Thiago Alcântara’s father, Mazinho, won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994. But Thiago, Bayern Munich’s superb 24-year-old midfielder, was born in Italy and grew up partly in Spain, where he came through Barcelona’s famed academy La Masia. It has made for a fascinating mixed identity, both as a soccer player and as a person, one that even Thiago finds challenging to explain at times.
“My first memories were in Spain,” he says during a long interview in English, one of five languages that he speaks. “I arrived in Spain at three years old when my dad played in Valencia. Then we spent a lot of time in Vigo in the northwest part of Spain. I spent five or six years in Spain. Then at nine I went to Brazil because my dad wanted to retire there.”
He pauses. You can almost hear the cogs turning in his head. Thiago, who plays for Spain internationally, has been asked about the ways he feels Brazilian and the ways he feels Spanish.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. “My feeling is that my body and all my things inside me—when I move, when I do everything—are Brazilian. Because my family is Brazilian, and my mother language is Brazilian Portuguese. But all the thinking in my life, all the treatment with people, I think I’m more from Spain. That’s how I grew up. I started reading in Spanish. So for me everything is a mix every day, but when I have to think it’s in Spanish.”
“It’s a little bit difficult to explain,” he adds with a laugh, “but at the same time it’s very easy to feel.”
Thiago’s influences, of course, happen to come from some of the world’s greatest soccer nations, and you could certainly argue that his soccer mind is another thing: Catalan. When Pep Guardiola took his Catalonian genius to Bayern Munich, he said he wanted to bring one player that he’d had at Barcelona: Thiago. And so he did.
Thiago has plenty of flair in his game, the kind that can turn a flick or a turn into something GIF-able in an instant, but you can see Guardiola in the cerebral way he also approaches things. “You have to be intelligent” in Guardiola’s always-changing system,” Thiago says. “Football has a thing: You have to decide on an action in a moment and your head has to be fresh for taking that decision in the moment. And you know there is always another possibility for that action. So we go over that as well. He’s good at football, but he’s also good at working on our mind.”
The mental side of the sport intrigues Thiago, not least because he knows how much it helped him get through the toughest moment of his career: The 371 days he was out due to a serious knee injury last year. If you watch the powerful video about his recovery, titled 371 Days, you can see exactly how the experience affected him.
“As a player it changed everything,” he says. “It changed my mentality to how I have to come every day to training. Every day I had to do some productive things for re-growing the muscles and taking care of the rest of the body. And at the same time it makes you smarter and stronger as a player. Your character also becomes more hard. At the same time, it’s good, because I’m very young. It makes you grow a little more every day. I’m very thankful.”
Recently Thiago’s younger brother, Rafinha, who plays for Barcelona and Brazil, also suffered a serious long-term knee injury. It was a crushing blow not just for him but for the family. Yet Thiago thinks sharing from his own experience can help his brother.
“I think I can help him with the problems that we have in our head when we have to deal with an injury or to fight against an injury,” he says. “I think I have ideas on how to handle it, but at the same time it’s his knee and his body. He has to take care of it and wake up every day and have the idea to make it better. Today will be one less day for my injury until I am 100%.”
For Thiago, being back on the field, back playing games, is the ultimate liberation. If you ask him about his punishing game schedule, which has recently seen him play every three or four days for Spain and Bayern, he says it’s a blessing, not a burden, to play so much.
“For me, it’s a pleasure to play football every three or four days,” he says. “Training is an important thing for us to prepare, but for the players the most important thing is the games. So we’re glad to play every three or four days. Our bodies are prepared for that.”
An additional pleasure comes, of course, from playing for perhaps the world’s best team. When Bayern Munich meets Cologne on Saturday (FS2, 9:30 a.m. ET), it will be gunning for a record 10th-straight victory to start the Bundesliga season. Bayern is already seven points ahead of the field, leaving many to say the Bundesliga title race is already over.
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Just don’t say that to Thiago. “No, never, we can never say that,” he replies. “Because it’s a long, long season. So now we are ahead by seven points, but maybe we can end the weekend with four points or maybe 10 points. You never know. But the season is too long to say the league is over.”
Fair enough. Let’s just say that Bayern is very, very good right now. The addition of Douglas Costa out wide and the use of the on-fire Robert Lewandowski in a more traditional No. 9 role has added another, more direct arrow into Bayern’s quiver of attacking approaches.
“It’s like always, the players have to adapt, and the [manager] has to adapt to the team,” Thiago says. “So this made us better this year and gave us more options in our way to play. We are very proud of how we are playing, and the most important thing is we are aggressive when we attack and aggressive when we defend.”
Nor does having Lewandowski hurt these days. The Polish center-forward recently had a remarkable stretch of 15 goals in six games, including his jaw-dropping five in nine minutes in a 5-1 win against Wolfsburg.
“It’s amazing,” Thiago says, his voice rising as he speaks. He himself is a fan. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. Really, it’s unbelievable. For us football players, I’ve played with Messi, played against Cristiano Ronaldo, played with a lot of the best players in the world, but I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unbelievable. Huge. At this moment he’s the best No. 9 in the world.”
It’s fun to hear a world-class athlete gushing so much about a teammate. And it’s also possible that one day very soon Thiago’s teammates will be doing the same about him.