Thursday 26 April 2018

Thiago the boy from Barcelona taking centre stage at Bayern

Bayern Munich's Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcantara, pictured during the German first division Bundesliga football match between FC Bayern Muenchen vs Eintracht Frankfurt in Munich, Germany (Getty Images)
Bayern Munich's Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcantara, pictured during the German first division Bundesliga football match between FC Bayern Muenchen vs Eintracht Frankfurt in Munich, Germany (Getty Images)

Pete Jensen

It is only at the end of the interview that Thiago Alcantara, for the first time, struggles for an answer. "Can you say something new about Messi?" is the question.

He has been joined by Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich assistant Manuel Estiarte on the couch of the canteen that looks out on to pitch No 1 at Bayern's training ground. They laugh at Estiarte's suggestion that it is the journalist's job to come up with an original comment.

When I say Messi is playing deeper than ever this season, Thiago comes good: "Yes, he's playing deeper, and he's scored 38 La Liga goals - you could play him in goal, and he would still score 25 a season."

Bayern's former Barcelona midfielder is as bright off the pitch as he is on it. Most Barça fans are still not sure why he is not playing alongside Messi in the team that takes on the German champions in tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg. Instead, he lines up against him, having joined Bayern in the summer of 2013 for £17m.

"He's out of this world," Thiago says of Messi. "But while it is fine to recognise that, and have respect for him, when you have him in front of you, you must try to get the ball off him."

At just 24, Thiago displays all the maturity and measured determination the sceptics at Barcelona thought he would never add to his obvious natural flair.

Would he be alongside Messi tonight if Guardiola had still been in charge at the Nou Camp?

"Pep has always had a lot of faith in me, and me in him, so if he was still the coach then yes, probably," the midfielder says. "But going over the past doesn't help you with the future and I'm just lucky enough to be here now with him at Bayern."

Thiago's brother Rafinha is still at Barcelona and is likely to be on the bench tonight. Their father, Mazinho, played in midfield for Brazil's 1994 World Cup-winning side before later becoming a coach.

Displaying a wonderfully blissful ignorance to the fact that half-and-half scarves already exist, he tells his son that the only solution to his dilemma over divided loyalties is "to get two scarves, cut them down the middle and sew them together".

"It's a conflict but it's also a gift. For any dad who has two footballing sons to have them in a semi-final and know that at least one will reach the final is the best present in the world," Thiago says.

Growing up around footballers gave him confidence. Rather than idolise players, he just wanted to copy what they did on the pitch.

"You go to your dad's training session and then you go home in the front room, rearrange the furniture and practise what you've seen. They had training cones, I had chairs," he says.


"I would dribble around the chairs in the front room. Then when you enter into a dressing-room as a young player and there's Deco and Ronaldinho, of course it has an impact on you, but you have already seen lots of professional footballers so the impact is not as great.

"The flip side is that there is always this other name hanging over you and I knew the minimum was that I had to be as good as my father."

Although he chose to play for Spain - winning the U-21s European Championship in 2011 and again in 2013 alongside Juan Mata, David de Gea and Ander Herrera - he has a Brazilian footballing soul.

It shows when he admits: "I always say that I would have liked to have been born 20 years earlier, to have been able to enjoy football without this toughness that it has nowadays.

"And by toughness I mean that now when you lose a big game it seems that you'll be killed for it.

"And if you win a big game, you don't really enjoy it. It shouldn't be like that. You need to know how to enjoy the victories. In the end this is a great sport and it's to be enjoyed."

Like his coach, Thiago loves the idea of keeping possession of the ball. Not necessarily because it helps you win, but just because it is more fun having the ball than chasing after it.

"Sometimes you watch a game and one side wants to get rid of the ball as soon as they can and it's ugly to watch but there are people who can play football for 20 years and never see a game because they don't like football. That's never been me.

"From watching my dad play to watching my brother play I've always loved it.

"The intention is the same. You want to win first but you want to enjoy yourself. And you want to have the ball. That's still the joy of the game for me: having the ball, going past people or scoring goals. The idea of having the ball is the most important."

But there is a balance to his beliefs. Loving football means respecting every way of playing the game.

"It would be very boring if everyone played like the Spanish," he says. "Or if everyone played like the English or the Argentines. The great thing about football is the mix.

"In Italy, it may be that their game is more defensive but they defend so well; in Germany there is more speed and intensity, in England they are more direct."

He could have moved to England when it became clear Barcelona were going to allow him to leave. Manchester United were interested, to the point where De Gea wrote "See you in Manchester" on the match ball after Thiago scored a hat-trick to win the U-21s European Championship final in 2013.

He believes he could have adapted to the Premier League but watching him swivel and swerve through Porto in the Champions League quarter-finals, one is reminded just why he remains the only signing Guardiola insisted on since he took over.

The fans have taken to him even though they have been denied his brilliance for a year due to three cruciate ligament injuries. He finally returned only early last month having recuperated away from Bayern.

"I preferred to be isolated," he says. "You want to be with your team-mates but at the same time it's hard if you're on the treatment table and they are running with the ball."

It is fitting that he is back to run out at the Nou Camp. It still feels wrong that he is not a Barca player, ready to take the baton from Xavi and play alongside Andres Iniesta in Barcelona's midfield.

"I have seen so many things from both of them," he says, blowing his cheeks out.

"Even when Xavi is not at his very best level physically he plays a kind of football that gives oxygen to a team. Andres will be around for many more years and it makes me sad to think that I won't be able to watch Xavi (in Europe) for more time. He is football, pure and simple."

Ten years from now, that is something someone may well be saying about Thiago. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport