FC Barcelona, or Barça, as it is known, and the way it is today, would be impossible to understand without the semi-anonymous figure of Oriol Tort Martínez (Barcelona 1929–1999), the talent spotter who discovered Guardiola, Iniesta and Xavi, and a key figure in modern football, who devoted a lifetime to the club to create an effective and productive youth academy with a way of playing and understanding attacking football that defines the club today.
To begin with, Oriol Tort would have regarded having an article dedicated to him as extraneous, to say nothing of someone having the brilliant idea of such an iconic building as La Masia (the farmhouse, Barça’s youth training facility), where dozens of players have been trained and brought up and which he himself helped to establish, being named after him. The legendary scout, who discovered veritable rough diamonds such as Cesc, Iván de la Peña, Amor, Valdés, Gabri, Iniesta, Xavi, Celades and so on, not to mention virtually the whole of the current Barça squad, subs bench included (Vilanova and Roure are also from La Masia Oriol Tort), would have said in his casual, comical way that it was no big deal. Tort was a remarkably humble man who lived solely and exclusively to keep FC Barcelona true to its way of understanding the game, imported from Holland and Eastern Europe, which peaked with Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
Having been through most of the possible phases in FC Barcelona, as player and coach in the under-13s section, Tort finally became coordinator of the youth divisions in 1977. But it was under the leadership of Josep Lluís Núñez (1978–2000) that he was entrusted with the most special and secretive task – spotting new talents, forming a farm team of future stars framed within the symbol of La Masia, the eighteenth-century farmhouse that stands next to the Camp Nou. Oriol Tort became a talent spotter when this profession was still in its infancy.
In actual fact, Tort combined scouting with his day job as a pharmaceutical representative. After work he would take off to watch matches, particularly under-13s. He spent his weekends doing nothing else. Sometimes, in mid-season, he attended between fifteen to twenty football matches. In almost three decades of non-stop activity, the eyes of Oriol Tort took in hundreds and thousands of children, who were unaware that the Barça scout was in the stand to observe, analyse and detect future stars. It was his speciality, as it would soon be plain to see.
One day, just like any other, his eyes latched onto a small, somewhat puny child, who was playing in Gimnàstic Manresa, and who had an uncanny skill with the ball. He was just was he was looking for, and Tort knew it. The boy fitted in perfectly with the ethos of attacking football the club wanted to build from the ground up, the typically Dutch style that Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff introduced and which would be the basis of the future Dream Team of the nineties – intelligence, skill, speed. That skinny boy would be the prototype of this style. Tort had just discovered Pep Guardiola.
The legendary scout promptly brought another one of his great skills into play, one that was perhaps even more valuable. He talked to the parents. He convinced them to send their children to La Masia, where they would be brought up in the lower ranks of the club to play in the juveniles, and where their schooling would not be neglected. Moreover, Tort told them that in La Masia the boys were brought up within a system of values based on respect and friendship. If all went well, they might even make the first team.
Tort was a man who left nothing to chance. He used to have lunch with the boys in La Masia’s dining room. He joked with them. He was cheerful and friendly, and often did impersonations. He made them laugh, and played with them. He took care of the ones who were homesick. He took the ones who came from further away, such as Arnau or Arteta, home with him at weekends where they were treated like part of the Tort family. Never has a football club got so much out of a committed and sensitive employee like Oriol Tort for so long.
Barça’s scouting work became more systematic and professional in 1980, when it took on board another even more crucial and unknown figure, Joan Martínez Vilaseca (Manresa, 1943), who is still working as a FIFA talent scout. Juan Martínez, signed by the club straight from RCD Espanyol, formed a perfect duo with Oriol Tort, working together for twenty-eight years non-stop. Tort and Martínez became known as the Dream Team of the “despatxet” [little office], as Martínez himself called the office shared by both of them in the old premises of FC Barcelona over the club’s Palau de Gel, and from where they built up a veritable factory of home-grown players.
Tort focused all his scouting work on under-14s. Martínez focused on the under-19s. It was he who discovered Carles Puyol, for example, who entered the club at the eleventh hour, or more exactly at the age seventeen, on Martínez’s personal recommendation. Martínez was a modern version of Tort. In actual fact, it was he who was responsible for discovering Cesc and Bojan Krkic. But that did not make any difference. Tort and Martínez were modest, frugal and discreet, while work in the “little office” was frantic, passionate and constant. There were no computers. Just one land-line. Martínez recalls the frugality, coordination and sheer joy of their work. They would play about with a plastic mobile phone, pretending they were phoning big-time stars.
Tort worked with little pieces of paper stuffed into his pockets – he had no agenda. They kept their information on promising young players in folders. The idea was to see as many games as possible, and weekends did not exist as they went from one ground to another. It was a laborious task, self-sacrificing and anonymous, with no messing about. They were not after accolades. They were a two-man team who watched an incredible number of kids together, stringing trips together so as not to miss a match. They gave up their time with the family to watch kids playing football. They did whatever it took.
In the nineties, the “little office” of Tort and Martínez began to yield its fruit. And there was something that was even more important. The great secret, the Dutch idea from Michels and Cruyff – have up-and-coming young players trained in La Masia debut with the first team. “Seeing a kid like Iniesta make his debut in Camp Nou was our reward,” says Martínez Vilaseca. Nobody could ever have imagined the patience, the effort, the hours of work that were put it. It is the story of Xavi, Guardiola, Iniesta and Puyol, debuting thanks to Dutch trainers of the ilk of Cruyff, Van Gaal and Rijkaard, the goal being to culminate the work of the club’s farm team.
With the advent of modern times, Tort’s system based on scraps of paper became somewhat obsolete. Computers and printers populated the office. Everyone wanted reports, files, exhaustive studies. Tort, who had never written a report, realised that the end was nigh for him. Football clubs had to move with the times. In the final years, Martínez helped him as best he could. But Tort’s era was over, and this all coincided with a diagnosis of bone cancer. Tort was a heavy smoker, and he passed away in 1999. At the funeral, Guardiola said of his discoverer, “Today, Barça is less wise.” Josep Mussons, one of the club’s historic directors, who hails from the city of Igualada, said that “if we made a list of all the footballers discovered by Tort, that list would encircle the stadium”. The most telling and definitive statement came from Del Bosque: “Oriol Tort represents that anonymous person who nevertheless is crucial to all clubs.”