Why Rafinha is Barcelona’s blessing in disguise

Barcelona’s rise as a true footballing superpower in the 21st century has been heavily documented as one of the epoch-defining stories in the history of football. And a pivotal part of this story is the fabled youth setup of the Catalan club; the one that predates the beginning of the success cycle, and whose roots can be traced back to the early days of Oriol Tort and Johan Cruyff, influential figures of the club’s history, present and future alike.

That the likes of La Masia products Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Pedro, Sergio Busquets to name but a few, have defined the Barcelona of modern age and the relentless success the club have had points to something engraved deep into the club’s skin. The rise and subsequent rise of top level young players in what seemed an unending conveyor belt of world beaters was the envy of many. Until a recent phenomenon.

In recent years, the club have seen La Masia youngsters depart for other clubs, mostly in the continent, while there has been greater emphasis on buying expensive. This summer, though, spending has been offset by a ban on registering players, which has provided the La Masia lot to once again prove themselves. And the flag bearer is a player who has been a revelation for the Blaugrana this season: Rafinha.

It looked as though the Sao Paolo-born midfielder had lost his chance to make an impression in the first team when he was farmed out to Celta Vigo in the summer of 2013 for a season. That same summer, his brother, Thiago, moved permanently to Bayern Munich. Things were taking a different course when two of Barca’s academy products were moving out of the club rather than getting closer to the first team picture.

The situation was worlds apart from what Barca always seemed to convey about their youth set-up. The club were in a state of flux, with managerial stability far from a given after they had changed their second manager in the space of little more than a year (dictated by unforeseen circumstances though). And there were even murmurs of discontent regarding the club’s hierarchy. This is why Rafinha’s rise assumes even greater significance.

Rafinha has come off age in the Barca first team this season, contributing invaluably and even making his manager allow Messi some much-needed rest after the tiresome international break in the weekend game against Atletico Madrid. This has left Messi fitter for Wednesday’s Champions League tie in Rome, and his late introduction against Atletico defined the result of the game.

Rafinha isn’t only helping towards a fitter Messi but has also taken giant strides in his own international career. Away from Spain, the 22-year-old this month represented his national team, Brazil, for the first time in his short career so far. Rafinha growing into the Barca set-up under Luis Enrique has somewhat healed the wounds of Pedro’s summer departure to Chelsea.

Rafinha’s rise sets a precedent for the emerging talents of La Masia, and with the likes of Iniesta and Messi not expected to be around forever, there are chances aplenty for any starlet to break through into the first team. There was a time when likes of Bojan Krkic, Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca, Jonathan dos Santos, Martin Montoya, Oriol Romeu, Andreu Fontas, Marc Muniesa had been touted as the next big things but today are nowhere to be found in the club’s books.

It was a period of aberration, albeit short, but Rafinha’s emergence as an indispensable asset to Barcelona proves a point the La Masia is set to stay strong, and will continue unearthing newer gems provided they are afforded more opportunities like the Brazilian. Suggestions are that a lot needs to be addressed in organisational and structural matters, but the Brazilian has at least managed to sneak in at what has been some difficult times down the ranks at the club.

For every generation of Messis and Piques, there is always a Rafinha generation. One which looks difficult on the eye, but is equally important in maintaining the legacy of La Masia. With manager Luis Enrique a firm believer in the talents of Rafinha, more first team chances are on their way for the versatile midfielder. 

He, along with Sergi Roberto and Marc Bartra to a lesser extent, could usher in a new era for the club, at a time when La Masia is supposedly treading a downward spiral.

By Abhijit Bharali, columnist at Barcablog. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Can Rafinha be considered the next La Masia success? Can Rafinha ever reach the level of greats such as Iniesta or Xavi? Your feedback is greatly appreciated, Culé!