Years ago, it was not unusual for professionals to spend their entire playing careers at just one club, and to receive the undying devotion of fans for their allegiance. Great sides like the 'Busby Babes' of Manchester United, River Plate's legendary 'Machine', the '11 Brothers' of Necaxa and the famous Saint Etienne team of the mid-70s all inspired loyalty in their time, part of the reason for their success and enduring appeal.
These days, it is increasingly difficult to find such examples, as players swap teams, and in some cases nationalities, with increasingly regularity. Many of the world's top sides often have just a few home-grown stars in their squads, and sometimes even these struggle to establish themselves amid the massed ranks of purchased talent.
All of which makes it all the more refreshing when you find a team that continues to nurture and promote members of its youth sides. One such side are Barcelona, who have shown that it is possible to find a balance between quality, youth development and star imports while still remaining successful in the modern game.
For several seasons now, Barça have been promoting at least one graduate a year from the youth sides to the senior team, where you can already find overseas stars likes Ronaldinho and Deco rubbing shoulders with hometown heroes like Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta. The future also looks bright for the club and the next generation of players, with a host of talented youngsters ready to enter the fray when their moment arrives.
From Guardiola to Iniesta
When Johan Cruyff took over the reins at Barcelona in 1988, the first thing he told those responsible for youth development was that they needed to "create midfielders".
From that point on, the Culés have produced a string of midfield maestros who have been utterly dominant at the Camp Nou. First there was Josep Guardiola, with his vision and class, followed by the oft-misunderstood genius of Ivan De la Pena. Then came Xavi, who is still wowing the faithful today with his playmaking skills. And let's not forget Andres Iniesta , the current-day idol of countless Catalan fans, who see in him a mixture of the effortless class of Deco and the unpredictable magic of Ronaldinho.
These are just some of the most famous examples, but in truth the list is endless. Many more have been forced to leave their Catalan Alma Mater because of the surfeit of gifted players vying for the precious few starting berths. Albert Celades and Gerard found success with other Spanish sides, Mikel Arteta is making a name for himself in England, while Cesc Fabregas is already one of the most highly rated midfielders in Premiership at just 19. With the exception of Arteta, who may yet be called up to the national team squad, the rest have all been part of the Spanish international set-up.
The next generation
For former Spain senior and youth coach Inaki Saez, the academy at Barcelona is the envy of every club in the country. He is certainly in a position to judge, having also presided over the most successful youth sides in the nation's history. "Barcelona work extremely well with their youngsters," Saez said. "They are very clear about the style of football and the kind of player they want, and how to go about getting them. Their system demands the utmost quality."
And it is not just in midfield where the club has excelled. The side's current goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, is another to have come through the ranks, as are defenders Oleguer Presas and team captain Carles Puyol, who is also an inspirational presence in La Seleccion's defence. Up front, Lionel Messi is the latest sensation to blossom at the Camp Nou, where his majestic dribbles and audacious striking mark him down as one of the most promising players in the game.
Not that the young Argentinian will have the stage all to himself. Also sure to be basking in the limelight before long is Giovani dos Santos , the Mexican attacking midfielder who helped his country to the FIFA U-17 World Championship title at Peru 2005. He is considered by many to be a younger version of Ronaldinho, not just for his physical similarity but also for his raw footballing talent. Powerful, intelligent and decisive, he has already impressed in friendlies with the first-team, with whom he is expected to be playing regularly from next season.
Also one to watch is the young Spaniard Bojan Krkic. The son of a Serbian national, the 16-year-old is being touted as the next boy wonder of the Barça academy. His form has been dazzling of late with Barcelona B, and it is rare not to see his name on the scoresheet.
Last, but by no means least is Jonathan dos Santos, the younger brother of Giovani who, at just 15, is already being talked of as a future playmaker with the Blaugranas. With talented youngsters like these coming through, who needs to spend millions?