Sergi Roberto Gets In Where He Fits In

Once a crown jewel of Barcelona's youth academy, the handsome starlet has taken a circuitous path into the senior side's rotation.
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Sergi Roberto looks like a teen heartthrob out there. His gallant, butterscotch mane perfectly frames his demure face, his astral blue eyes. His build isn’t hardy nor delicate. Roberto’s look screams “Leif Garrett” more than it does “Lothar Matthaus.” But there’s little that’s glamourous about him. The 23-year-old Barcelona utility footballer has come to represent an ethic not normally associated with the illustrious Catalan football club these days: one of struggle. For Roberto and others like him, that struggle is, and has been, very real.

Roberto is the latest success project from FC Barcelona’s prestigious La Masia youth academy. If you’re a studied soccer fan, you know the story: In 1979, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff helped start a youth player project at Barcelona modeled after the Ajax Academy, with exceedingly particular footballing philosophies of ball-retention, one-touch passing, and constant movement. It spawned the careers of Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, and a bevy of world-class talents. Thirty-six years and a truckload of silver and gold later, La Masia is one of the global standard-bearers for youth football development.

Despite La Masia’s regular production of gifted upstarts, there still exists within the most fervent Barca supporters a hierarchy of youngsters. In the cantera, always, is a perceived set of “crown jewels” spinning wormholes from the youth sides through to the first-team. Iniesta, Messi, and Bojan Krkic; they were each jewels of their respective classes, as is 20-year-old Sergi Samper of the current 2015 class. Somewhere in between, Sergi Roberto became one of La Masia’s great mop-haired hopes.

The Cules’ obsession with La Masia and its gems is fierce. This doesn’t have much to do with the club — who have put together, in “the Farmhouse,” a five-star footballing school — as it does the supporters, many of whom have lost their damn minds.

There are currently multiple rows going on amongst Cules over the futures of a number of youth players. Sergi Samper, La Masia’s Neo from The Matrix, is a precocious midfielder comparable in footballing terms to Sergi Busquets. Many diehards believe the 20-year-old is beyond ready for a regular spot on the senior team, while manager Luis Enrique has decided to give more senior minutes to another youngster named Gerard Gumbau. This fact drives a certain kind of Cule batty. Some stress that Samper’s development is being stunted by not being promoted in a timely manner. A more pressing fear is the possibility that, when the time comes for new contract talks, Samper will either consider walking or be sold (recently, two immensely talented Masia grads, Gerard Deulofeu and Adama Traore, both vacated for England, while just last week the club rescinded the contracts of numerous reserve players). This worry has already played out with Alejandro Grimaldo, a 20-year-old left-back and former Barca B captain. After failing to ever suit up for the first-team, and with his contract winding down, Grimaldo was finally sold to Benfica early this month for €1.5 million.

Forget, for a moment, the we-know-better-than-the-coaches logic being employed by these maniacal fans towards these rather complex internal working affairs. Consider Samper and Grimaldo’s predicaments only as illustrations of the crosses that these young men bear en route to glory. To a slightly lesser extent, this is the creek Sergi Roberto has been paddling up since he first signed for Barcelona as a 14-year-old. The infatuation can be an affirming load, to be sure, but a heavy one as well.

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Under Guardiola, Roberto made the Masia-to-first-team leap in November of 2010. His senior debut came in a 5-1 win over Segunda B side AD Ceuta in the Copa del Rey. In 2011, he made his La Liga and Champions League debuts against Malaga and Real Madrid, respectively. In the five seasons following his debut, Roberto made 57 total appearances for the first-team, scoring four goals.

Roberto has always been fine. There’s been nothing particularly problematic about his play nor his attitude. But at Barca, the ever-rising bar swallows the fair whole. When Xavi was just fine, the club nearly let him set sail for Italy. La Masia trains you to exceed your potential. The last decade serves as evidence that its strenuous methods work. The club have fashioned an environment that cultivates greatness through both aesthetic and tangible hegemony (eg. critical praise and winning trophies). But that means it frequently kicks upstanding try-hards like Roberto to the curb.

As the 2015/16 season approached, it seemed as though the 23-year-old’s Blaugrana days were numbered. He had his chances, after all, and although they may not have been served on a platter, they had come. Now, with a murderer’s row of midfielders to choose from, Roberto had about as much chance of breaking through into Enrique’s side as Sandro Rosell had of breaking into Johan Cruyff’s circle of trust. It could be argued that Roberto deserved more chances in the way that all people would deserve chances ad infinitum in a not-terrible world. But the well of opportunity had run dry. Grace can appear in the murkiest of waters, however.

