Thiago: We’re entitled to think big

  • Bayern Munich midfielder set to take part in first World Cup

  • Discusses La Roja’s excellent recent form

  • “Lopetegui has developed as a coach”

Thiago Alcantara grew up with a ball stuck to his feet, while his father, Mazinho, won the FIFA World Cup™ with Brazil in 1994. “Having a world champion for a dad isn’t bad, is it?” says the Bayern Munich man, who plays for Spain, while his brother Rafinha runs out for A Canarinha.

His father’s success is perhaps one of the reasons why Thiago always knew he wanted to be a footballer when he grew up, from his early childhood, when he would sit and watch Mazinho and his team-mates: “When Pedja Mijatovic was at Valencia and chewed gum, I’d chew gum too when I watched the games.”

Russian playmaker Alexander Mostovoi was another role model, though as Thiago explains, he looked up to many a great player, not least his father.

After missing Brazil 2014 on account of a serious knee injury, Thiago now has the chance to go to Russia and do what Mazinho did, as one of the cornerstones of the Spanish midfield.

With less than three months to go before La Roja step out against Portugal in their opening match, he spoke exclusively to about his side’s excellent run of form, his predictions for the tournament and his World Cup memories. This World Cup has come at a time when you’re probably playing your best ever football for Spain, as an established member of the starting XI under Julen Lopetegui. What does that mean to you on a personal level? Thiago: It’s a World Cup! And playing in a World Cup is a dream for any player. We’re excited about the way we’ve been playing and the wins we’ve had, and I think we can dream about big things.

Like winning it? We’re dreaming about going as far as we can, competing at the highest level, and showing what we can do. We know where we are. We know we knocked out a team like Italy and we know that we’ve played some big teams in friendlies and beaten them in style. I think the results are going to come our way, though I don’t like to get ahead of myself and predict what’s going to happen.

In 2013, you won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship under Lopetegui, as part of a team that also featured current team-mates David de Gea, Isco, Koke, and Alvaro Morata. Has the time come for that generation to take the final step forward? We’re very competitive and that’s what’s got us this far. We’re not just talking about taking that step; we’re doing it. When the time comes, we’ll have faith in each other and we’ll go for it. We’ve been competing at the highest level for years. That’s why we enjoy big challenges.

Did you know?

  • Thiago was a member of the Spain sides that won the UEFA European Under-17 crown in 2008 and the Under-21 title in 2011 and 2013. In the last of those three competitions, he was named player of the tournament and scored a hat-trick in the 4-2 victory over Italy in the final.

  • Since Lopetegui took over as Spain coach, he has made 15 out of a possible 18 appearances, starting 13 of those matches and scoring one goal.

You’ve played under Lopetegui for many years now. How has he developed as a coach? We all develop because we want to learn and be better, and Julen has achieved that as a coach. He’s improved in every sense. You can see that in the little details when he prepares games. He’s always prepared them well, but he’s improved a lot in that respect and when it comes to explaining things too. He expresses himself well, but he’s more direct now. He knows how to get our attention and motivate us.

Has he changed in the way he treats players? Footballers have big egos and you have to know how to say things (laughs). Fortunately, he has two things going for him: the first is that he’s been a player himself and he knows how to approach us; and then he’s a good people person and he knows how to tell us what he really wants. In combining those two things, he gets his message across perfectly.

With the World Cup just around the corner, and bearing in mind what happened in 2014, how do you balance the desire to give your all on the pitch, with the fear of picking up an injury that could rule you out of the tournament? That fear doesn’t exist because playing football is a natural thing that we do every day. If there’s anything that’s remotely reckless, you don’t do it, though you wouldn’t do it, in any case. You do compete to the limit, though. When all is said and done, a firefighter who’s about to retire isn’t going to go into a house that’s burning down on his last day at work. Most of us have got it into our heads that when the season ends, the World Cup starts. If you finish the season in top form, then you’re going to carry that into the World Cup.

Thiago congratulates his father on Instagram with a picture of the two of them and Rafinha during Mazinho’s time at Valencia.

Five-man defences were something of a trend at Brazil 2014. What do you expect to see in Russia? I think the unfancied teams are going to play that way against the big sides. Even Germany, who are a big side, play with five at the back sometimes. It’s the most common system in German football. You might hear them talk about three-man defences, but they're actually five-man defences, make no mistake. [Pep] Guardiola played with three at the back at Bayern, which is what Girona are doing in Spain, with full-backs who get forward all the time.

Lopetegui has asked Girona coach Pablo Machin about his system. With your experience in the German Bundesliga, maybe he picks your brains as well. I’m always ready to talk about football (laughs). It’s harder to play against five at the back than four. When the opposition play with attacking full-backs, you have to be careful because they can push forward at any given moment, which means you have to have a lot of attacking midfielders to break the defensive line, and you also need forwards who can draw the central defenders out of position. We could be sitting here for half an hour talking about tactics (laughs).

What is your first World Cup memory? My first memory is the 1994 World Cup, which my father won. I was only three and though I don’t remember the matches, I do remember him coming home, the celebrations, and all the family being there. I remember it very clearly. I also remember being a couple of years older and watching the goals on video.

And which match stands out for you most of all? The Final between Spain and the Netherlands, obviously, and Andres’s [Iniesta] goal. It’s the most important moment in the history of Spanish football. Funnily enough, we were with the U-19s at the time. There was Koke, Rodrigo, [Marc] Bartra, [Sergio] Canales… When Andres scored, there were fire extinguishers going off and oil and knives flying in the air. The TV ended up on the floor as well. And nobody watched the rest of the game (laughs).

Summary of the South Africa 2010 Final, a match settled by Andres Iniesta’s winner four minutes from the end of extra time.

Injury has kept your brother Rafinha out of the Brazil team lately. Do you think he has a chance of making it to Russia? There’s always a chance, though you have to be realistic and accept that it’s a pretty slim one.

Can you picture the two of you playing in a Spain-Brazil Final? I don’t know if my father would be able to handle it (laughs), but obviously, we both want that to happen. Just imagine playing in a Final and both of us being there!

THIAGO’S TIPS FOR RUSSIA 2018 Favourites There are some clear favourites, but luck always plays a big part. World Cups always come down to the little details. Turkey reached the semis a few years back and so did Korea Republic. Anything can happen. Right now, I’d go for Germany because they’re the defending champions, and Brazil, Argentina, and France. You can put Spain in there too, obviously.

Surprise packages Belgium are a dark horse for me, not just for the players they’ve got, but because of the way they play as well. They play really good football and I think you can even include them among the favourites. Colombia could do well too because they’ve got some great players.

Teams to follow I’d like to see Sweden because they won the [European] U-21 title not so long ago, and Mexico, who’ve had a really good generation of players. There are teams out there who’ll have a lot to show us, regardless of how far they go.