Parents sacrifice comfortable lives in California for son to learn at Barcelona's famed academy
Breeding the greats is what La Masia sets out to do
More than six million Americans live abroad, according to recent estimates, so it was not altogether unusual when the Ledermans, a family of four from California, moved to Barcelona in 2011. After all, one of them got a dream job.
For the Ledermans, though, the strange thing was not the move but the reason: The opportunity that brought them to Spain was not for Danny, the father and small-business owner, or Tammy, the mother and real estate agent.
It was for Ben, their 11-year-old son.
Two years later, Ben Lederman, 13, is still working, still spending most days (and many evenings) training at La Masia, the famed youth soccer academy run by the global soccer juggernaut Barcelona. Ben is the first US-born player invited to train at La Masia, and that distinction, while significant, means little to his overall quest: to work his way up through the Barcelona youth teams and someday, maybe, become the first American to play for Barcelona's first team.
Could it happen? Perhaps. He has scored several memorable goals already in his career, but what has impressed most observers - including those from Barcelona - is his field vision and his seemingly advanced ability to see passing lanes and openings during the run of play. More than goals, that sort of instinctive game savvy is what scouts crave.
And yet, the possibility of making it to the highest level with Barcelona is both remote and, at a minimum, several seasons of good play (and good fortune) away. Barcelona are generally reluctant to offer details or access to La Masia, so many fans know only their success stories.
Among the club's current stars, Cesc Fabregas entered La Masia at 10. Lionel Messi and Xavi joined the club at 11, and Andres Iniesta at 12. But there are reportedly about 300 players in the academy in a given year, and fewer than 10 per cent typically make the first team.
In the interim, the Ledermans have settled into a life in which they simultaneously revel in their situation and struggle with the limbo it demands. In many ways, they have become what they readily acknowledge is an unusual case study on parenting.
"We were close to not doing it," Tammy said. "We were very, very close. People hear, 'Soccer, Barcelona, Spain,' and just assume it all works. But there is so much that goes into it."
The decision to leave their Los Angeles-area existence was so difficult that the Ledermans went to a life coach to help them sort through the ramifications of their choice. They had jobs and cars and friends and responsibilities. Their children had schools and clubs and teams.
"Even people close to us didn't really understand what we were considering," Tammy said. "We rented our house. We left our families. We left our lives."
Left unsaid, but not forgotten, was the reason: a chance for a preteen boy to play at one of the best soccer academies in the world. Yes, there are plenty of other prodigies whose families send them to train far from home or move around to accommodate their schedules, including a handful of players in the US national youth programme, for which Ben plays. Few, though, do it for players so young, or for teams so prestigious.
"I've seen it go in different ways," said John Ellinger, a former coach in the US youth national programme who also worked in Major League Soccer. "Soccer-wise, of course you go. Of course you do. And more and more clubs seem to be interested in American players, which is terrific. But until you are faced with that sort of decision as a family, it's impossible to imagine what it's like."
With Barcelona, too, there were no guarantees - the club's initial agreement with Ben was for only two years. That left Tammy and Danny torn about whether putting that much pressure on Ben would be productive or disastrous.
Ben had always loved soccer. At eight, when he got a white guinea pig as a birthday present, he named it Messi. At 10, when he and Danny were at the Camp Nou stadium to watch a Barcelona game as fans, Ben turned to his father and said, "Dad, I want to play here someday."
At 11, after being praised by Barcelona scouts who watched him play in an exhibition arranged between one of the club's youth teams and Ben's club team in California, he earned a weeklong try-out.
The culmination came when Danny and Tammy told Ben he had been invited to train at La Masia. "I can't describe his face," Danny said. "As a parent, it was the kind of joy that just makes you incredibly happy."
Still, the family's decision to relocate did not come easily. Although Barcelona promised to take care of anything that Ben needed, including his schooling, nutrition, uniforms and training gear, the Ledermans were largely on their own.
None of them spoke Spanish (let alone Catalan), so even basic things like buying food or finding a bathroom, or a school for their older son, were a challenge.
There were also sizeable financial considerations. In a convenient coincidence, Danny had sold his clothing business a few months before Ben was invited to Barcelona, but Tammy was a successful real estate agent. She had a network and contacts that she had spent years cultivating.
In Barcelona, neither parent has a work visa. The family's costs - estimated at roughly US$134,000 - come from their savings, what they make in rent on their house in California and some unofficial consulting work that Danny does with soccer organisations looking to travel internationally.
"Everyone asks me if we've been travelling and seen all of Europe," Tammy said. "We've been here three years and I haven't been to Paris."
She and Danny spend most of their time trying to create as normal a life as possible for their children. That is made more difficult by Ben's daily routine, which starts when he leaves for school at about 7.30am At 2pm he takes a bus to La Masia, where he has lunch and works with a tutor. He trains shortly after six each night, crossing paths often with soccer icons like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, and arrives home most nights sometime after 9.30.
He cried often in frustration during the first few months, his parents said. The practices were difficult, and the language barrier could seem overwhelming. In addition to English, Ben was trying to speak Spanish and Catalan with his teammates while also hearing Hebrew (both his parents are Israeli) at home. He was required to study a "second" language in school, too - Spanish and Catalan did not count - so French vocabulary was bouncing around his head as well.
Danny and Tammy were inundated with news media requests about Ben's adventure - there was even talk of a movie that would have featured Ben's story - but turned down almost all of them. Danny and Tammy agreed to an interview for this article - their first extensive comments since Ben joined Barcelona - but, in keeping with the club's policy on having academy players avoid publicity, declined to make Ben available.
Despite the challenges, the family has slowly started to become more comfortable. They had a bar mitzvah for Ben at a synagogue and invited his entire team. Everyone's Spanish began to improve. Ben's older brother, Dean, 15, has started to enjoy his international school and is playing on a golf team.
Still, the uncertainty lingers. Initially, there was one other father of a player on Ben's team who spoke English but the man's son was not invited back last season.
"It's brutal and you are constantly wondering if that is going to be us," Tammy said.
Perhaps Ben's field vision and skill will continue to develop and he will work his way up Barcelona's ladder. Maybe he will find a place at a different European club when he gets older, his experience at La Masia serving as the ultimate resume builder. Or, maybe, he will go back to the US with his family, and return to his regularly scheduled childhood.
For now, the Ledermans go on, spending weekends at a different kind of soccer field, one where the parents watching the games are much quieter than their counterparts in the US. Part of that is because Barcelona's coaches forbid parents to shout out instructions to the players on the field. But part of it is something else. "There's some cheering, but not as much," Tammy said. "It's more serious. It's like everyone knows what is at stake."
The New York Times