Sasha Ryga holds up the souvenir scarf from the Champions League football game featuring Barcelona vs. Arsenal at Camp Nou in Barcelona

Bookmark moments in Barcelona

Cloverdale's Sasha Ryga had a rare opportunity this spring as one of a handful of soccer players invited to train at boys academy

Sasha Ryga, a nine-year-old soccer player with Surrey United, has started the soccer season with an unbridled enthusiasm and fond memories after spending a few weeks in Barcelona after an invitation to train with the prestigious (FCB) Escola Barcelona in Spain.

Sasha also represented Canada with the U11 team to compete in the Football Barcelona International Youth Tournament where he got to meet Barcelona FCB team captain – Andres Iniesta.

A total of over 1,200 players from 19 countries competed in the unique tournament, an impressive multicultural event.

In the end, Sasha has returned to Cloverdale transformed with a new appreciation for different cultures and an intrinsically motivated philosophy of respect, teamwork, humility, effort and friendship in football, aka soccer.

Sasha was one of a handful of boys selected from across Canada by FCB Escola invited to train with the Barcelona academy boys for one week.

With this honour, he got to train in Barcelona FCB (where his hero, Lionel Messi started), tour Camp Nou as well as receive two tickets to a game where he got to see the Champions League Barcelona vs Arsenal game at Camp Nou.

It was the perfect game as the trident – or, as Sasha calls them, “the three-headed monster,” of Neymar, Suarez and Messi – all scored!

Sasha’s greatest thrill was to watch Neymar warm up pre-game with a spectacular juggling show and to see Messi work his magic live.

While there, Sasha trained every evening from 6-7 p.m., and would spend the day touring the city and seeing as much as possible from the top sights list.

It was a whirlwind of activities, but he got to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Casa Batllo, the waterfront (where he played beach soccer with the locals), Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter, Le Catedral, Picasso Museum, Parc Guell, a Flamenco show and much more.

[Photo at left: Sasha Ryga and his mom Paulina in Spain posing with Barcelona’s famed Lionel Messi’s record five Ballon D’or, awarded to the best player in the world.]

Sasha would practice his Spanish with the locals, as each training session was in Spanish, however,  the coaches did have some English, and when it looked as though Sasha was unsure of something, one of the boys would always come over to translate as best they could.

Sasha became fast friends with the Barcelona boys, and they would regularly come over to him and tussle his hair and tell him, “great job.”

He would always get a big smile from everyone when he would say, “Gracias!” It was an incredible opportunity and experience.

They gave him the number 9 to wear in their in-house tournament – the same number the legendary Johan Cruyff wore when he played for Barcelona, and who sadly passed away while Sasha was in Barcelona.

One of his biggest heroes, Eric Ho, gave Sasha a video to watch of Cruyff before leaving, and is one of Sasha’s favourite players.

Cruyff revolutionized the game, and is considered to be one of the greatest footballers in history as it was he who formulated the Barca youth academy methodology.

When the week of training was over, Sasha was part of the Canadian team for the Fifth FCB Escola International tournament.

His group stage included games against Brazil, Japan, Costa Rica and even Spain – against some of the very boys he trained with and played with just a few days prior.

The Barca boys exemplified the tiki-taka style and played with such fluency that it was an honour to play against them.

In the dressing room before the game, the Barca players were all coming over to Sasha to give him high fives, and at the end of the match, came over to him to give him the biggest of hugs.

The coach later told Sasha’s mom that someone asked how Sasha knew all these guys, to which Sasha simply stated, “they’re my friends.”

That was another bookmark moment of the trip of which he will never forget, he experienced a camaraderie that transcended cultures and languages.

The city of Barcelona is fiercely proud of their football team and even have a whole channel (BarcaTV) devoted to FCB 24/7.  A number of parents approached Sasha in the tournament to tell him that they saw him on BarcaTV, so of course when Sasha got back to the hotel, he was in the commercial they had running for the youth tournament (now on Youtube under Fifth FCB Escola International Tournament is Here).

Sasha has come back inspired.

When asked what he thinks about the experience, his first thoughts are of gratitude to all of his coaches, teammates and mentors throughout the years that have helped him develop not only into a player, but a player with integrity and a true love for the game.

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