Born to a World Cup-winning father in Mazinho, Thiago and Rafinha Alcántara have been surrounded by football and its culture for as long as they can remember, including growing up with cousin and current Valencia forward, Rodrigo. The two brothers came through the ranks at Barcelona, at the famous La Masia academy, typically calm on the ball with intelligent footwork and with a will to express themselves.
Despite being brothers and both central midfielders, their differences are as common as their similarities. Thiago opted to play for the Spanish national team, whereas Rafinha chose Brazil. Thiago is sponsored by Nike but Rafinha signed with Adidas. Rafinha’s decision to represent Brazil, a decision he says was the “easiest of his life”, has paid off as they won Olympic Gold last summer in Rio de Janeiro.
Mazhino’s travels as a player led to the cultured lives his sons experienced and is also part of the reason they chose to represent different nations. Thiago Alcántara do Nascimento was born on 11 April 1991 in San Pietro Vernotico, Italy, whilst Mazinho was playing for Lecce. Rafinha was born just under two years later on 12 February 1993 in the juxtaposed Brazilian city of São Paulo, while Mazinho was playing for Palmeiras.
Thiago started his football career in the lower ranks of Brazilian club Flamengo before moving to Spain at the age of five with his father, where he joined Ureca in Nigrán (north-western Spain). Thiago’s impressive performances didn’t go unnoticed and at the age of 14, in 2005, he joined Barcelona’s academy.
Thiago’s development was rapid and in the 2008-09 season he earned a promotion to Barcelona’s B team where he played 25 games, followed by 18 in the 2009-10 season.
His impressive form throughout the season meant he was rewarded with a first team debut on 17 May 2009, replacing Eidur Gudjohnsen in a 2-1 loss to Mallorca. Still just 18, Thiago had to wait a while for a full first team breakthrough.
Rafinha joined La Masia at the age of 13, though he may not have made the trial if it weren’t for his father. In 2015 he told Barça TV: “My father told me Barcelona wanted to trial me. I was surprised, and I was fearful they would say no. A year earlier I was playing in goal. He told me we were going to visit my brother because he knew I was afraid of the trial.”
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Originally a goalkeeper, Rafinha’s intelligent movement was evident from a young age. A year after playing in goal to then impressing in Barcelona’s Infantil B squad takes some doing. Much like Thiago, his progression was obvious and Rafinha made his Barcelona B team debut in January 2011, replacing Jonathan dos Santos in a 2-1 loss to Girona FC.
After a strong year with the B team, Rafinha was called up to the first team and made his debut in November 2011 in the Copa del Rey against CE L’Hospitalet, replacing fellow academy graduate Cesc Fàbregas with around 15 minutes remaining.
Despite having the same biological father, Thiago and Rafinha’s footballing fathers have been different. Pep Guardiola, who showed how highly he rated the Spaniard when he made him his third signing at Bayern Munich in 2013, has guided Thiago. Often regarded as the new Xavi, Thiago had a tough time breaking into the Barcelona side. The talent was obvious but the competition for places was extreme. The aforementioned Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were the first choice midfield trident, not to mention the presence of Cesc Fàbregas.
The summer of 2013 was a frantic one for Thiago. The 2013 UEFA European under-21 championship was hosted in Israel and Thiago was the catalyst for Spain, captaining La Rojita to retaining the championship. He was sensational for Spain, scoring a first-half hat-trick in the final against Italy in which Spain won 4-2 and earning himself the player of the tournament award.
Just under a month later, Thiago had signed with former manager Pep Guardiola at German giants Bayern Munich for a fee of €25 million. The chance to work with Guardiola again wasn’t one that could be turned down and the promise of first team football made the deal irresistible. Guardiola’s admiration was clear: “I spoke to the club about my concept and told them why I want Thiago. He is the only player I want. It’ll be him or no one.” High praise indeed.
Rafinha was also on the move in 2013 as he was loaned to Celta Vigo to gain first team experience, where he spent much of his time as a youngster growing up. Crucially, the manager at the time was Luis Enrique, now manager of Barcelona. Luis Enrique quickly became a fan of Rafinha, trusting him throughout an impressive season for the club. The youngster made 33 appearances in the one season he spent at Celta, in which they finished ninth in La Liga, their highest finish in eight seasons.
It plainly obvious that both players have an incredible amount of talent, but their work ethic and desire to bounce back from adversity is admirable. Thiago won the Bundesliga title and German Cup in his first season with Bayern but he wasn’t able to celebrate in the way he’d have dreamt.
Thiago scored his second and last goal of the season on 23 February 2014, but just six days later he suffered one of the worst injuries any athlete can imagine – a knee ligament tear. Thiago’s season was over and he’d miss out on the 2014 World Cup with Spain too. After over a year on the sidelines he’d make his comeback as a substitute against Borussia Dortmund, replacing Philipp Lahm, in April 2015. Understandably, emotions were high, and as the final whistle went, Thiago couldn’t hold back the tears as he embraced the Bayern physiotherapists.
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Throughout his recovery, he vlogged his experiences as he aimed to get back to full fitness, releasing a four-part mini documentary, named 371 after number of days his recovery took. Appearances from Rafinha show just how close the two are, and how much the Barcelona man looks up to his older brother: “I think our relationship is the best brothers can have. He is a father, a brother and my best friend. He is a wonderful person. He has a great heart, a strong character and a person who knows what he wants. Somebody you can trust in. Somebody you can talk to about anything, and whatever you need, he will help you.”
Thiago’s knee ligament tear would be the first of a few injuries, some minor while some more serious, but he always fights back to showcase his talents. Unfortunately, Rafinha’s luck hasn’t been too dissimilar. He started the 2015-16 season well but in September suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament after a heavy tackle from Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan.
Thiago wrote a heart-warming message to his younger brother via Instagram, showing his support for his brother: ‘Now I finally understand when mom said ‘I wish it was my knee and not yours’. Because that’s what I’m feeling right now when I think of you and I’m sure mom will be feeling the same thing. People have always told us that we’d have to fight for our dreams, to put in the effort and persevere. But they never said the walls on the road would be this tall and slippery. But I still want to climb one more wall with you, see how tall it is, and go through it together. This dream you were living was nothing but a dream, because what awaits you is bigger than you’ve ever imagined.’
From watching their father’s training sessions at various clubs he played for and copying his skills in the living room, to graduating from La Masia, Thiago and Rafinha have developed into top class players.
At 23, Rafinha still has a challenge to cement a starting place at Barcelona but with Iniesta now 32 and suffering from persistent injuries, there may be a chance for him to show manager Luis Enrique that he should be starting week in, week out. Healthy competition from André Gomes, who signed from Valencia for over €35 million in the summer, should push Rafinha to a higher level.
Thiago has developed into one of Bayern’s most important players under new manager Carlo Ancelotti. With more freedom under the Italian, whenever Thiago plays well, Bayern seemingly follow. At 25, he will be looking to cement his position amongst the world’s elite midfielders, and as long as he can stay fit it’s a realistic opportunity.
Whether Rafinha can become a Barcelona regular is unknown, as is whether Thiago can become a world-class midfielder, but one thing that won’t change is the Alcántara brothers’ special bond. On and off the pitch, they’re amongst football’s favourite siblings.
By Kieran Stewart. Follow @kieransstewart