This Week In Barca

What is it like to watch talented teenagers progress through your favorite club's youth ranks? It is like having nostalgia for something you're experiencing for the very first time.
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Have you ever rediscovered something from your childhood that unexpectedly minces your heart into goo? It could be something as personal as an old photo of you and your mother playing Scrabble or as seemingly unevocative as an old 9th Grade Algebra test. These are moments and feelings that can’t be explained because of how far and true they sink their bite into you, and only you. If you’re like me, you most likely and most recently had this sensation while watching television. Maybe it was during an old episode of Gunsmoke that you recall watching with a grandparent. The feeling visits me whenever I watch a weekly show called BarcaTV. Except I never watched BarcaTV when I was a kid.

BarcaTV is, in essence, a TV station dedicated to and produced by FC Barcelona. That much isn’t distinctive. It’s the same kind of omniscient media project that many giant football clubs create and often make available for subscription through their official sites. The Catalan club’s rivals Real Madrid have one that’s quite similar called, yep, RealMadridTV. In America, however, we get simplified block versions of these 24-hour channels distributed via various sports networks. Usually these programs run anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours and go over club news, while also broadcasting a sub-high-definition quality recording of the first team’s most recent match. What makes BarcaTV distinct from these other drab media endeavors is that it doesn’t suck.

In North America, BarcaTV is shown multiple times per week on Univision’s Televisa Deportes Network (in recent seasons, it’s been seen on Al Jazeera Media Network outlet beIN Sports, among other channels), and covers all current events surrounding the club from scores and results, to new acquisitions, to the development of training facilities. And not just for the football team either. Because FC Barcelona is a multi-pronged sports club, BarcaTV additionally covers their basketball, handball, futsal, roller hockey, ice hockey, and rugby teams. It’s basically This Week in Baseball meets C-SPAN meets Barca.

While it is vast and interesting — and overwhelming, at times — the most vast and interesting part of BarcaTV is undoubtedly a segment called "Next Generation." This portion of the program showcases recent highlights from all of Barca's youth sides from age seven and up and usually takes up the majority of the program. It’s meant to give the viewer a deeper grasp on the club’s budding youth players than they’d have if they just came across some trending Vines or a YouTube compilation. The matchplay cameras are lowly situated and there’s very little commercial fluff surrounding the pitch to be distracted by apart from the usual Nike and Qatar Airways logos. Perhaps more than any other game you’d watch on television, BarcaTV’s “Next Generation” truly makes you feel like you’re at the park, watching alongside parents and random club staff. Look in the distance and it’s easy to spot a couple of 12-year-old academy attendees heading to study hall.

* * *

As you might expect, BarcaTV’s youth soccer games aren’t the ones you’d recognize from your salad days. After all, this is Barcelona, where the kids are schooled in the stables of the famed (and unlawful, according to FIFA) youth academy, La Masia, learning the same tenets and philosophies that Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Pep Guardiola adopted as children. They play like the first-team: short, quick passing, ruthless attacking, and, above all, caring for the ball. Of course, beyond the wealth of ball-playing tiki-taka types in Barca’s youth sides, there’s plenty of pure individual brilliance on show as well. None more exciting than that of Carles Alena.

Alena is a 16-year-old Spanish footballer who captains Barca’s Juvenil A squad, one step lower than Barcelona B and two steps lower than Luis Enrique’s first team. An attacking midfielder blessed with an extravagant left foot, Alena is as wildly expressive with the ball at his feet as I’ve ever seen. I’m not alone in thinking this, either. Club legend Xavi Hernandez recently admitted to being an avid admirer of youngster in an exclusive BarcaTV interview from June. Alena has been making his way through La Masia’s pyramid since he was just a small boy. This BarcaTV montage shows his progression over the years.

Regardless of the relatively low competitive level he’s operating at, Alena’s speed of thought, creativity, and vision make him an absolute joy to watch. Outside of these footballing attributes, however, I don’t know a whole lot about Alena right now. And I shouldn’t. He’s only 16 and has done very little in the way of The Things We Care About. There’s no worrying about Champions League finals for juveniles like Alena, no redemption from old scores unsettled. At 16, he is simply trying to get to the next level. If he does ascend to those next tiers, then I — and we — will learn everything about the young man. For now, I just watch.

But even more than his visible talent, for me, Alena is a character in an episodic series I follow. Sports exist like this for many via institutions like Monday Night Football, Hockey Night In Canada, or Match of the Day. It makes sense. Dredging your way through the normalities of weekday life towards the one light that’s waiting for you at the “end." That's the piece of life regularly reserved for these games. But I follow the mainstream sports world religiously. Whether it's through articles, podcasts, news programs, or Twitter updates, it's easy for supposed normal indulgences to veer into the obsessive at times. Yet even at my own mania's apex, I rarely watch and receive updates on, say, Barca's Cadet A side. I catch up with those guys once a week on BarcaTV. I wait for them, purposefully.

