Louis van Gaal during the Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Real Mallorca in Valencia, Spain, April 1998.

Where are they now? The 10 Barca youngsters Van Gaal gave debuts to

Louis van Gaal gave senior debuts to 10 different players during his two spells at Barcelona – but it would be fair to say their fortunes were mixed.

Van Gaal gave breaks to several young players during an immensely successful six years in charge of Ajax and continued to look to the youth ranks after taking over at Barcelona in 1997.

Here’s how the 10 players the Dutchman promoted at the Nou Camp fared after getting their chance.

Mario Rosas

“There was another Iniesta at Barca,” Xavi once said of Rosas. “I will always remember his name: Mario Rosas.

“If you saw how he played at 15, 16 or 17, you would say, ‘When this guy makes the first team, the Camp Nou will hallucinate.’

“He was a mixture of Laudrup and Messi, for real. He played with two feet, dribbled, was competitive.

“He had it all, but he got lost. It shocked me. Maybe he was not professional enough or didn’t have a strong mentality, we will never know.”

Mario Rosas is the greatest player you’ve never seen, and he’s all the more exciting for it. He was last seen as the manager of Croatian side HNK Sibenik, a position he resigned from in January 2022.

READ: The mystery of Mario Rosas, the man Xavi called ‘a mix of Laudrup and Messi’


With Barcelona already crowned champions, Jofre replaced debutant Rosas at half-time to make his own bow for the club on the final day of the 1997-98 campaign.

It was a bittersweet day for Jofre, who scored Barca’s only goal in a 4-1 defeat to Salamanca, and he would appear just once more for the club.

Spells at eight different clubs followed, with the midfielder ending his career in India.

Samuel Okunowo

Born and raised in Nigeria, Okunowo joined Barcelona at the age of 18 and burst onto the scene in 1998-99, making 21 appearances in all competitions as Barca won La Liga.

But two uninspiring loan spells at Benfica and Badajoz halted his momentum, and the right-back went on to join clubs in Greece, Romania, Albania, Ukraine, the Maldives and, bizarrely, English amateur outfit Waltham Forest.

In 2012, Barcelona came to Okunowo’s rescue, starting an online appeal after he had lost everything when his property burned down.

He retired in 2013 after a season back in his home country with Sunshine Stars and now works as a scout.


You might have heard of him. Quite good, apparently. Ended up winning the Qatar lottery while playing for Al Sadd. Now manages the club he served with such distinction.

Barcelona legend Xavi

READ: 10 Xavi quotes to explain his football philosophy: ‘Combine, pass, play’


The left winger made just four La Liga appearances in four years at Barcelona and signed for Atletico Madrid in 2003. 

After three years at the Calderon, Nano dropped into Spain’s lower division and retired in 2018 following two years at Racing Ferrol. 


The midfielder enjoyed a storied career, although it’s fair to say he didn’t enjoy as much success as some of his peers.

After making his debut in Barcelona’s 4-2 victory over Arsenal at Wembley in 1999, Gabri became a regular in the Catalan giant’s first team, only to fall out of favour as the team rediscovered the winning touch to claim two La Liga titles and a Champions League.

Having won three caps for Spain, he spent four years at Ajax and wound down his career in Qatar and Switzerland.

Upon his retirement, he returned to Barcelona to coach the reserve and youth teams before having spells in charge of Sion and FC Andorra.

He now manages Spanish lower-league side Sabadell.

Carles Puyol

Another one to file under ‘quite good’. Puyol developed into Barcelona and Spain’s leader, winning everything in sight.

“He was a great professional and a very demanding coach. If not for him, I might not have got into the Barcelona first team, so he has my eternal thanks,” Puyol told Sport when asked about Van Gaal, who handed the defender a senior debut in 1999.

Puyol now runs an agency alongside Ivan de la Pena and rejected an offer to become Barcelona’s sporting director in 2019.

Sergio Santamaria

In 1997, Santamaría won the Golden Ball as the best player at the FIFA Under-17 World Championships, beating the likes of Ronaldinho to the award.

He was on Barcelona’s books for nine years but never established himself as a first-team regular, spending three of his final four seasons at the club out on loan.

Upon leaving the Nou Camp, the midfielder dropped down the divisions with single seasons at six separate clubs before retiring at the age of 31 due to injury.

Victor Valdes

Valdes and Van Gaal have had a fraught relationship over the years, despite the manager giving the goalkeeper his senior debut in a Champions League qualifier against Legia Warsaw in 2002.

The duo were reunited at Manchester United 13 years later as Valdes was signed as David De Gea’s back-up, but he was placed on the transfer list after Van Gaal accused the stopper of refusing to play in a reserve match.

Not even allowed a locker at United’s training ground, Valdes eventually joined Standard Liege on loan before moving to Middlesbrough for his final season as a professional – he was most recently manager at UA Horta – but he holds no resentment towards his former manager.

“I don’t have any bad words for Van Gaal or Manchester United,” he told Sky Sports. “They helped me through my injury and the manager gave me my chance as a footballer at Barcelona and then again at United.

“He’s like a father figure to me. I don’t want to remember the last six months in a bad way – for me, he is at the top. We are still friends and there is no problem between us.”

Andres Iniesta

While Van Gaal’s spells at Barcelona may be remembered for clashes with players and the press rather than masses of silverware, he may look back at his legacy at the club as having blooded a number of youngsters who ultimately led the club to success – which may still be the case at Manchester United.

Van Gaal only lasted until January in 2002-03, but that did give him the chance to hand Iniesta his first six appearances in a Barcelona shirt.

A decent parting gift, it must be said.

Iniesta’s still going at Vissel Kobe at the age of 38.

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