Thiago Alcantara is a man of the world. Born in Italy to Brazilian parents; raised in Spain. He’s fluent in several languages, including an impressive facility with English. Now he’s plying his trade as a footballer in Germany with Bayern Munich, but for how long?
A number of top European clubs have been linked with him. Manchester City, who are coached by his old mentor, Pep Guardiola, and Real Madrid—the team he will face in the quarter-finals of the Champions League—are among his suitors, as per radio station TalkSport.
Having turned 26 on Tuesday, Thiago is at the peak of his powers. It hasn’t always been an easy path for him, though. His ascent was cruelly derailed by a knee ligament injury in 2014, which kept him out of the game for more than a year, and there was a stop-start feel to his early years as a pro.
He arrived at the gates of FC Barcelona, as a 14-year-old, with impeccable credentials. Sporting genes run in several directions through his family. His father, Mazinho, played in midfield behind Bebeto and Romario on Brazil’s World Cup-winning side in 1994, and he shared an iconic World Cup scene with the pair when the trio did a rock-a-bye-baby celebration for Bebeto’s goal against Netherlands en route to the final.
Thiago’s mother played professional volleyball. His younger brother, Rafinha, is part of Barca’s squad, although he’s been bedevilled by long-term injuries this season and last. A cousin, Rodrigo, plays for Valencia, having come up through the ranks at Real Madrid’s youth academy.
At Barca’s La Masia factory, Thiago’s talent was identified early on. He graduated to play under Guardiola for Barca B and made his debut for Barcelona’s first team in La Liga—while still a teenager—under Guardiola in May 2009.
However, it took him until the 2011-2012 season to establish himself as a regular starter, as Barcelona's (and Spain’s) vaunted midfield triumvirate—Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets—owned the club’s centre-midfield berths during those years.
Guardiola was a driving force. As Marti Perarnau wrote in Pep Confidential: Inside Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, he worked hard on Thiago’s decision-making. He kept hammering him to simplify his game, and got him to curb the more extravagant, needless flourishes that were part of his repertoire.
The following season, while Guardiola took a break from football in New York, Thiago’s career stalled under Tito Vilanova. His game time decreased, as he waited in line behind Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Cesc Fabregas, which opened up a contract loophole that led to a mini-crisis at the club during the offseason.
It was a strange time at Barcelona. They had just won back the league title from Real Madrid with a record-equalling, 100-point haul, but some of the shine was taken off the triumph by the 7-0 aggregate mauling administered by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final.
Vilanova, the team’s coach, had watched large chunks of the season from a hospital bed in New York while receiving treatment for throat cancer. According to the Catalan sports newspaper Diario Sport (via Goal.com), Vilanova’s efforts to renew Thiago’s contract foundered early that summer. Thiago’s agent Pere Guardiola, Pep’s brother, brokered the talks.
On the say-so of Mazinho, Thiago’s agent had inserted a must-play clause in his contract at the time of his last renewal in 2011. It stipulated that if Thiago didn’t play a set number of minutes (over 30 minutes in 60 per cent of Barca’s games) in the outgoing season, a buying club could activate a reduced buyout clause by August 1, as per AS (in Spanish). The difference was significant—€18 million (excluding add-ons) instead of a prohibitive €90 million.
During the title-winning season, Thiago had played 60 per cent of Barca’s games (36 out of 60 fixtures) but in 15 of the matches he hadn’t played more than 30 minutes. The door was open. Several clubs tried to rush through it.
Thiago was a prince of Europe. In June 2013, he was the marquee player on an exceptional Spain team—which included David De Gea, Koke and Alvaro Morata—that retained the European under-21 title in Israel. In the final against Italy, he scored a first-half hat-trick (and passed up the chance to score a fourth by letting his team-mate Isco take a second-half penalty).
De Gea wrote “see you in Manchester” on the match ball, teasing him about a possible move to join him at Manchester United. It was Bayern Munich, however, who got their man. Guardiola, who took over at the club in July 2013, was adamant that the Bavarian side secure him. He got his wish. Bayern Munich snatched him for a cut-price fee of approximately €24 million.
It was a wrench for Thiago—breaking the umbilical chord with Barca—but the chance to team up with Guardiola again at the reigning champions of Europe was irresistible.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said, as per the Sunday Times. “For everyone who comes through La Masia, it would be. You don’t want to leave Barcelona. You just want to join the first team and have success. But it’s not just about how you feel, or your self-confidence, but how other people feel about you. Pep trusted me, and I felt that trust. I learnt a lot from him.”
Thiago was a vital piece of the jigsaw for Guardiola, who muttered to his lieutenants early on during his three-year reign at Bayern Munich: “Thiago oder nichts” (Thiago or nobody), as per Perarnau.
Thiago became the team’s fulcrum, pulling the play wherever space dictated. He was Guardiola’s man on the pitch, just as Guardiola had been Johan Cryuff’s conductor during his own playing days at Barca during the early 1990s.
Bayern Munich’s fans warmed to him. “Xavi one moment, Iniesta the next,” as Matthias Sammer, Bayern Munich’s former sporting director, put it. In February 2014, he set a Bundesliga record against Eintracht Frankfurt by touching the ball 185 times.
Then disaster hit—the following month he picked up a nasty right knee ligament injury in a league match against Hoffenheim, which meant his hopes of playing in that summer’s World Cup were dead.
During the players’ dinner after the game, Guardiola’s fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura pulled up a photo from Twitter of the tackle that did for Thiago, and offered some advice to his team-mate Arjen Robben: “You’ve always got to go in fully engaged to win the ball. Never relax your challenge. Take care between now and the end of the season that you don’t let the same thing happen to you,” as per Perarnau’s Pep Confidential.
Thiago suffered an injury relapse during training in October 2014, which meant he clocked 426 days of absence from the game. His full return in the spring of 2015 was greeted with delight by his Bayern Munich team-mates. “The magician’s returned,” said Xabi Alonso, according to Perarnau's Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, after Thiago came on as a sub for Philip Lahm during a league victory against their great rivals, Borussia Dortmund.
Thiago has worked his finest magic this season, as Bayern Munich romp their way towards a fifth Bundesliga title on the trot. He’s playing as the attacking point in a three-man midfield alongside Alonso and Arturo Vidal, and just behind Robert Lewandowski and the ageless wingers, Robben and Franck Ribery.
Thiago’s upward trajectory since his move east to Bayern Munich compared with, say, Isco’s inability to nail down a starting place with Real Madrid is illuminating. Isco also made a big-money move (from Malaga) following Spain’s European under-21 success in the summer of 2013.
Isco was the first signing of Carlo Ancelotti (who has, of course, since moved on to manage Bayern Munich) at Real Madrid. Isco is a fan favourite at the Bernabeu, but he’s unable to dislodge Luka Modric or Toni Kroos (who left Bayern Munich in 2014) in Real Madrid’s starting XI.
Meanwhile, Thiago has prospered in the German league, scoring seven goals this season. He has also become first choice for the Spain national team in arguably the most hotly contested midfield axis in international football.
In a week in which Barcelona faltered badly in the race for La Liga by losing 2-0 to 14th-placed Malaga, Thiago could bring some cheer to Catalonia—and his old club, Barca—by heaping misery on their bitter rivals, Real Madrid, and create his own bit of history by taking a step towards becoming one of a select group of players who have taken part in seven Champions League semi-finals.