Talent charts its own way

Talent charts its own way

Talent charts its own way

Like the Nevilles who blossomed and faded away, two brothers with Brazilian roots are ready to strike .

If you watched Gary and Phil Neville play, you would instantly know that they are English. One look at Thiago and Rafael Alcântara tells you that they come from Brazil.They are two sets of brothers, born into sporting families. Their game is soccer — but their movement, their touch on the ball and the very essence of their approach is different.

This past weekend, Phil Neville followed his older brother Gary into retirement. The sons of a professional cricketer, Neville Neville, they became apprentices together at Manchester United. Between them, they played more than 1,200 games for their English Premier League clubs and shared 145 appearances for their national team. They were captains on the field: Gary for the only professional club he ever represented, Manchester United, and Phil for the team he eventually moved to, Everton.

Stand close enough, and you could hear, never mind see, what they were about. Their biggest qualities were hard work, dependability and professional application. Both were defenders who would do anything legal, and a few things on the edge, to win games.And, though Gary has moved seamlessly and intelligently into television commentary, the brothers from Bury in greater Manchester are bound to follow their parents, Neville and Jill, into coaching and sports administration.

Gary Neville helps the England national team coach, Roy Hodgson, by passing on his experience. Phil Neville has been working alongside the coaching staff with England’s Under-21 side. At 36 the younger by two years, Phil said Saturday that he had changed his mind. He reversed his decision to play on and will instead seek full-time employment in coaching.

Phil played the last eight years for Everton after the manager there, David Moyes, acquired him in 2005, and it has already been hinted that there will be a place for him alongside Moyes as he replaces Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. So do not be surprised if the younger of the Neville brothers goes home to the club where he started as a schoolboy.

There is a possibility, at the moment nothing stronger than speculation, that Phil Neville could help one of the Alcântara siblings to make the transition into English soccer. Thiago Alcântara, 22, has been on the verge of being a Barcelona player since his early teens. Born in southern Italy, he enrolled as a Flemengo junior in Rio de Janeiro at age five. By the time he was 13, his family was in Spain. So Thiago joined, as his younger brother Rafael also did, the La Masia academy of FC Barcelona.

Their entry ticket was in their genes. Thiago and Rafael (now known on the team roster as Rafinha) are, like the Nevilles, two years apart in age.

Their mother, Valeria Alcântara, was a noted volleyball player, and their father, Mazinho, gave the boys plenty as well. Mazinho won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994. His travels to play for teams in Italy and Spain in the 1990s explains the cosmopolitan upbringing of the sons.

Their birthright is Brazilian. They both have the footwork of conjurors, and they could wear the No 10 if Lionel Messi did not have first claim to that shirt. Their mind-set is to invent plays, to pass and to move and to trick opponents, to set up goals and finish them off when opportunities arise.

Thiago is an exciting player in Barça’s first-team rotation. But how does he get regular game time when Xavi and Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas and that man Messi are available? At 22, he needs competitive experience to grow his skills. Barcelona is talking with Fàbregas because he, too, might opt for a move to England unless he can nail down a permanent place in the Catalan starting eleven.

If Fàbregas leaves, Arsenal would have the first option to buy him because that was part of the deal when he was sold to Barça, his boyhood team, two seasons ago. However, Manchester United would pay more for a playmaker who would slot into the role vacated by Paul Scholes, a contemporary of the Nevilles.

The English and the Latin cultures of soccer are stylistically worlds apart. Industry is the ideal in England, while it is all about beauty in Spanish or Brazilian soccer.

It is said that every father of every son in Brazil wants his boy to become a soccer player. Mazinho shares a surname, Nascimento, with the man who many believe was the greatest of them all, Pelé.

One can imagine Mazinho teaching his offspring every move he ever mastered, and then handing them to the best school on earth, Barça’s La Masia.

And one imagines Mazinho now is agonising over what is best for Thiago and Rafinha. The elder son is good — very good indeed — but there is still playing time left inside the man he might hope to replace, the pivotal pass-master of Barça, Xavi.

Rafinha, some say, is even better in the playmaking than Thiago. And the younger sibling, just 20, has a little more time to grow up and learn to become even more artful with his wonderful ability to ghost past opponents and then strike long left-footed shots or caress sweet passes.

Peas from the Mazinho pod they may be. Privileged in their backgrounds they certainly are, enhanced by their schooling.

But the sons of a famous player are nomads, too. They were born in different places: Thiago in San Pietro Vernotico, Italy, while Papa was playing for Lecce; and Rafinha in São Paulo when his father move back to Brazil to play with Palmeiras.

Their common grounding at Barcelona led to both boys to represent Spain from Under-16 to Under-19 levels. And in 2011, Thiago consummated that link by playing three times for the adult Spanish side, which means there is no going back for him. Rafinha is still exercising his options.

FIFA permits players to switch national team allegiance up to the senior level. Rafinha followed his sibling step by step up the Spanish ladder until, this month, he was selected by Brazil for its Under-20 team.

The world is a Brazilian player’s oyster, but one suspects only the money would tempt him to England.