Sant Joan DespíIt’s 4pm on a Wednesday at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper. Not far from the Johan Cruyff stadium, a lot of players take to the pitch to train. It’s all laughs. Between them they talk precisely about Johan Cruyff, a name that unites Barça and Ajax. A key man in both clubs and a person who understood that football is a weapon to change things. Those responsible for the Fundació Barça team, for players with intellectual disabilities, which has been in existence for two years, know this well enough. A team that is still making its third trip abroad this weekend, precisely to face Ajax in Amsterdam.
“We’re like a family. We’ve made a gang, off and on the pitch,” says 22-year-old Jenny. First she says she is shy and will find it difficult to talk to a reporter. Then he gets excited. “It’s like rugby, you know? That they can compete bravely and then all be together. Well, we’re the same without having to distribute hard like in rugby,” she laughs. All the players feel like the luckiest people in the world. They are Barça fans who can now defend the club’s shield.
Barça was one of the last clubs to join the initiative to have a team in LaLiga Genuine, precisely because there was a fear of not being able to accommodate all the players who wanted to play there. But Joan Laporta’s management decided to take the step forward, as it defended in the electoral campaign. Currently, there are 30 athletes, 24 boys and 6 girls, aged between 17 and 34, who are starting to break barriers. To select the lucky ones, Barça has worked with seven organizations that work with the group of people with intellectual disabilities: Aura Fundació, Fundació Apinas, Ampans, Fundació Sant Tomàs, Fundació Cassià Just – Cuina Justa, Fundació Viaclara and the Penya Special Barça. In September 2021, the players were chosen after a selection process in which the coaching staff of the Barça Foundation also participated. The condition to be able to play is to have more than 33% disability.
Barça debuted in the tournament in which the other clubs of the League participate, LaLiga Genuine, a tournament in which Nàstic from Tarragona played a key role in its birth. It’s a competition born in 2017 where it’s not about winning. A great party of brotherhood where positive values are encouraged, although the players dream of course of scoring a goal. In fact, in the sporting field, the success of the Blaugrana team has been absolute, since the Barça Foundation team has not lost a single official match and has won the three titles it played in its first season. The title they value most is that of LaLiga Genuine in the Compañerismo group, in which goals are valued and, in a very special way, sportsmanship, fair play, teamwork, respect and overcoming. The other two titles won by the men and women of the Barça Foundation are the DICUP tournament, which was played in June at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper and in which seven other Catalan teams also participated, and The Original Challenge, a triangular with Nàstic Genuine and Orlando City that took place in a monumental setting such as the Daytona International Speedway, in Florida (United States), in July 2022. It was the first trip abroad. The second was in Croatia and now the third is coming.
The training sessions at the Ciutat Esportiva, led by coaches such as Sergi Mascarell, Josep Ferré, Emilio Gómez or Xavi Berengé, combine tactics, matches and fun. Players who get injured often ask their family members to accompany them to training as well, to follow them. It’s two hours of happiness. The goalkeeping coach is Jesús Unzué, the son of Juan Carlos Unzué. And there is a balance between sports training and psychology training thanks to professionals like Nagore Ferrero, Tina González and Beth Puigdesens. “It’s about enhancing their virtues, which are not few”, explains Berengé. “It’s a blessing to be able to work with them. We want them to be an example and become a reference for similar young people to be able to advance in the inclusion of people with other abilities in the world of sport,” explains the coach, who remembers that, being Barça, a specific style of play is also promoted. The same as the first team plays. The same of Johan Cruyff. The team has two luxury ambassadors like Sergi Roberto and Aitana Bonmatí. The first year it was Gerard Piqué and Alexia Putellas. They train once a week, every Wednesday, and on Sundays they play Genuine League games, friendlies and do more training.
“Rather than talking about disabilities, we like to talk about functional diversity, about abilities. Because, basically, they are teenagers who come here very motivated, they have high expectations of being able to promote themselves, of being able to be like the rest of teens who don’t they have a disability. And this strong spirit of motivation helps them to overcome themselves,” explains Beth Puigdesens, who came to Barça from the Pare Tomàs Foundation, from her homeland, Osona, to be one of the psychologists and trainers of the team. “Obviously the intellectual disabilities they have are different and the work has to be different. For example, a dwarf with Down syndrome will have a harder time understanding the exercise you are doing. You will have to repeat it 3 or 4 times until that he understands it. But what happens? Well, someone else who has understood it more quickly sets an example for him,” he adds. Beth is elated, as a first year player who had to quit came to see them today. He likes this sense of community that has been created around the team. “The engine of his life right now is Barça,” he says. Injured players come to training and some arrive two hours earlier at the Ciutat Esportiva, because they want to.
A very special trip
In the last training session before flying to Amsterdam, Mike Puig, the director of La Masia, stops by to see them. He knows all the players by name and they greet him. It is noticeable that not a single session is missed. “This friendly with Ajax is exciting, now that it will be 50 years since Cruyff signed for Barça. A delegation from Ajax visited us and when talking about projects they told us that they work with Only Friends, an association that works with people with different abilities. And this initiative was able to go ahead.” The Barça players will be taken to see a match in the Dutch First Division, between Ajax and AZ Alkmaar, before playing themselves. And all with the style of Barça, of La Masia, of Cruyff. “We have done several collaborations with Barça veterans, the women’s B team or the youth team. Whenever a team participates in a session with them, they want to repeat. The bonds that this team has created are very strong, everyone joins in and helps, from the medical services to the coaches,” he explains.
Josep Ferré, the Coco, is one of the technicians. He has traveled halfway around the world training, from Egypt to the Philippines, and now he drives 90 minutes from Tarragona to train this team that has “given him so much”. “Nastic was one of the pioneers, and I knew them. Now I do it at Barça. At first we were a bit expectant, but the fact of starting to work was a very gratifying surprise. The pace of learning is very high, they are competitive and after each session we make a circle to be honest, to explain how they experienced it”, he reasons. “We’ve seen beautiful things, like dwarfs who hardly said a word from shy people who go on to lead conversations at games,” adds Beth.
Sasha, one of the new players, looks nervous. He’s already thinking about the trip. “To play against Ajax, in Amsterdam, all of us who like football are excited. We will do the best we can. And if we can, we will win. The first day of training with Barça I was very nervous, but then I have concentrated. I manage to stay focused on what I have to do, to work with the whole team. The mere fact of being able to defend this shield, that of Barça, with these people…”, he explains. “With this family,” Jenny adds. A family that was born in the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper.
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