BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 29: Thiago Alcantara of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his first team's goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Villarreal CF at Camp Nou on August 29, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
When discussing FC Barcelona’s current attacking corps, the term "embarrassment of riches" is one that is frequently bandied about. And with good reason.
Looking only at the diminutive genius up front that’s made a mockery of the "world’s greatest footballer" debate and the pair of midfield maestros- arguably the top two in world at the position- it’s nearly impossible to exclude Barcelona’s attack from any list of the world’s best. Throw in a pair of strikers from the reigning World Cup champions, a readymade heir-apparent in the midfield, arguably the top attacking defender in the world and a fabulously gifted 22 year-old winger, and the club’s 2011-12 incarnation is a devastating puzzle for which defenses are hard pressed to offer a solution.
All this and not a syllable about a 20 year-old with the pace, control and incisive passing to become the club’s premier playmaker from central midfield (Messi was not considered as any one specific type of player- it’s just not fair), Thiago Alcântara. He is the son of former Brazilian international Mazinho- a midfielder for more than a decade and a half with clubs in Brazil, Italy and Spain, and owner of 40 caps with the Brazilian national team between 1989 and 1994; perhaps best known as the third member (along with Romário) of Bebeto’s "three men and a baby" celebration in the 1994 World Cup- and brother of Barcelona B’s Rafa Alcântara. Though it is far too early to make any definitive declarations, Thiago appears to be the latest in a long line of gifted attackers to emerge from FC Barcelona’s youth ranks.
Born with world-class football in his veins and raised in the youth systems of clubs in Brazil and Spain, Thiago was seemingly created for the role that he will likely one day occupy. He is no stranger to a big stage, having already logged 74 senior level club (15 for FC Barcelona, 59 for Barça B) and 35 international appearances.
He started at the lower levels of Brazilian club Flamengo, before moving to Spain with his father at the age of five. He spent the next five years with Galician club Ureca de Vigo, before returning to Flamengo for another four. The family returned to Galicia in 2005, at which point Thiago briefly once again joining Ureca. It wasn’t long, however, before his prodigious talent was unearthed by the nation’s top clubs, with FC Barcelona securing his services that same year.
Fast forward to 2008, Thiago, then 18 and with three years in world’s greatest youth academy under his belt, earned promotion to Barcelona’s B squad, with whom he played 25 games in 2008-09. Impressive as this is, it’s worth noting, however, that Thiago was making a mark on the international scene that surpassed all that he was accomplishing in the club ranks. Suiting up for Spain, he took part in the 2008 UEFA European U-17 Championship, finding the net five times in eight games and helping his country to the tournament crown. After appearing (and scoring) just once for the U-18 side, he received a call from Spain’s U-19 squad ahead of the 2010 European U-19 Championship in France. He once again rose to the challenge, scoring a goal in the opener and providing a playmaking spark for Spain en route to the tournament’s final.
Meanwhile, Thiago was climbing Barcelona’s ranks as well. It was at this time that Thiago made his senior squad debut, coming on as a second half substitute for Eidur Gudjohnsen on May 17, 2009, against Mallorca. His first goal for FC Barcelona’s top flight squad came roughly nine months later when, again having come on as a late substitute, Thiago, off of a beautiful setup from Lionel Messi from the end line, capped off a 4–0 home win against Racing de Santander. He appeared in 17 games in the 2010-11 season- 12 in La Liga (six as a starter)- notching three goals (two in the league) and three assists.
In 2011, Thiago, now a top prospect at the club level, continued to impress on the international stage and truly established himself as one of the world’s rising midfield stars. At the 2011 European U-21 Championship in Denmark, on a Spanish side that boasted a pair of future teammates in Bojan Krkić and Jeffrén Suárez, as well as former Valencia star (and Chelsea newcomer) Juan Mata, Thiago was at his brilliant best. His electric play out of the midfield was a constant for Spain throughout, and, in a style befitting a future star, dropped the tournament’s curtain in style. His awe-inspiring 40-yard free kick in the final against Switzerland sealed not only punctuated Spain's victory in the tournament, but secured for himself the Man of the Match and Player of the Tournament honors.
This latest international triumph was simply the starter’s pistol for what would a glorious summer for Thiago. On June 29, just four days after helping secure the Euro U-21 title, he renewed his contract with FC Barcelona, inking a deal that will keep him at the club through June 2015. He immediately set about proving that the club’s faith in him is not misplaced, scoring three times in two matches (including twice against Bayern Munich) to lead Barça to the Audi Cup, curling in a gorgeous 20-yarder in a friendly against Manchester United in Washington DC on July 31 and generally using the preseason to prove himself worthy of top-flight football. The plot did not change in the first game of the La Liga season, as he scored a goal and assisted on a pair of goals- including a pinpoint entry pass to Messi that capped off a spectacular 38-pass move- in a 5-0 victory over Villarreal at Camp Nou.
Finally, on August 10, he made his debut for Spain’s senior national team, becoming the 39th player born outside of Spain to do so, in a friendly against Italy. His first official appearance came less than a month later, on September 6, in a 6-0 romp against Euro 2012 qualifier against Liechtenstein.
Suffice it to say that Thiago has made the most of the last 10 weeks.
It would be premature to claim that we know exactly what FC Barcelona has got in Thiago Alcântara. However, there is a great deal to be said for not only flashing one’s precocious talents in the junior ranks, but doing so at the highest levels of competitive football.
I will stop short of forecasting international superstardom for Thiago, but given his incredible displays of skill in some of the most important matches of his young life, would you be willing to wager against it?
Until next time...
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