Two young brothers wearing matching outfits played football in an empty stadium. They jostled for possession and traded questionable high challenges that juxtaposed against their ability on the ball. The older one caught the younger one with a particularly bad tackle, sending him away in tears. He looked on at the drama he created with a mischievous glint in his eye.
The empty stadium was Estadio de Balaídos, the home of Spanish side Celta. The two youngsters weren’t lucky fans given the chance to grace their club’s sacred turf. They were the children of Mazinho, Celta’s 1994 World Cup-winning Brazilian midfielder.
Mazinho joined the club in 1996 from Valencia after spells with Vasco, Lecce, Fiorentina, and Palmeiras, and had given his children an international upbringing. The older one was born in Italy in 1991, when Mazinho was playing for Lecce, while the younger one was born in Brazil in 1993, during his time with Palmeiras. Mazinho would have been forgiven for wondering whether his boys could follow in his footsteps and become professional footballers themselves.
Fast-forward to December 2011 and Mazinho was in Galicia watching his daughter’s basketball game. On the other side of the country, his two sons and their mother, former volleyball player Valéria, were in the Camp Nou.
Valéria was in the stands, but the two boys, Thiago and Rafinha, were on the pitch, starting their first game together for Barcelona against BATE in the Champions League. Barça beat the Belarussians 4-0, with the Alcântara brothers running the midfield in a manner that hinted at a dominant future.
By May 2015, things had changed. The Alcântara brothers were no longer teenagers – they were 24 and 22 respectively – and were competing against each other in the semi-finals of the Champions League. The older one, Thiago, started for Bayern Munich, while Rafinha, the little boy who left Balaídos that afternoon in a flood of tears, came on as a late substitute for Barça.
They embraced at the final whistle. Thiago grimaced at the manner of Bayern’s comprehensive 3-0 defeat but was evidently touched by the magnitude of the occasion. The brothers were no longer wearing matching outfits – they were instead travelling down different paths in their bid to reach the elite of European football.
Not that they’re polar opposites. Both are midfielders that play in a similar vein and in a manner that reflects their cosmopolitan upbringing. Having spent parts of their childhood in both Brazil and Spain, their football fuses the tactical discipline of the European game with the individual flair associated with Latin America. Both are able to construct attacks with intelligence and control while maintaining a defensive responsibility.
While Thiago represents Spain, however, and is married to a Spaniard, Rafinha, after playing for Spain at the underage level, has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps and represent the Seleção. “I’m Brazilian,” Rafinha said when asked about his decision. “I was born in Brazil and I’ve always felt Brazilian. For me, Brazil is my country.”
Thiago finds matters more complex: “My feeling is that my body and all my things inside me – when I move, when I do everything- are Brazilian,” he said. “My family is Brazilian, and my mother language is Brazilian Portuguese. But all the thinking in my life, all the treatment with people, I think I’m more from Spain. That’s how I grew up. I started reading in Spanish. So for me everything is a mix every day, but when I have to think it’s in Spanish. It’s a little bit difficult to explain, but at the same time it’s very easy to feel.”
They’ve enjoyed success in their respective international colours. Thiago won the Under-17 European Championship in 2008 and the under-21 equivalent in both 2011 and 2013, while Rafinha won the gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Injury forced Thiago to miss the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, however, and his experience in Russia in 2018 was a collective disappointment. Rafinha has thus far been unable to cement his place in the Brazilian setup, making just two senior appearances since his debut in 2015.
Thiago, two years Rafinha’s senior, emerged from La Masia as the heir to Barça’s midfield after serving his time in their B team. He found it difficult to become a mainstay in the starting XI, however, as competition was fierce. Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas, Sergio Busquets and Xavi were all vying for a place. The result was that his final season at the club in 2012/13 saw Barça fail to meet a clause in his contract regarding playing time, seeing his buyout price dropping from €90m to just €18m.
This encouraged Pep Guardiola, the man who gave Thiago his first-team debut at Barça, to take advantage of the situation and bring him in to serve as a cornerstone of his new project at Bayern. “I spoke to the club about my concept and told them why I want Thiago,” Guardiola said. “He is the only player I want. It’ll be him or no one.”
