You may have never seen them before, but when they touch the ball they catch your eye within an instant. Then they never give it back. There are two players that have done that to me, one in 2008 and the other in 2011, both in youth national team tournaments. They are two very different players, but they have some common factors. They were both born in 1991, they were raised at La Masia and they both have names that start with the letter T. Over two posts I will try to explain how Thiago Alcántara and Cristian Tello put me under their spell and how sure I am that these two won’t disappoint in the near and distant future.
In 2008 my love for FC Barcelona had grown so big that watching only the first team wasn’t enough for me anymore. It was time to take on the youth players as well. So I sat down to follow the U-17 European championship on eurosport as I knew there were a few Barça kids in the squad. I remember the first game of the tournament clearly, it was against France and I hadn’t yet looked up what players were from Barcelona. But one kid caught my eye as he took his first touch. He saw the game in a way none of his peers did. He knew when to pass the ball and when to go solo. He never lost the ball, not even once, and his passes were always perfect. Playing like that and wearing the number 8 on his Spanish national shirt made it hard for me to remember I wasn’t watching Xavi. I even had to remind myself, “No Alex, it’s not Xavi, he is too old for U-17.” After that game I felt a bit like I was floating on clouds, knowing that a new Xavi was coming. I checked UEFA’s website on my computer, as I had to see who the kid with the no. 8 was, because it couldn’t be Xavi, could it? There it was: number 8, Thiago Alcántara, FC Barcelona. I recall I jumped up and down for some seconds, he was a blaugrana man! I kept on watching the entire tournament and in every game, Thiago was better than he had been in the last one. Spain won the trophy, and with no surprise, Thiago was one of the tournaments best players.
I could never really get my mind off Thiago Alcántara after that. As he was still in Barça’s youth teams, it would be awhile before I could see him play again. But after he got promoted to the B team, I on some occasions was lucky enough to find a steam, and watch him on the pitch. With each game I saw, he seemed to play better and better. He never disappointed. I also remember my joy when Thiago got to make his debut for the first team. I don’t recall to whom I said it, but watching the game that evening I stated something along the lines of “this is our midfield’s future man“.
Thiago also showed that he could handle himself at the top level. In August of 2010 I went down to Barcelona to watch the Joan Gamper Game against AC Milan. It may not have been an official game, but it was against a strong opponent and Thiago Alcántara outshone everyone. It was the first time I had seen him play in person, and believe it or not he was even better than on television! The game went to penalties and I remember seeing Thiago walking up, putting the ball on the spot, shooting it up in the top corner, turning around and walking back to his teammates, ice-cold. At this time Thiago was still a B team player getting some chances with the first team. The next day I went to the Barça shop and bought a Thiago #30 shirt. It couldn’t be any other way.
Next time I visited Barcelona, in May 2011, I went to my first live B team game at the Miniestadi. Thiago was still technically a B team player, and he wasn’t in the game as he had been practicing and playing with the first team. A few weeks later in fact, he would get promoted. Just before halftime I noticed him in the stands, in the middle of eating some popcorn and joking with his friends. What else could I do then but walk up to him for a chat, a picture and an autograph?
Some months later he would not only be a well known cantera player, he would be a world famous football star. Thiago has broken into the first team, in a way that would have surprised me, if I hadn’t been following him since that game against France in 2008. He has gone from controlling the midfield for Barça B in games against opponents like Cartagena, Salamanca and Alcorcón, to controlling it in the same way, if not even more so, with the first team in games against opponents like Villarreal, Real Madrid, or Manchester United. If I started to follow Barça today and someone told me that Thiago was only 20 years old and was playing with Barça B just last season, I wouldn’t believe them.
In his first game as an official “first team player” against Villarreal at the start of this season, Thiago played the best game I’ve seen a 20 year old play (Lionel Messi excluded). The game ended in a 5-0 win, Thiago ended with one goal and two assists, and that doesn’t give a fair view of how good he really was. In my honest opinion, Thiago Alcántara is no longer merely a football talent. Not anymore, he is long past that. He is a star. And not only a star, but he is now one of the best midfielders in the world. And do you know what, he is just getting better.
When I first saw him he reminded me of Xavi, but he isn’t a completely new Xavi. No, Thiago has something different. He has the same unbelievable eye on the pitch that Xavi does, he can also make those fantastic passes that no one else could see. But Thiago also has something else thanks to his Brazilian roots and that is technique. In some ways he reminds me a lot of Ronaldinho. Mix Xavi and Ronnie and you get Thiago, can it get much better?
Of course there is still a lot of hard work ahead for this boy, but if he keeps on the path he has been on for the past few years, I’m sure that Thiago Alcantara can go as far as possible!
Stay tuned for part 2 with a special look at Cristian Tello.