Thiago: You have minus one second
Thiago has been Bayern's central pivot and hub for six years. The Bavarians' midfield maestro explains what fascinates him about football, why great players are always bold -- and why he does not see any poetry but only competition during matches.
Thiago, you visited NASA in Houston on the US tour this summer. You were even admitted to Mission Control: Are you FC Bayern's indispensable Mission Control?
Thiago: No. My idea is that all our players act like leaders, like captains. I want to play my part so that everybody does their job to perfection if possible. I want to make others better. That's my job.
A magazine once wrote you play football as if there were zero gravity, which fits in well with your NASA visit.
As a child I felt a certain lightness when I had the ball. But sometimes I also feel the gravity that pulls me to the ground.
And today it's getting more and more difficult to be the soul of the beautiful game. How much time do players in midfield have to develop ideas -- milliseconds?
Less. It may be hard to understand for people from outside, but the truth is: You have minus one second, that is, no time at all. You must have an idea before the first touch, and you must always think faster than your opponent. Orientation is key. You must know where you are, you must be in control of the ball and know where your team-mates and your opponents are. You only have a chance of initiating a move if you have all that in mind.
How many moves do you plan in advance?
First you create space and then you use it. You develop it in your mind beforehand, and of course you've studied certain situations with your team-mates in training. Sometimes the same situation repeats itself in different variations four or five times in a game. You have an idea of it in your mind, and you try to put it into practice again and again -- until it finally works out.
What does the beautiful game mean to you?
That I can enjoy it. When I follow a match, I look at the individual players: How does he decide? What would I do in his situation?
Like a coach?
No, like a player. Analytical, but with more regard to the concrete situation.
Do you enjoy football like a fan at times?
Never. I'm a pro. I love football but I see it from a different perspective than a fan does.
Which team played the most beautiful football in the last 20 years?
If you ask me, Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. It was incredible. When I just said I don't watch football as a fan does, I meant not as a fan of a certain club. I'm a fan of beautiful football, no matter where it's played.
What fascinates you about football?
The original idea of football: 11 against 11, and you have to be better than your opponents. That's the appeal. Basically it's the same competition that exists everywhere in nature, it's just more playful.
What's more important in football, art or fighting?
Winning. That's why I'm here, that's what I play for. It was the same when I took to the pitch for my small home club: I compete to win. Of course it's more fun if it's a good game. But in my view sport is always about being better than your opponents. It's a contest.
We see you making plucky sliding tackles again and again...
Yes, it's part of my style. Football must be fun, but you must also work to be successful.
What pleases you more, a fine vertical pass or a sliding tackle that's timed to perfection?
A good pass. Technique is the foundation. You can learn how to fight, but first you need the talent to play a good pass. I like it when the spectators applaud a good tackle. But a goal earns the most applause, it's like an explosion, and rightly so.
„I compete to win. Of course it’s more fun if it’s a good game. But in my view sport is always about being better than your opponents. It’s a contest.”
What do you tell critics who say they see too little from Thiago in the big matches?
I've been here for six years now, we've won the championship title every year and won three cups. In addition, we've advanced to the Champions League semi-finals four times. I respect what people think and say. I won't say anything about that. I play.
What's your take on the debate about systems in football: possession-based or focus on turnovers, what do you think embodies the purpose of the sport?
You can combine the two, but it's best to have the ball. Then you can shape the game and create pressure. You're in control. Control is key. And after all, it's 11 against 11, and all players want to have the ball. Without the ball you can run all you want, but if you don't have the ball even once, something's wrong.
Pep Guardiola says: Thiago knows no fear. Is that true?
We're talking about football, and you've asked me about the most beautiful football of the last 20 years. Look at Barcelona under Pep: the group of players who thrilled the fans! Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta: little players physically, but so intelligent, so great, so bold! You mustn't have any fear. Not afraid of making mistakes, not afraid of trying things out.
Is a good player necessarily a bold player?
I think so. You need passion. And I think you must have courage to fight for something with passion.
Your full name is Thiago Alcântara do Nascimento... it sounds like music. Are you a good dancer?
(laughs) Yes. I'm the world's poorest singer, but in fact I'm a fairly good dancer.
Rhythm, the beat, feeling are important on the pitch too. Does football have a musical side?
(ponders) To be honest, no. Football is different. There are parallels because both are nice, dancing and playing. But to me football is much more. As I said, competition. And it's my life. I owe everything to football, I love football, I live football.
