If you're born in Italy to a Brazilian World Cup winning father and raised in both Brazil and Spain two things seem certain. Firstly, you're going to enjoy playing football and secondly, you're going to enjoy playing it with a Latin swagger.
Watch Thiago Alcantara play the game he was born to and you will witness a young man blessed with individual skills, a breathtakingly creative range of passing, tactical awareness and cutting penetration.
Alcantara's actual father is Mazinho. Capped 35 times for Brazil, he was a defensive midfield player charged with the holding responsibilities in 1994 for a Brazilian side that conquered the World. He played in Italy before moving his young family to Spain where he played with distinction.
On this footballing journey went his young family and amid that backdrop, his son became immersed within the sport. His first ever present was a football, watch him play today and you'll see he's still treating it as a cherished gift he refuses to give up.
“I remember when my father got back from the US in 1994,” says Alcantara. “I remember my family and it was clear as he came home that this was a big deal. Brazil hadn’t been world champions for many years. I remember my dad's face and just how proud and pleased he was. That was a great feeling.”
As first footballing memories go, it isn't bad, and with a dad like that, who needs other heroes? “My father was always my idol, on and off the field. A proper person, a family man, and I believe that as a worker, he was always a fine role model. He was with the big players, the big personalities and I believe that living like this since I was little made me want to be a player. Not only play, but live as a soccer player.”
As a mischievous kid though, was his Father’s winning medal used as a toy? “No,” Alcantara says seriously. “I believe that if you win a world championship, you are not going to use the medal as a game for your children or anything, but rather keep it in a showcase where nobody can touch it.”
It was an attitude and respect for the game and it's trappings of success that soon had the young boy playing and excelling at a sport he had no doubt he would one day play professionally. “Regardless that my parents gave me a good education, I knew that all sport - but for me soccer - can get you out of a lot of problems. It can keep you from being truant at school, it keeps your mind occupied and is great at helping a child to make friends and be social. Besides being outgoing, soccer always helped because everybody wanted to play with me; on the playground, we played soccer, collected player cards. It was everything to me.”
“Everybody wanted to play with me.” You can't blame them and soon the most celebrated football academy in the world wanted to play with him too. Barcelona's La Masia beckoned but Alcantara is quick to point out that his rise to prominence at a young age wasn't merely in the genes, it took hard work.
“If you really want to be the best or want to try to get where the big soccer players are, first you have to make a small sacrifice. You have to give up doing things that kids your age do, you can’t go out late, you can’t play a lot of soccer while you’re in school or high school because you’ll be too tired for the weekend game. I believe that it is about perseverance and effort.”
The skill and the attitude were exemplary and so were his experiences at a big club. Two spells in Brazil before the age of 14 had seen to that but crossing oceans to start a career at such a young age must have been tough. “It was very difficult,” admits Alcantara. “Of course, it was wonderful to be in Barcelona; both the club and the city were totally different. I have to confess though that it was very hard to move away from my family, to live alone, and to have to meet new people, make new friends. But that's all part of the job. I believe that all soccer players mature earlier either because of the difficulties that you have to deal with in the beginning or because of the distance from your family.”
The young man though had the game in his blood and quickly adapted to life alone. Not that he was ever alone at La Masia, a place that nurtures footballing talent like no other. “Eventually, you have new brothers in La Masía; people you live with 24 hours a day who get into your heart and mind like real family.”
Settled at Barcelona, Alcantara shone at every level and in 2009 at the age of 18 he made his first team debut as a substitute. His first goal came the following season at the Nou Camp and soon the fans were enjoying every glimpse they got of a star in the waiting. For now, it has to be limited to glimpses and cameos. The current Barcelona team is, after all, widely regarded as possibly the greatest team to ever take to a football field and the young man was happy to wait and learn.
“At first it seems overwhelming and scary because of the players around you, but I’m telling you, you get in there and they make it so easy for you: they are so generous, so friendly, so humble, and that helps a lot. You go onto the field more relaxed but - and you can tell with all the different kids that have played with the first team – you play without fear and that is all down to the senior players and the staff.”
His manager, Pep Guardiola recognized yet another special talent on his hands. “"Thiago is currently going through a phase where everything he touches turns into gold,” he said in the summer of 2011. But we have to go little by little with him. He’s a first-team player so he must have qualities. Nevertheless, he’s still young and has a large margin for improvement and is constantly getting better.
It was no surprise then – amid plenty of interest from other huge clubs – that in the same summer Barcelona tied their young protégé down to a new, improved contract keeping him at the club until 2015 (the buyout clause is said to be a whopping 90m Euros). The 2011-12 season has seen Alcantara become an increasing part of Guardiola's first team plans and the signs are his prowess may just elevate the side further into the footballing stratosphere. Those clubs waiting for this Barcelona team to grow old and deteriorate may have a long wait ahead of them.
“The current Barcelona team still has a lot of gas, but it is true that La Masía and the younger teams here create very high quality players, and it will continue this way because the training works so well. We are not talking about a generational take over, just little by little, players come out, move up to the first team and it is a change that you can’t really even notice, it can’t be an abrupt change. Just a subtle one.”
Barcelona's future looks ominously like a dynasty set to rule and, as ever what looks good for the Catalan club, looks good for the national side. Alcantara had the choice to play for Brazil but having excelled in Spain and starred for the Spanish sides from the under-16's up (he was the star of the country's 2011 under-21 European Championship win), the choice became clear.
“I am who I am thanks to Spain," he said at the time. “There was a chance of playing for Brazil, but I have never taken this into consideration. I have been in Spain since I was three-years-old. It would be crazy to say yes to the call now and then refuse one in the future. I am always available to the coach." Ironically his first game for the senior side was against the country of his birth.
Looking ahead to 2014 and the tournament being held in the country of his father's birth, how will the family react to a Brazil v Spain final? Won't that be tough? “If I’m there, I am sure that my family will cheer for me even if they are all Brazilians. Now, if I don’t play, like it or not, they will cheer for Brazil.” Oh he'll be there. His family – and the world – can count on it.