Thiago Alcantara sauntered through Madrid’s Barajas airport in June 2011, his Spain shirt exposing two armfuls of tattoos. The eldest son of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winner Mazinho (and former Brazilian volleyball player Valeria), wrapped them around the European under 21 championship trophy which he’d help win in Denmark with a goal in the final.
Despite the glory, the future of the attacking midfielder who’d just turned 20 was unsure. The signing of Cesc Fabregas was imminent, but 80% of Barça fans polled said they didn’t want Fabregas if it meant stifling the progress of Alcantara. Some endorsement for a player who’d started just 14 league games, but cules had seen Thiago’s technical quality, the way he ran at defenders, dribbled and got into goalscoring positions.
Manchester United, Villarreal and Roma were waiting to swoop if they sensed Barça would sell. Coach Pep Guardiola knew the situation – Pep’s brother Pere was Thiago’s agent - and Barça offered him a four year contract extension. Guardiola declared Thiago crucial to his plans, whoever the club signed.
Those weren’t hollow words. Fabregas did join Barça, but the pair are very different – Thiago has been compared more with Xavi - and continued to flourish. After playing for Spain at every age level from 16 upwards, Thiago made his full international debut in a friendly against Italy in August 2011 and went onto start in 21 (and came on in seven more) of Barça’s 38 league games, plus 13 cup games. In short, he’d become a titular – a regular starter worthy of his number 11 shirt.
Manchester United’s European scout Martin Ferguson was a big admirer. He’d typically watch eight games a season at Camp Nou, scouting players and opponents. He really rated Thiago, but considered him an ‘ungettable’, someone essential to Barcelona’s future, someone who didn’t want to leave and whom the club didn’t want to sell. But change is constant in football.
Thiago started just 15 league games last season and he wasn’t happy with that. He feels that he should be a regular starter, something both Xavi and Iniesta managed when they’d turned 20. It hasn’t happened.
Thiago is ambitious, he wants to play in the World Cup finals next summer for Spain in Brazil, the country of his parents. He doesn’t feel he can do that starting a third of Barça’s games. He played less than 30 minutes in more than 60% of Barça’s games last season, meaning his buy out clause drops from an improbable €90 million to €18 million until August. Barca do this a lot, they tell emerging talents that they’re likely to play more than they do.
In late May, reliable sources at Barcelona claimed that United had made a move. It was interesting because while Sir Alex Ferguson, Martin Ferguson and David Gill were still in their positions, they were all about to move on. Their successors don’t start until July 1st. It’s not known how much information the Fergusons and Gill (and chief scout Jim Lawlor) have passed over to Moyes and Ed Woodward. United typically identify a dozen potential signings, of which three or four come off. Has the portfolio been passed on and is Moyes working off targets identified by those from whom he and his team are taking over?
Moyes knows about Thiago, who was scouted by Barça along with his younger brother Rafinha, a winger who plays for Barça B. The brothers moved around the world as kids following their father’s football career which culminated in his ‘rocking the baby’ celebration at USA’94.
Thiago was born in Bari, Rafinha in Sao Paulo. The brothers lived in Italy, Brazil and Vigo, where Thiago was scouted by Barça at 14. The family moved again to Catalonia, where they’ve stayed as both boys joined the Masia and progressed to first team level.
Despite an endorsement by Vincente Del Bosque, with a team full of established World Cup winners ahead of him, Euro 2012 came too soon for the 21-year-old. He would have walked into any other national side in the world, but Del Bosque chose Busquets, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Fabregas, Jesus Navas, Pedro, Santi Cazorla and Javi Martinez for his midfield.
Barca don’t want to sell Thiago, nor do they need to, but he won’t be the first player to leave frustrated at the lack of football. Team-mates like Xavi and Puyol have urged him to stay, but they have the luxury of being starters. One Catalan columnist questioned why he’d choose to play United’s “vertical, fast and direct” style under Moyes, as if he can predict that Moyes will indeed play a vertical, fast and direct style.
Thiago just wants to play and, because of a release clause in his contract, could cost just £15 million – a potential bargain for a player of his quality.
The diminutive Italian-born Spaniard with Brazilian blood showed that quality as he was the star of the recent European U21 championships, when he scored a stunning hat-trick in the final against Italy.
Thiago fits United’s age/talent/price profile perfectly, but he’s never stated any desire to leave Barcelona, nor play in England.
With reliable sources claiming the deal is almost done for him to go to Old Trafford, he could be the most reluctant arrival in M16 from Camp Nou since Jordi Cruyff in 1996.
By Andy Mitten - on Twitter @AndyMitten