Guardiola often compares it to poetry.
Yes, you can do that if you're a coach. You're further away from events on the pitch, your perspective is from outside, you focus on the organisation. I'd say, you have a more clinical perspective on the game. More analytical. As a player I don't look for poetry in football. I'm out there in the middle of the pitch, I can act, I must react. It's about winning. Nothing else matters, especially at a club like FC Bayern.
The people in Barcelona say you were the most Catalan of all players. Have you become a Bavarian Catalan?
(laughs) I think so. There shouldn't be any barriers in the world anyway. My father is Brazilian, I was born in Italy and raised in Spain, in Catalonia. And I've been living in Germany, in Bavaria, for six years now. You absorb something from every culture if you're open-minded. I appreciate how calm the people are here in Germany. They focus on what's important: family, work, but without losing sight of leisure time. A lot of things are regulated, more than in other countries, but at the same time there's a lot of leeway. I like the German way of life.
How important are identification and identity at a football club, especially today, in the light of high transfer fees and permanent transfer rumours?
FC Bayern are a big club with a central idea. That's important. Take Ajax: they've had their own culture since Johan Cruyff. Barcelona adopted this philosophy with Cruyff, and both clubs have been living by this idea for many decades. FC Bayern represent a large family, that's unique. And we've had a philosophy of our own for about a decade, similar to Barcelona and Ajax. We want to dictate the game with the ball. We should look for players according to this idea. It's also important to consistently pursue it in the youth section.
Do you represent FC Bayern?
Yes, I feel as a part of the club, I can fully identify with this idea. A player can't have as a motto: "I'll play for 90 minutes, and that's all I'm interested in." I always say: FC Bayern is like a big house where everyone lives closely together under the same roof.
Is it on the cards you'll stay at FCB forever?
Both parties must make this decision. I feel fantastic, my family are very happy. The quality of life is incredibly good in Munich, so why not?
You're 28 now, the ideal age for a footballer. Do you think you have even more responsibility as so many important leaders have left the club?
It's my seventh season here in Munich, and of course you have responsibility if you've been at a club for a long time. I feel important, out on the pitch and as a person. Sometimes I'm a friend to my colleagues, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a partner, sometimes even a father. I like the situation.
Communication is important. You speak excellent German now.
Thank you. But I must continue to learn. I like the structure of the language, even though it sounds a bit harsh at times. There's a funny video on the Internet where words are said in Spanish, Portuguese and French first, and then in German. "Schmetterling" for example, and in Spain we call a butterfly "mariposa." It has more melody. I sometimes think I'm saying something nice to my wife or kid but it sounds like I scold them.
Do you have a favourite word in German?
(ponders) Tor. Tor is superb. It's clear, simple, German -- and it's nice for us footballers.
Your father Mazinho presented you with a ball on your first birthday: How much has he influenced you and your brother? Did you play everywhere at home, around the clock?
Yes, at home, on the beach, at the lake, in the mountains, no matter where. My first present for my son Gabriel was a ball too, we always have it with us. For all the fun of the game, I always had a rivalry with my brother Rafinha. It was the perfect blend: we had fun playing, but we were also quite serious about it. I still think so today: you have fun with the ball -- but you have to be better than your opponent, as it was against my brother back then.
After matches we can see you and Gabriel play football on the pitch again and again -- how's he doing?
He's definitely a big FC Bayern fan. Gabriel loves Berni for example. When he sees him he runs towards him -- be it the big one on the pitch or at home, we have a small figure there. He basically wants to wear his FC Bayern jersey all day. He asks for it in the morning.
Does he also sing "Stern des Südens"?
(laughs) Yes, of course -- and in German! Even though he doesn't yet speak in whole sentences. He likes "Forever Number One" even more. It's his favourite song.
Should FC Bayern book him a place at the Campus?
(laughs) Why not? He likes playing football, I'm glad about that because football is my big passion too. But if he wants to be a doctor, teacher or musician one day, I'll support him just as much. The main thing is for him to be happy.
You're happy out on the pitch. "Thiago controls the ball as if his feet were hands," a newspaper article once said. A funny comparison.
(laughs) It would look a bit strange, wouldn't it? But it's odd: Some people write positive things, others write negative things. It's like a rollercoaster. But I can put it into perspective. Life isn't a straight line. The main thing is to never get knocked off course.
What are your targets this season?
They're always the same. There are five or six clubs in the world who can seriously say before the start of a season: We want to win every trophy. FC Bayern are one of them.