Bayern Oder Nix: Thiago Alcântara and Heimat

In Martí Perarnau’s book ‘Pep Confidential’, there are two passages almost prophetic in delivery. Both discuss then Barcelona midfielder Thiago Alcântara and his upcoming transfer to Bayern Munich.

Thiago is interested in signing only for Bayern, and the deal is done without any difficulty. Despite claims by some sections of the media that he is considering Manchester United, the eldest of the Alcântara brothers is desperate to be reunited with Guardiola.

Across his four seasons as Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola had only utilised Thiago 64 times. An understandably small amount, as Thiago was only 22 when he left Spain. In his final season at Barcelona, managed by the late Tito Vilanova, he played 36 times. Despite his absence, Guardiola maintained a close watch on the player dubbed by Perarnau as the ‘pearl of the Barca youth system’.

‘The player has already reached an agreement with the Munich team and is not interested in going anywhere else.’

Perarnau again reiterates something that so many players, agents, coaches and distant relatives regularly (and quite offensively) fail to hammer home. Thiago was only interested in Bayern Munich and, as the immortal phrase from Guardiola, ‘Thiago oder nix’ (Thiago or nothing) shows, the feeling was mutual.

In his first and quite truncated season, several choice moments stand out, but none more so than a man of the match performance against Stuttgart. As the defending Bundesliga champions scrambled to create chances, Thiago’s 75th minute free-kick was put in the back of the net by fan favourite Claudio Pizarro to equalise.

With time running out, and with three points to salvage, a Hail Mary was thrown. Rafinha’s hopeful cross into the frenetic box was met by a guaranteed contender for goal of the year: a bicycle kick from Thiago to earn the victory. His celebration, a jubilant run with his arms spread towards the travelling fans before being bundled to the floor, has since become something of a trademark, a sight many Bayern fans have been fortunate enough to see a number of times since.

Although there were moments of joy, Thiago’s first season at Bayern was certainly not what Pep had envisioned. Having missed almost three months shortly after his arrival, it was starting to looking as if the demands of ‘Thiago oder nix’ were ill-advised; the Spanish international missed 30 games in the 2013/14 season. And with Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and a reinvented Phillipp Lahm all vying for just three positions, no one had a guaranteed spot in the starting 11.

After recovering his fitness and featuring as an unused substitute for the final game of his first season, Thiago suffered yet another set back that took him out of action until April. He was unable to play for Bayern for over a full calendar year.

On the 4th April 2015, 371 days after suffering an injury against Hoffenheim, Thiago was back and played 21 minutes against Borussia Dortmund. Within a month of his return, he had taken the winning penalty in the DFB Pokal against Leverkusen, salvaged an away goal against FC Porto in the Champions League and subsequently put in a man of the match and game-winning performance in the return leg.

After losing the first match of the Champions League quarter-final 3–1, Bayern hosted FC Porto at the Allianz Arena. A squad that was dismantled by injuries, Bayern were without their nominal wingers of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. A sign of an impending future, Robbery’s time was running out and Bayern had to begin thinking about how to control and dominate games outside of these two. Enter Thiago Alcântara.

Needing at least two goals without answer, Bayern started strongly and relentlessly pressed Porto into relinquishing possession. Within 15 minutes, Thiago had headed in to give his team a 1–0 lead. Later in the first half, he laid the ball off for a Thomas Müller shot that somehow found its way into the net. Bayern won the match 6–1 , progressing through to the next round of the competition. This match was a reassurance that Thiago was back and was playing as if he had never been gone. More crucially than that, though, it was as if he had been wearing the Bayern jersey for years.

In what was only his 30th game for the club and 22nd start, the almost iconic celebration of his goal, a brief thank you to assist provider Juan Bernat before the necessary turn to the fans, willing them on to do the same, is the quintessence of Thiago at Bayern Munich. An enjoyment of what he does with the understanding of why he is doing it in the first place: the fans.

Maybe the most standout or even most surprising aspect of Thiago’s time at Bayern so far is that at no point has he ever looked like he was leaving. Arguably one of the most well rounded midfielders in the world, Thiago possesses a profile that seamlessly balances intelligence with technique; it is clear to see why there was such regular talk of him succeeding former teammates Andrés Iniesta or Xavi within five minutes of watching him. With these figureheads looming over, ready to drop the now infamous ‘Barca DNA’ line, it is a wonder why it has never been received by him. The mythos surrounding Barcelona, La Masia and all that comes with it has never pulled him back. A club so heavily predicated on its own culture and history, so adamant of its doctrine, so quintessentially Thiago, one can’t help but wonder why he has never looked back.

The first quote mentioned from Perarnau’s book mentions how Thiago was “desperate to be reunited” with Pep Guardiola. For all the discussions of “Thiago oder nix”,“Pep oder nix” was just as feasible. But in the 80 Bayern games Thiago played under Guardiola, he only started 54. One would assume that a soon-to-be top player would switch from one top club to another to be given a guaranteed spot with regular playing time. Bizarrely, that was not the case. “Thiago oder nix” could equally have been “Thiago aber 67.5% der Zeit”. But this sporadicity of him starting was never a problem. In fact, his ability to be a difference maker off of the bench proved to be particularly handy against Juventus in 2016.

The 2015/16 Champions League quarter final was one of the most intense fixtures Bayern fans have witnessed in recent years. Having taken 2 away goals to the Allianz Arena, Bayern conceded to Paul Pogba and Juan Cuadrado within the first 30 minutes, undoing the work of Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben in the first leg. After a late push and a last second equaliser from Müller, the tiring Franck Ribery was taken off in place of Thiago in the 101st minute. His goal 7 minutes later conjured images that can only be described as familiar. Out-stretched arms, a roaring crowd, a bundle on the floor. The tableau of Thiago celebrating with the Südkurve behind him is ingrained in the memory of Bayern fans around the globe. There was no malice in his cameo for this game being only 19 minutes — he had a role to perform and did it excellently, for the betterment of the team.

And this is where Thiago has won the fans. In his 7 years at the club, he has never put himself above anything or anyone. There are maybe a number of reasons as to why this is the case. A model professional with a mature attitude certainly being one.

But there is possibly something slightly less obvious at play.

The goals against Stuttgart, Porto and Juventus are perhaps the most evident examples of what makes Thiago such a draw for the fans. Despite having only just played just over 1,000 minutes for Bayern up until that famous bicycle kick, there was such a visible display of happiness and excitement that appeared to far exceed that of someone who had just scored a very good goal. As was the case against Porto in only his 30th game for the club; there was a determination to win and desire to do it for the fans.

Upon Guardiola’s departure to Manchester City, there were naturally rumours that Thiago would follow. After all, he had done it once before, he could very well do it again. It would make sense, too. The Premier League is one of the most exciting leagues in the world, a near infinite amount of exposure to the world, the ability to shut down the naysayers who would question whether they could do it on a rainy Tuesday at Stoke. But this never appeared to be an option. “Pep oder nix” quite apparently became “Bayern oder nix”.

There might not be a word for his disposition in English. There may be a word for it in Spanish. In German, however, there is Heimat. Part of an already needlessly complicated language, the word Heimat more or less means home but offers more of an emotional and intangible quality than the words “Heim or “Hause” do. It is used to describe a feeling rather than a set geographical location: the feeling of where you feel like you are home and where you belong. If there is anything to take away from every time Thiago walks onto a football pitch, it is that his Heimat is in Munich.

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