing as a footballer. What has most surprised me most about him has been just how quickly this evolution has taken place."
As that evolution continues, so do the offers. Sources told ESPN that Barca fielded proposals upwards of €10m for Abde in January. He's going nowhere for now, although the January signings of Adama, Ferran Torres, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, will mean more minutes with the B team between now and the summer.
The players not made at Barcelona
DF | 20 | Debuted Oct. 6, 2019 (Barca 4-0 Sevilla)
MF | 19 | Debuted Sept. 27, 2020 (Barca 4-0 Villarreal)
Like Abde, not all Barca's youngsters are Barca-made, as these two were also spotted by Planes.
Araujo could have joined Getafe, where Planes was working, when he first fielded a call from Sergio Cabrera, the dad of Espanyol defender Leandro, recommending the Uruguayan defender. Cabrera was coaching Araujo at Boston River at the time. Sources have confirmed to ESPN that Madrid were also keen and Sevilla sporting director Monchi thought he had a deal lined up at one point, before Planes joined Barca and took Araujo with him in 2019.
Araujo had started out as an attacker before moving to centre-back. Sources close to him credit sprint and marathon training as an adolescent for his "tremendous physique and fitness," which has become one of the most essential elements of Barca's ageing and injury-prone backline. He was sent off on his debut against Sevilla in 2019, but bounced back well and has since clocked up 65 first-team appearances.
Sources at the club recognise he can still improve on the ball in terms of adapting to Barca's style, but also concede he is quite possibly the best defender at the club now -- and add, only half-joking, "he has even been the best attacker when chasing games!" That's why renewing his contract, which expires in 2023, is a priority, with ESPN sources aware that Premier League clubs are monitoring the situation.
Watching Pedri, a technical midfielder with a unique understanding of space and time on the pitch, it's hard to believe he's not been at Barca since he was a baby. His story is more well-known, but it's still surprising, given his success over the past 18 months, that he went relatively unnoticed for so long.
Now 19, he only joined second division side Las Palmas in the Canary Islands in 2018 and Barcelona in 2020, having failed to impress on trial with Madrid previously. The transfer could eventually cost Barca more than €20m. A star with Spain at Euro 2020 and the Olympic Games last summer, whatever he costs in the end, Barca are unlikely to complain.
He has already made 61 appearances for the club in just over a year, scoring six goals, and, like Ansu, has been handed a contract on improved terms with a €1bn release clause.
Sources tell ESPN that Planes was particularly proud of the Pedri deal. He had received a call from the Las Palmas sporting director Rocco Maiorino saying he had a kid who was "going to smash it." After tracking him for a few months, Planes quickly tied up a deal, boasting to associates that he had a huge surprise up his sleeve.