Watching Alena is very much like watching Selina Meyer stumble through the halls of the White House in Veep, or James McGill trade in jewelry cons for subpoenas in Better Call Saul, or Randy Orton RKO (outta nowhere) the world on Monday Night Raw. Alena’s BarcaTV character has a point to prove. He progresses, and every move he makes ripples out into the universe he inhabits. His performances lead he and his cohorts toward new places and fresh opportunities. When he plays a flawless through-ball to one of his Juvenil A teammates, I wonder what that same pass will look like atop the unsullied grass of Camp Nou, and how long I’ll have to wait to see it, or if I’ll ever see it at all. Then I wonder whose spot in the Juvenil A’s Alena is currently taking up, and if and when that chap will get the chance to succeed his elder. And on and on. It’s a fun and intriguing ride that BarcaTV stamps my ticket for every week.

But Carles Alena is merely my chief interest at the moment. Enter the overwhelming part of BarcaTV’s “Next Generation:” witnessing flocks of enviously talented lads just waiting to crystalize into gemstones. Riqui Puig is one of the younger breed many Cules have taken note of. An unusually small but extremely crafty 15-year-old attacking mid, Puig currently shines in Barcelona’s Juvenil B team. (Xavi, too, name-dropped him in the aforementioned BarcaTV interview in which he mentioned Alena.) Here’s a BarcaTV clip of Puig scoring one of his many audacious goals. There’s also Xavi Simons, a 13-year-old sparkplug who spends his days embarrassing defenders in the Infantil B squad. You shouldn’t have a difficult time spotting the curly-headed dynamo in this highlight video.

While Alena will likely move up to the first team in the coming seasons, Puig and Simons will be there to entertain the Masia addicts for at least a few more years before they either do or don’t anymore. In every sense of the word, even more than Alena, Puig and Simons are children, and their paths lay open and endless. After them, there will be others. Assuming the access is still there, Barca TV will continue to be a sport-reality-equivalent of Coronation Street for those who desire it. The story doesn’t end. It just chills until the next episode.

* * *

Rarely do any of us wait for the news anymore. Everything is to-the-minute. This cyclical, unceasing stream of information and images has turned what many believe to be an escapist’s venture — following sports — into a manic and never-ending pursuit. Have you ever tried to evade the result of a game score because you were busy? It’s nearly goddamn impossible. From Twitter alerts, to texts from the Spoiler Militia, to merely looking in the wrong direction of a rogue TV while at a bar, the idea of waiting to get our fix has become an obsolete endeavor, whether it’s within our control or not. We’re all playing this sports media game of tag, and we’re all It. I want to wait, but I can’t. I can’t wait, but I want to. Fuck it, just tell me what happened.

Here’s where Barca TV has compassionately tugged at the balloon string of my fleeting attention span and told me to slow my roll. I’m reminded of how comforting old routine can be, less like a cup of coffee in the morning and more like seeing old friends on New Year’s. The tiniest commitment of a sports club’s internal media dump, within an already omniscient prism of sports consumption, is oddly empowering. When I watch BarcaTV, it feels as if I’m one of a very few clumps of diehards outside of Catalunya configuring my schedule in order to watch a piece of film that could be a precursor to what tomorrow’s soccer world could look like. And that feels special. It brings back early youthful feelings of exclusivity: finding a bi-annual CCS skateboarding mail order catalog in the post or sending $15 in an envelope to Victory Records with the dubious hopes of receiving an Integrity CD on my doorstep six weeks later. There was a sense of exhilaration involved with those foreign pursuits, an inlaid promise that my access into these worlds outside of my own would be granted. All I needed was a few bucks and some patience.

The difference is, in those days my patience often rewarded me, whereas nowadays, it mostly handicaps me. Maybe there’s a valuable lesson there. I could easily follow every move of Barca’s Infantil A squad throughout the week, but it would offer me very little as a sports fan. I’d only ever be able to view the matches via highlights, not to mention I’d have close to zero knowledge of their competition. So would that offering even benefit me in any profound way? Almost surely not. Scorelines and league tables and trophies are veritably meaningless in this construct. All that matters are the moving pictures that I’ve waited all week to see.

Shows like BarcaTV’s will always have a pull because of their unique content. Any measure of access into the walkways of the greatest football team in the world is noteworthy, if merely for its historic quality. Segments like “Next Generation” are the magnet that will continually bring me back. But with that content, I can’t ignore the mortalizing edge that cuts into me when watching gifted young people excel. Maybe this truth reveals more about my life than any psychological quirk ever could. As these Barca juniors thrive from the control rooms of their inclining futures, it’s easy to burn with envy. This could be a premature midlife crisis, or maybe just the seeds for one, but it’s something real. That sentiment is further punctuated by the old skool manner in which I’m choosing to view Alena and Puig and Simons’s BarcaTV exploits. Yet somehow, immersing myself in these nostalgic devices can still make me feel ever-present because of how distant it makes the past seem. That feeling is engrossing and poignant. It’s the best.

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