In 2015, Forbes magazine ranked FC Barcelona as the fourth-most valuable sports franchise in the world at $3.16 billion dollars. It is known to most as the club of superstars Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez. The senior squad currently holds first place in Spain with a comfortable 8-point lead on Atletico Madrid and a 12-point lead on historical rivals Real Madrid.
But beyond the bright lights of Camp Nou, Barcelona’s brand banks on the Catalan motto “més que un club” — or “more than a club.”
With that vision, FCBEscola — the club’s official youth soccer academy — is now entering it’s third season of operation at Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, offering young people the opportunity to train under Barcelona’s renowned “possession” and “attacking” philosophy. The academy holds practices and games at the park’s 20,000-seat stadium. Though Barcelona’s youth programs have now expanded to other parts of the country, the South Florida branch serving Miami-Dade and Broward counties is its pilot program.
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The club primarily targets kids 6 to 14 for its program, but also provides a more competitive program for 15- to 19-year olds. FCBEscola Florida currently involves 2,000 children and hopes to recruit another 400 heading into next season.
Late last month, the academy held an open house for parents and has a host of upcoming events to help kick start the season, including its first invitational FCBE Tournament on April 16, open tryouts for their younger squads on April 30, a community soccer clinic on May 5 and an internal tournament on May 14.
Other tradition-rich programs like France’s Paris Saint-Germain, and Italian clubs Juventus and Inter Milan have followed suit, opening youth programs in South Florida, in what FCBEscola Florida’s technical director Miguel Castiella calls an attempt to “take advantage” of a burgeoning market for youth soccer.
“We started here with a two-week camp on one field in Kendall in 2008,” said Castiella, 37. “This year we will have a three-week camp in Fort Lauderdale and another in Miami.”
Castiella has been playing organized soccer since he was 9 years old — including a time playing for amateur teams in Spain. He started coaching the game when he was 16. This is his ninth season working with Barcelona’s youth academies and has led the on-the-field direction of FCBEscola Florida since it’s inception.
“Year by year, we were seeing that we had more and more kids showing up to these camps,” said Castiella. “This program is rooted in those projects.”
Marcel Bombonato is managing director of Kaptiva Sports Americas, FCBEscola Florida’s marketing arm. He says that first-year camp in Kendall Soccer Park included about 160 kids. Since then, FCBEscola has continued hosting camps. This year, Bombonato expects over 1,500 participants in the Fort Lauderdale camp alone. Barcelona plans to hold summer camps in more than 20 different states.
Bombonato and Castiella identified South Florida as a market with particular advantages when it comes to spreading soccer. Both noted warmer climate, diversity and access to fields as reason for the growth of soccer and the success of the program.
“Soccer has definitely grown in South Florida in the past 10 years. You have people joining the sport at a younger age,” said Bombonato, 32. “Here you have great parks and great facilities. It’s very welcoming.”
When it comes to the program’s philosophy on the pitch, Castiella says that the academy is not scouting players based exclusively on their skill level. As an extension of the Barcelona methodology, he is more interested in finding players who can “play smart” and “have a feel for the game” from a young age. Castiella believes that if you teach young players that basic philosophy, the technical skills will come.
“This is the main thing that we try and develop in our players,” said Castiella. “If you have the ball and you pass to a teammate, you can’t stand still. You have to move to help your teammate.”
However, the program is not just for a young Messi or Neymar. FCBEscola provides recreational programs for less advanced kids and group them based on ability.
Players practice three times per week and are guaranteed at least one game at a stadium every year with an outfitted locker room. If it rains, not a problem. Castiella and the other coaches take kids inside and show them videos and presentations on proper strategy and technique.
The program costs parents $2,250 per year. Bombonato says that the academy offers parents a cheaper alternative to some other competitive youth soccer programs because the tuition is built into one yearly fee.
“You don’t have added fees for every game or for referees every weekend,” Bombonato said.
Bombonato and Castiella did acknowledge that the academy does have a kind of competitive advantage with parents, in part because of the general public’s trust in the Barcelona brand. However, both also expressed a concern about overly high expectations that parents might have from their children.
“The expectation can never surpass the fun factor. A lot of these kids tell us that their parents are putting too much pressure on them when they’re playing soccer,” said Bombonato. “Ultimately, that ruins the joy of the player.”
Daniel Hidalgo: @DanielJHidalgo
For more information, visit http://fcbescola.fcbarcelona.com/florida/.