Barcelona's dalliance on wonderkid Thiago Alcántara could prove costly
Playmaker Thiago Alcántara is regarded as Barcelona's finest young prospect
The son of former Brazil World Cup winner Mazinho has opted to play for Spain
Alcántara is in the last year of his contract and wants first-team squad status
The Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, a member of the 1994 squad that was victorious in the United States, called him "complete." According to the former Vasco de Gama, Fiorentina, Valencia and Celta de Vigo player, "he can use both feet, takes people on, has vision, can join the attack, and can finish off chances, scoring goals." Then again, Mazinho would say that. After all, Mazinho is his dad.
But Mazinho is not alone in talking up Thiago Alcántara. Many call him the "pearl" of Barcelona's youth setup, a "successor" to Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta -- with a touch of Ronaldinho thrown in. His coach at U-21 level calls him "technically gifted," while the man who first worked with him as a 13-year-old at Barcelona calls him "the purest exponent of skill on the ball." Santiago Segurola called him "a virtuoso" in Marca. And writing in El País, Ramón Besa called him "exquisite." As for Barcelona, they just need to call him. Soon.
Born in April 1991, Thiago was always likely to make it. If sporting talent runs in the genes, he started life with an advantage -- not only is his father a World Cup winner, his mother is a former professional volleyball player. If sporting talent is all about learning, he had an advantage too -- a father who talks him through every step.
"I haven't shown him anything special," Mazinho insists, before admitting: "all I have done is watch his games and tell him that he could do things like this or like that. Maybe it's natural: both he and his brother have special coordination."
Thiago has also had a footballing childhood spent in Brazil, then Italy, then Spain. And, from the age of 13, an education at a youth academy that has become arguably the world's most successful: when Spain took to the field against Holland in the World Cup final, six of the starting XI had been brought through at FC Barcelona.
Thiago, who worked under Pep Guardiola in Barcelona's B team but didn't become a full member of that squad until the following season with Luis Enrique as coach, is now trying to follow the path trodden first by Xavi and Iniesta, and more recently by Sergio Busquets and Pedro. Not just with Barcelona but with Spain, who he chose to represent ahead of Brazil. In fact, he has represented Spain at every level since U-16. With the U-17s he won the European Championships, and with the U-18s he won the Copa Atlántico, an international tournament for youth teams. Thiago was top scorer at the tournament and scored in the final.
He has since become the key creative talent at U-19 and U-21 level, alongside Sergio Canales. Remember that clever free kick that Spain's youth teams scored? The clip over the wall for a man to run onto and score? The one that they repeated barely weeks later? The one that became a YouTube sensation? That was Thiago Alcántara and Sergio Canales.
That Thiago had the talent, the technique and the nerve to do that was never really in doubt. What Barcelona have had to work on principally was his decision-making, movement and positioning, and the ability to impose himself on matches.
Javier Lago, a coach at Barcelona, insisted that his role was to make sure that Thiago "makes the team play rather than playing for himself". It is a criticism that on occasions can still be leveled at him but the Spanish U-21 coach Luis Milla insists: "He is very talented with the ball and now he is good off the ball too. Everything seems simple to him; his passing is good and he has got greater competitiveness and experience now. That will be vital when he comes to make the step up."
The question is, when will he make that step? Thiago has been talked about for a while, and was first called into the first team squad in January 2010, but he has played just over an hour in La Liga this season, spread across three substitute appearances.
He really came to everyone's attention during the Copa del Rey last week when he turned in a stunning performance against Ceuta, as a Barcelona team made up largely of B-team players won 5-1. Thiago, playing in the middle of midfield and then in a narrow left-sided role, was superb. Although he didn't score -- one wonderful run ended with a save from the goalkeeper -- he did provide three assists. One of them, to Messi, was dazzling. A lightning quick interchange of feet, a lovely soft-shoe shuffle and a perfectly weighted pass.
His performance was, Segurola wrote, "superb: he has all the qualities, the personality and the talent, necessary to be a sensation." El País' match report waxed lyrical. "Thiago", the newspaper declared, "sometimes has an air of the circus performer, convinced that everyone is waiting for his next trick, but he is an artist -- a daring attacking midfielder with prodigious technique. It's hard to get the ball off him and harder still to stop him placing it wherever he wants to place it."
All of which makes Barcelona's indecision surprising. Thiago's contract has a buyout clause of just €10 million ($13.5 million) and, in any case, runs out at the end of the season. Mazinho says his son wants to continue at Barcelona and insists that there will be no financial battle, but he does not want to sign another B-team contract. He wants Thiago to be formally inscribed as a first-team player. He also admits that Barcelona is yet to call him. Meanwhile, they have just signed Afellay from PSV Eindhoven -- the Dutchman, who plays a broadly similar role to Thiago, will join in the winter window.
Thiago was sensational in the Copa del Rey but that offers no guarantee over his future. The signing of Affelay suggests that, despite the excitement, maybe Barcelona are not entirely convinced. No wonder Mazinho is getting a little twitchy. No wonder other clubs are. No wonder some fans fears that Barcelona's next big thing may not be Barcelona's next big thing at all, but someone else's. Possibly even Real Madrid's. For those desperate to see Thiago triumph at the Camp Nou, the message to Barcelona is clear: you can call him what you like -- exquisite, artist, virtuoso, or superstar -- but just call him. Please.