Roberto’s — for all intents and purposes — final opportunity came in July when Barcelona’s injury-plagued right side of defense called for some unexpected scabs. Out of seemingly nowhere, against Manchester United in Santa Clara, California during Barca’s summer preseason tour, with Adriano going off injured, Luis Enrique decided to slot Roberto in at right back. Nobody had ever seen him play there. Roberto himself admitted that, prior to the summer, he “had never played fullback in his life.”

Right away, it looked weird. For the mob of Cules awaiting the arrival of Sergi Roberto, Xavi 2.0, seeing the babe bombing up and down the right flank was irksome, although it soon made perfect sense. Tactically, Roberto’s central midfielder disposition gives him a broader perspective on the wide position as he regularly stays concerned with overall team shape and ball circulation. Likewise, he’s shown an excellent sense for when and when not to attack with the rest of his adventurous teammates. And, most assuring, his superior technicality means he delivers a sumptuous cross to his forwards. Against the Red Devils, and in each match that he has relieved in defense this season, Roberto has excelled. It was an awkward fit at first, but not anymore. Now, he's excelling, and everyone else looks stupid for not seeing it sooner.

It turns out that this right back reinvention was Roberto’s ticket into the team he could never quite penetrate. In late October, despite nursing a groin injury, he was routed back into midfield by Luis Enrique. As if he’d never deviated from his middle-of-the-park Masia path, Roberto provided two career-highlight assists in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Getafe, including an audacious backheel that could’ve been lifted from Iniesta’s catalog.

In November’s Clasico against Real Madrid, Roberto again found himself reassigned. With a long-injured Lionel Messi unfit to start, Enrique stationed Roberto at the Argentine’s right-flank spot, another position mostly alien to him. It proved to be a beneficial move for both him and Barca. Roberto was one of the game’s standout performers, supplying the opening assist — a cutting reverse through-ball to find Luis Suarez — in the Catalans’ 4-0 rout of their rivals. It was the kind of playmaking maneuver he was born to create, even if it finally materialized in a rather oblique way.

It’s still uncertain as to which pockets Roberto will ultimately slide into as the physio table clears and simmering summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal — both serious positional competition for the Catalan — are fully integrated into the team. (Although Roberto even deputized at left back in Barcelona’s most recent league match against Athletic Bilbao after Jordi Alba exited with a pulled hamstring.) At Barca especially, squad roles tend to morph. Carles Puyol went from marauding right back to stoic central-defending sergeant over the span of his pro career, while Jordi Alba started his cantera journey as a peppy goalscorer before finally finding his qi as a left wingback. Even Roberto’s primary champion, Luis Enrique, began his Barca playing career as a striker and “ended up playing fullback, midfield, and just about everywhere else.” Adaptation is very much the name of the game at the tippy-top, which is where the Catalans always exist. But that professional fluidity can’t happen until the player is actually in the door. Whatever the number combo is that young Masia players look to to open the safe of Barca’s first-team with, Roberto has found it. He’s in. And that is (and should be) all that matters for now.

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Roberto’s (re)discovery is meaningful, but not just because it’s another canterano succeeding. It’s meaningful because he’s another young person surviving the undertow of a rigorous professional life, the transition into adulthood. It’s terribly easy to be an unknowing patron in an ever-expanding cynical sports world, where human beings are expected to excel at their given tasks with extreme regularity simply because they possess a talent that’s deemed special. It’s so easy, in fact, that it’s often forgotten that those budding stars are always, at the beginning, as their gifts are first recognized, just kids.

But becoming a professional footballer is hard, and this is a truth more prevalent at Barcelona than perhaps anywhere else. We can look towards the Guardiola-led Masia dream team as a youth academy done well, but in reality, Xavi, Iniesta, and The Miracles are a rare breed, many of whom grew up and learned together, often aiding in one another’s success just as much as their own individual skills did. Nobody should ever expect a young person to elevate to those levels as a professional of any kind. Those are all-time levels. And these are kids.

Every sports figure that’s ever been lionized was once a wandering case threatening to become nothing. It’s uncomplicated to accept that Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer on the planet, because it’s plain to see with our eyes. But never forget that the Argentine virtuoso used to administer injections of growth hormones into his thighs daily at age 11 because he was too slight to do that thing he loves and we now synonymize him with. There is a struggle, always.

Young adulthood can be weird. You fall in love. You feel the pressing weight of growing up. Maybe you experience miserable failure at many endeavors, many times over. And maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever felt or experienced any of those things. It’s a self-absorbed and brooding and educational period of life. Maybe Sergi Roberto’s last few years have been like that. Maybe not. But if we can agree that they could have been, if it’s reasonable enough to conclude, no matter who the subject is, that he or she has toiled a significant path to get to where they are, then it makes any impending fall all the more pardonable. Likewise, it makes the success — a strikingly rare kind, in Roberto’s case — pretty goddamn glorious.


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