That summer also saw Rafinha on the move. He made his debut for Barça that night in December 2011, two years after his brother, after also paying his dues with their B team. Ahead of the 2013/14 season he signed a new deal with the Catalan club before joining Celta, his father’s old side, on a season-long loan deal.
His coach in Galicia was Luis Enrique, who took such a liking to the Brazilian midfielder that he resolved to use him prominently when he became Barça coach the following season. Rafinha played perhaps the best football of his career in those two years and was part of the Barça team that won a historic treble in 2015, but tore his right anterior cruciate ligament that September in a blow to his chances of establishing himself at the Camp Nou.
Thiago voiced his support for his brother in an Instagram post: “Now I finally understand when mum said ‘I wish it was my knee and not yours’. That’s what I’m feeling right now when I think of you and I’m sure mum will be feeling the same thing,” he wrote. “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.”
Thiago knew what he was talking about – his initial progress at Bayern had been slowed by injury. He tore his knee ligament in the March of his first season and was out of action for 371 days, the number that became the title of the documentary he made about his rehabilitation that showed the depth of his support network.
His wife features prominently, as does his mother and his father. Rafinha pops up for a touching moment of comic relief, surprising Thiago on a mountain run wearing a Bayern shirt with his brother’s name and number on the back before joining in with his workout.
“I think our relationship is the best that brothers can have,” Rafinha said in the documentary. “He is a father, a brother and my best friend. He is a wonderful person. He has a great heart, a strong character and (he is) a person who knows what he wants. Someone you can trust in, somebody you can talk to about anything. Whatever you need, he will help you.”
By the time he returned to full health, Thiago had another battle on his hands to become an automatic starter in a Bayern team loaded with midfield talent. Arturo Vidal, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Joshua Kimmich, Mario Götze, Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos, and Xabi Alonso have all lined up in the middle of the park during Thiago’s stay in Bavaria.
The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti in 2016 proved a game-changer. The Italian coach shifted Thiago’s position, moving him into a free role behind Robert Lewandowski to give his Spanish charge a platform to showcase his full skillset and confirm his status as a truly world-class footballer.
He’s maintained a passing accuracy of above 90 percent in every season he’s played in the Bundesliga, but adopting the number ten position gave him a freedom that he didn’t have as a number six. He could break from midfield and tear opponents apart in the final third, wielding the dual threat of a lethal passing range and dangerous dribbling ability.
His debut season under Ancelotti saw him record five goals and five assists, as well as average a dominant 119 touches per game. “I’ve never seen such a good relationship between coach and player as with Carlo,” Thiago said at the time. “That’s what the Real Madrid players have already said and they told me that before he arrived.”
Thiago has since gone from strength to strength, transitioning back to central midfield and becoming one of the most dominant players in Europe. He’s won seven straight league titles with Bayern, as well as four DFB Pokals, a Club World Cup and the Champions League, becoming only the 13th player to win the competition with two different clubs following his 2011 triumph with Barça.
He was immense in the post-lockdown mini-tournament in Lisbon last summer, running Bayern’s 8-2 demolition job of Barça with ruthless glee and proving pivotal in the tight defeat of Paris Saint-Germain in the final. Following this he sought a fresh challenge, joining Liverpool in September 2020. One could see quite easily how his presence, his ability and his confidence will improve a team that has proved all-conquering.
Rafinha didn’t partake in the aforementioned 8-2 defeat. He spent last season back in Galicia for another loan spell at Celta, following on from a mixed spell with Inter in 2017. Injury has robbed him of a yard of pace as well as the positive momentum he had generated back in 2014/15, but at just 27 he remains a player with significant potential in the right setup.
With Ronald Koeman in the process of restructuring the club, it looks increasingly likely that he’ll be sold this summer to raise funds for new recruits. Like Thiago, the Premier League appears to be his most likely destination, with Arsenal, Everton and Leeds all strongly linked in the Spanish press.
The 2020/21 season will open a new chapter in the careers of two of football’s most talented brothers. Forged in the same fire and hardened by shared experiences of injury, they’re not the same men they were that afternoon in an empty stadium in Galicia. Nor when they made their joint debut in 2011 or when they played against each other in 2015. They’re different, as players and people. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the strength of their bond. You get the feeling that they value that above all of their trophies.
By Alan Feehely @azulfeehely