“SUBWAYHis dad has a phrase that he always used and still uses it now: fun with responsibility, fun with responsibility ”, says Thiago Alcântara, sitting at the Las Rozas training base in Spain. “It’s like a motto that we have between us, and I think you also bring that lesson to life.”
What weighs more, fun or responsibility? Soccer can be a suffocating and serious business.
Yes, but no matter how much my football has evolved towards something less fun than before, I have always been very responsible, even when I was little. The question is and has always been how to merge those two things, unite them to be who I am.
And who are you? Born in Italy, international with Spain to a world champion Brazilian father, who has played in Germany and England. How does that influence your football?
The biggest change I’ve seen is generational rather than location. Since my father’s time, when I loved to see what the players did, how they behaved before and during training. I asked him everything, what they drank before the games, I remember the fruit smoothies. You start to play and you see Xavi, Andrés [Iniesta], [Carles] Puyol, you go on and see shifts, which are more generational than cultural. But it is true that leagues have different identities and that shapes you.
How is football different from when you started?
It has taken a different rhythm, rhythm: faster, more physical. The figure of No. 10 has almost disappeared. We see less magic, less fantasy. Footballers do more but faster. There is no need to haggle because you run. The players are more developed in every way. You lose that player who is different, who ‘breathes’; the slowest playmaker, even if he had sublime technique, doesn’t get a chance to spin. Those of us who are not that fast with our legs have to be faster in our heads. It is like anything in life: adaptation. Things keep moving. Football is constantly changing, it expresses itself differently.
How do you explain the increase in intensity?
It’s something I’ve seen, especially in the national team. Young players arrive who are fast, full of enthusiasm, well prepared, very diligent. When I was 18, I’d have coffee, sit, chat, and five minutes before training I’d put my boots on and go out. Now, 30, 45 minutes before, they are in the gym getting ready: mobility, strength work. Things evolve. We didn’t do that because no one explained it to us.
You know? Do older players copy that generation?
We feed on each other. It’s the other way around [too]. Young players see older players: ‘I have to get to that level.’ Older players embrace those ideas of development and preparation after injury or by seeing it and thinking, ‘I’ll try.’ There is a greater awareness of how to improve and over time we will realize in new ways. What matters is maintaining that beauty, that technique.
Pedri’s an example of that old talent. Everything is natural. He sees football in the same way that he sees it since he was very young.
Is there a risk of losing it? Is it the fault of the managers?
You can’t blame the managers. Soccer is a collective sport. If the bus works you don’t need [that magic] … In the end, that magic appears naturally in a moment of adversity. And if you know the moves you have to make, the passes you have to make, the way you defend, there are few great adversities. When there is adversity, you are surrounded by opponents, when you don’t have the passing angle you want, when you have to do something different, that’s magic, improvisation. Can I dribble? I’m going to dribble. Soccer has developed in a way that means that players think more about collective functioning than in that moment of individualism.
Has Covid changed the game?
Coaches can communicate better with us, players can communicate more with each other. You lose competitiveness but develop other aspects. Extra substitutions mean teams that defend, defend until the 90th minute; teams that pressure you, pressure you to the end. I have that “I hate modern football” mentality; I have a more classic attitude. And then there is the VAR, which I have always opposed. Eliminate the essence, the picaresque. We make mistakes when we play, the referees also have to make mistakes. Many mythical moments would not exist [with VAR]. And when he scores, even a brilliant goal from the midline, he’s waiting. Thinking: ‘I hope there is not a foul in the accumulation, I hope there is no offside, I hope …’
You speak of generational change, but geographical changes also shape you. Teammates, new countries, different coaches from different places.
Of course. The Spanish player is more technical, in Italy more tactical. In England the pace is higher, in each sense. In Germany, it is more the defense-attack, attack-defense transition. In France, young players develop in high-performance centers, so they are more developed, particularly physically. Having companions from other places, playing abroad, means learning elements that break your usual limits, enriching you.
You are one of the 65 players at Euro 2020 who play for a country other than the one they were born in.
