Room to Grow: Thiago, Kawhi, and the Unknowable

No two people are exactly alike, so no two relationships can be exactly the same. What works for you may not for me. The same goes for contracts between professionals and their employers, especially when those dealings revolve partly (or mostly) around interpersonal relationships. There is no cookie-cutter available to either teams or players when dealing with futures and, I would argue, that is a good thing.

If you’ve followed anything from Barça Twitter in the last, well, I guess 5 years, you’ll know that Thiago Alcantara has a complicated relationship with the Barcelona faithful. Or, at the very least, the Barcelona faithful has a complicated relationship with him. He probably doesn’t know, or care, about Barça Twitter’s views on his contract negotiations in 2013.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Thiago made a total of 101 appearances over 5 seasons with Barça’s first team, all but 20 of which were in the last 2 seasons he spent with the club (2011-12 and 2012-13).
  • Thiago has never made more than the 45 appearances in a season that he made in 2011-12 with Barcelona. He has never made more than 27 appearances in a league season, though he accomplished exactly that number 4 times (2 in Spain, 2 in Germany; note that the Bundesliga has 34 matches instead of La Liga’s 38).
  • Prior to his exit from Barcelona, Thiago was becoming a legitimate international youth superstar. He was the “Golden Player” in the U-21 European Championships in 2013, grabbing a hat trick in Spain’s 4-2 victory over Italy in the final. Those were his only goals of the tournament, but it was enough for him to grab the Silver Boot. He also scored in the 2011 U-21 European Championship final. There were few midfielders in 2013 that could boast such an impressive youth resume.

For many cules there’s a sense that Thiago abandoned the club by moving to Munich. After first playing for 4 other youth setups while his father, Mazinho, was bouncing from club to club during the twilight of his own career, Thiago joined La Masia at the age of 14. He stayed until he was 22. Those 8 years were occasionally fantastic (2 league titles, a Copa del Rey, and a Champions League), occasionally fallow (17 total appearances in 2010-11, just one of which was in the Champions League prior to the title), but all of them gave the sense that Thiago was going to be something special, if only he had the room to grow and could overcome his seemingly injury-prone nature.

And it was room to grow that mattered to him. Growth, of course, can be seen by some as a euphemism for getting paid. And from where Thiago sat — on the bench — it was clear that he wasn’t going to get paid like he could on the open market. So he sat some more, whether by personal choice, technical decision, or an agreement between mutually benefiting parties. It’s not that Barça couldn’t do with the extra money from a larger buyout of Thiago’s contract, but rather that they could not only point to the buyout clause and shrug, but they could do so without having a player be mad at them. This second part can be a big deal when negotiating with third parties: look, we don’t hold you over the coals when you want to leave. It’s good business.

Why, precisely, it is good business can be at least partially illustrated by the case of Kawhi Leonard. In May, ESPN dropped a long article by Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright regarding the relationship between NBA star Kawhi Leonard (pronounced kuh-why) and his employer, the San Antonio Spurs. Shelburne followed up with an appearance on the Lowe Post, an NBA podcast by writer Zach Lowe. Leonard, one of the best players in the NBA, was out with a quadriceps injury for most of the 2017-18 season. Leonard was being treated by doctors outside of the Spurs organization, either causing tension with the club or possibly he was seeing those doctors because of the tension. Either way, there was tension.

Lowe posed a few questions to Shelburne regarding that tension: if you’re a club, can you do everything right and still end up with a disaffected player? The answer, they seemed to agree, is that athletes are human beings with varying needs and teams that approach players with a cookie cutter are going to alienate some of them. The Spurs are known for their top-to-bottom understanding of their players as well as a sense of “we do things the right way” so this was a surprising development given that we’re talking about one of the premier talents in the NBA and a media-shy personality. Whatever it was, it became too much and Leonard, a top five player, was traded by the Spurs to the Toronto Raptors, leaving the overall feeling is that something is wrong. The Spurs just don’t make these kinds of mistakes. If you’re a Spurs fan, you might pin the blame on Kawhi for wanting something more — money or control of the team — or if you’re a Kawhi fan you might pin the blame on the Spurs for not protecting or acquiescing to their best player.

How can you not see the truth? we yell from our ivory towers.

As with Thiago, we will never be privy to the conversations between player and organization. A lot can go wrong there, from the grander themes like sporting visions to the minutiae of one-on-one relationships. If you’ve ever held a job, you know that there are relationships to foster, cut off, or simply deal with because they aren’t going anywhere. Have you ever had a boss? What if work is slowly beating you down, and you know that a company down the road is willing to offer you a position that won’t deal with the same garbage while also giving you a substantial raise. Sure, if you stick around where you are, the pension benefits are extraordinary, but is that worth it? Or what if you simply don’t get along with your cubicle mate and it’s driving you batty that she flosses her teeth when she thinks no one is looking?

From the employer’s perspective, protecting your assets is one thing, but if your assets are human beings, sometimes they make seemingly illogical decisions. The thing is, though, we’re almost all rational actors and we react to a given situation in a way that we think will give ourselves the best outcome. Had Barça played Thiago more, perhaps he would have felt perfectly at home continuing in the shadow of the generational talents ahead of him, knowing they would move on in due course and he would take over.

Look at Thiago again: why did he leave? Maybe he wanted to be the top dog somewhere, felt he was worth breaking the salary structure for, or simply got tired of where he was. It’s easy to say “if I were in his shoes…” because we’re not. We’re not looking at a career whose shelf life is a quarter of the typical working life. And if we were, maybe we too would run for the money. Or maybe it was stability. Maybe Thiago looked around during the difficult 2012-13 year and didn’t want to be there anymore. He saw Cesc, Iniesta, and Xavi in front of him, Sergi Roberto and his brother behind him, and thought, “Nah, I’m good.”

That was a summer in which Neymar moved to the Camp Nou, igniting the circus that still hasn’t really simmered down. Maybe he looked at the staunchly boring High German offices in Bavaria and thought, “I could do without the drama.” Maybe he sat in a room on some weird minimalist furniture across from a sweater-vest-wearing Pep Guardiola and after 12 minutes of utter silence, realized he had always wanted to learn German. Pep himself said it was Thiago or no one, so Thiago had leverage.

Maybe Thiago is simply not built to play 50+ matches a year and the coaching staff was aware of that. Maybe they protected him from himself, which got him the payday he wanted and the club a decent influx of cash for a non-crocked player all while protecting a relationship with a potential superstar. The Thiago of 2013 is no longer here; he has been replaced by someone who has been capped by the most talented Spanish squad in history an ever-increasing number of times, logging 24 of his 31 caps in the last 3 years. But he only appeared twice in the 2018 World Cup for a total of 94 minutes, 0 of which were in the round of 16 loss to Russia. So maybe the club also jettisoned a player it didn’t think was worth the risk of further injury, whose salary demands were outpacing his contributions, and whose development was stifled by aspirations that differed from those around him. Maybe they thought he wasn’t good enough. Pep was gone, after all, and that year under Tito Vilanova was a gut-check for everyone. Maybe Thiago just didn’t have the heart to keep going.

Remember when I said it might just be good business not to hold players over the coals if they want to leave? What if Barça let Thiago walk on the cheap in order to signal to its own players that they were valued? What if Thiago’s exit was a sacrifice to keep Cesc, Iniesta, and Xavi happy while simultaneously giving another squad spot to Sergi Roberto? That was a transition year and maybe Thiago just didn’t want to be part of the new project.

Whatever the reasons, Thiago left. He should be evaluated not as a turncoat, but as a player with a larger track record than he had when he left. You can effectively argue that he’s not worth the cost, but you can also effectively argue that he is a player worthy of consideration at almost any price. If he left because he wasn’t convinced of the sporting project, has enough changed to convince him otherwise? Has enough changed for the club to be convinced differently?

We may never know, but we can definitely know that it is more complicated than we think. No two people are alike, but that is a good thing. We can convince ourselves that players should adapt to club models, but the reality is that they are individuals, with personalities and personal needs. That is precisely what makes them incredible at what they do. Andres Iniesta would never survive in a club that demanded of players what so many want: robust action, sweat, blood. Instead, he was allowed to blossom and he became one of the greatest midfielders of all time. Thiago may be the answer now, but I hope he has a long conversation with himself before he makes a decision.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

2 Comments

  1. dl
    July 19, 2018

    “The thing is, though, we’re almost all rational actors and we react to a given situation in a way that we think will give ourselves the best outcome. ”

    It has been proven again and again, from many different angles, that humans are in fact irrational. Kahnemann saw it clearest in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

    • mvarfi
      July 19, 2018

      “It has been proven again and again…” presumably by other humans who are… more rational or just rational?
      Kahnemann has a Nobel Prize in Economics. That makes him plenty rational by our society’s standards. I haven’t read his book yet. But, when I do, I hope I find his conclusion after years of research and thinking to be less bleak and more nuanced.

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