It isn’t often that the world provides a weird kind of symmetry with two unrelated-yet-symbiotic stories blowing up the world of Barça fandom. But today, there it was:
— Sergi Roberto named an FC Barcelona captain
— Thiago Alcantara reaches terms with Real Madrid
Sergi Roberto came to the Barça system in 2006 from Gimnastic, was Masia raised and learned to play football in a way defined by the club and its history. He was promoted to first team in 2010, and nobody had much to say about him, and certainly nothing good. His lustrous mop of tresses earned him the nickname from me of Vidal Sassoon, and people had no idea what to expect of him. He was unheralded and the only thing culers were talking about was, when they considered him at all, when he was going to leave for a place where he would be able to play regular football.
Thiago Alcantara was a year ahead of Sergi Roberto in every way. He came to La Masia in 2005 from Flamengo, and debuted with the first team in 2009. People had everything to say about him. “Next Xavi,” “genius,” “Masia gem,” were but a few of the sobriquets that fell like rose petals to cushion the elegant strides of a player who was going to be the next great FC Barcelona midfielder.
Sergi Roberto was hardly ever seen, while Thiago Alcantara featured in match after match, under coach after coach. Their paths diverged, essentially, when Pep Guardiola chose Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal. Nobody thought about Sergi Roberto, because he wasn’t playing, wasn’t anything. Everyone thought of Thiago, and predicted that this would be the stone that eventually broke the camel’s back, that the signing was short-sighted, etc.
We didn’t get many opportunities to watch Sergi Roberto. When we did, it was usually greeted with the reserve of something you didn’t really want, but someone gives to you. “Well. That was … nice.” We got many opportunities to watch Thiago Alcantara, and they were always greeted with the huzzahs of a talent coming into shape before our very eyes. Few talked about how chaotic things became when he subbed on for Xavi, or how he didn’t quite have what it took to sub on for Iniesta. But those players were geniuses, once-in-a-lifetime giants.
As Fabregas did his box-to-box thing, popping up to score goals, make key passes and play as an agent in a system that Guardiola was adapting to meet the new demands of how football was playing Barça, things were happening behind the scenes. Then, when Guardiola left for Bayern Munich and Tito Vilanova took over, that next season was difficult as the legendary Guardiola assistant got the team’s reins, and began to continue what Guardiola started. That team was dynamic and vertical while also playing like a Barça team, and then tragedy struck.
Amid the chaos of that season, it came to light that there was a clause in Thiago’s contract that linked his buyout clause to playing time. When Guardiola landed at Bayern and beckoned, saying it was Thiago or nothing, the player moved for 25m, choosing to activate a clause that would have been 60m had a certain number of minutes happened that season. Who knows why he didn’t get those minutes. Maybe the coaches didn’t think he was quite up to the task yet. Maybe somebody screwed up. Conspiracy theorists say the evil board wanted him gone for some unclear reason. Either way, Thiago was gone, something that is still being discussed in the Barça world.
Meanwhile, Sergi Roberto just eked out scraps where he could, devoted to his club. Even when rumors came about him possibly leaving, nobody took them seriously because few took Sergi Roberto seriously. He languished under the sadness of the Vilanova tenure, was unmoored during the Tata Martino caretaker season. Then came Luis Enrique, who saw something in the player, possibly something of himself, and set about making Sergi Roberto into something.
Sergi Roberto played. Left back, right back, interior, in the hole, attacking mid, winger — he played almost everywhere except keeper as Luis Enrique took every opportunity that he could to capitalize on his intelligence on and off the ball and innate sense of right action with the ball at his feet. And when Sergi Roberto could have left, he stayed. He stayed to become the starting right back, stayed to become captain during this summer’s U.S. tour matches and is now fourth captain.
The converging and diverging stories of two players isn’t as simple as one left and one stayed. Even now, people are short-selling Sergi Roberto, saying things like, “He doesn’t have the personality for it,” or “Well, they need a captain for dead rubbers or early-round Copa matches,” about a player whose career was defined by doubt. This is happening even as many of the same voices are saying that Thiago Alcantara will be exactly the tool that Real Madrid need to achieve glory.
It’s weird, and remarkable in many ways. Two things happened to two Masia products on the same day, but only one is dominating discussion in Barça social media. Thiago Alcantara is the one that got away for some odd reason, when he is in fact the one who left. He left for a better job, left to seek the future that bright talent dictates, but he left by his own decision.
Sergi Roberto stayed. Perhaps had he had the talent, the adulatory roar of Thiago, he too might have left the club for greener pastures. We will never know. But in the now, while one player was at Bayern, eventually becoming surplus to requirements as the team looked in a different midfield direction, the other has become something amazing at his chosen club, as architect and executor of two of the most iconic goals in the club’s history.
In one, he was at the terminus of an amazing remuntada against Paris St.-Germain, making the smart run to be in the right spot to volley home a babymaker of a goal. In the other, he made a run, The Run against Real Madrid, a run that should have been stopped, that saw him being chased by seemingly every opposing player, a run that was everything that defines him — smart, indefatigable — and resulted in Messi’s match-winning goal.
One part of you, the poetic part, might have wondered if Thiago watched what Sergi Roberto has become, wondered what would have happened had he stayed and fought for his spot as Sergi Roberto did. Maybe he would have been the one to make Sergi Roberto, a midfielder, surplus to requirements. In the fiction piece, you might write those twists into the tale. Reality is who knows. Bayern won leagues and league cups with Thiago in the XI, even if Champions League has still eluded him at that club.
Barça players, Masia products, don’t go to Real Madrid. As of this writing, it is only transfer rumor, reported by Catalan sources, that Thiago has reached agreement with Real Madrid. Maybe nothing will come of those rumors. But for a player who has spent his career seeking the best possible job, and with the English transfer window being closed, there aren’t many places to go from Bayern Munich. FC Barcelona is one, but the club made its decision in choosing his teammate, Arturo Vidal, and Arthur, from Gremio. And then there is Sergi Roberto, once again. And in a particularly literary twist there is also Riqui Puig, the new Thiago, gem of La Masia and genius midfielder.
Sergi Roberto is a captain, Thiago Alcantara is on the market, looking for a better job, probably destined to land at Real Madrid. And won’t it be a great story if that happens, if in the next Classic their paths cross in midfield, and people will watch and draw conclusions from the outcome when all they should really do, as with all of this, is shrug and say, “That’s football.” Sometimes it’s crazy, and beautiful, and weird and presents stories that dovetail amazingly. But even during all of that, still and always, that’s football.