The world has always moved that way, all cultures are a mix. We are simply confirming now what we always knew. We are the place or places that shaped us, where we were born, where we grew up, everything. I have no borders culturally, always open to learning. You have to be yourself, develop according to your own tastes, your own experiences, the things you learn. Also, you are expressing the football of your country, not necessarily what your country it is. It’s lovely to see such a mix of cultures. Brazil for example: Brazil has that African of mixed race [mix] and it is the most developed footballing country in the world. France has a spectacular of mixed race, amazing footballers. Soccer is a form of communication and escape. When you see how many millions follow football, satisfaction and excitement after a game, you see its importance, but it is still a sport.
Can that be overwhelming? Thinking that people’s happiness depends on you …
The reverse. You look for motivation in that, not pressure. We have all grown up with pressure and we love it. We prefer a stadium with 90,000 inches than a stadium with none.
Guardiola has trained you, Tito Vilanova, Ancelotti, Hansi Flick, Klopp, Luis Enrique and many more. How do you compare them and how they have molded you?
From the outside you have a view of trainers activated at a professional level; As players, we have a different vision because it goes back to the beginning. I probably have more affection for the coaches that I had as I developed than I do as a professional. If I tried to go through all the coaches that trained me, pffff, Would have ages.
When he arrived at Bayern, Pep said: Thiago or nothing. How did that make you feel?
That was a gigantic source of motivation. I came to Bayern young and for Pep, who had trained me at Barcelona, who had given me opportunities [despite] have great players in front of me, who had built what football, seeing all those players at Bayern and saying, ‘Thiago, I want you on my team’… that was huge. I always demand the best of myself and if that is together with the best coach in the world, even better.
Klopp’s style is very different, and then here is the national team. Is Luis Enrique a kind of hybrid?
I think there is everything and everyone in each coach. It’s easy to adapt to Luis’ football because he has Pep’s analytical positioning, Klopp’s aggressiveness, many of the things I saw at Bayern. He is very good at explaining what he wants: he has very clear ideas, that we have been working for three yearsand transmits them very directly. New players come in, but they pick up on those concepts quickly because they don’t just pick players who have good feet and that aggressiveness, but players who are smart.
On Saturday you face Robert Lewandowski. Have you spoken
Not yet, but we will. We spent six beautiful years together and that’s the best thing about football: the friends they made along the way. He is a great player and if there had been a Ballon d’Or last year, he would have won it. It seems unfair that the award could not be awarded online. Its development is not only physical, it is mental. He scores more than 30 goals every year, but he keeps practicing, perfecting what he does well and working on what he doesn’t do. That’s what it does. A born winner, a perfect professional.
Is it obsessive?
The obsession is always there at the beginning of learning. Obsessing over something is what allows you to learn, develop a habit, make it routine. And it has created a way of life. The obsession of a forward is the goals, but now he is not obsessive; you are calm because you have created a habit.
And Álvaro Morata? Now he is under intense pressure to score goals.
You demand goals from the forwards but we also have to demand from ourselves, just as Álvaro Morata demands from himself the work he does, breaking the balls while defending. Do we need goals? Well we will try to do that all of us. The same is the case with Poland.
Looking at the Euro, which teams would you like to play for?
I don’t think about the country that I would like to play in, I love playing for the national team that I am in, I think more about the team that I would build with the players I have seen. It could form four or five teams.
Could you do an XI?
My XI, no, my 24, they are all here with Spain. You look, you draw conclusions but not so much, ‘Oh, how well they play’. I am pending of his soccer proposal. France and Italy better develop the idea they have. Portugal has an idea. Germany. England has enormous potential. In terms of talent, they are spectacular. We have an idea, not only with Luis but further back.
What did you think when you saw what happened to Eriks?on?
Please let him be okay. We went out to train and everyone’s head was in his hands: please let him recover. At that point, football fades away, except … we were on our way to training and there’s a mix of ‘What are we doing playing football?’ and at the same time, ‘I hope he recovers, obviously first so that he can live his life but also so that he can play football again.’ You get that mix of emotions: a kind of rejection, not wanting to play, wondering what the point is, at the same time as a feeling that says: how nice it is to do this, how lucky we are to play soccer.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism