Manero

Of Their Own Crop

By: Alfonso Duro

International soccer is a relatively small world. You may even say it is an incestuous web of tangled relationships and personal interests in which players and coaches are nothing but mere merchandise that can be dealt with, bought and sold, as the club owners please.

Because of this, it is not strange that once we reach the semifinals of the Champions League we see a limitless number of intertwining stories between the teams competing for a spot in the big final on June 6 in Berlin. These are the most interesting ones.

JUVENTUS vs REAL MADRID

Álvaro Morata: The Bird Who Flew the Coop to Earn His Wings. Morata was the star of the first match of semifinal round of the current Champios League, as his condition of Real Madrid canterano and recently-turned-hero at Juventus put the spotlight on him from the minute the series was announced.

It took only eight minutes for the striker to make a stand: he scored for Juve but didn’t celebrate it. The goal, and his overall performance —Morata was clearly the Man of the Match, although UEFA picked Carlos Tévez for the honor— were a distinct sign that the young talent that peeked Mourinho’s interest in 2010 while playing in Real Madrid’s Youth Systems has now fully developed into an international star, ready to own the number 9 jersey of the Spanish National Team.

Yet, his reaction and (lack of a) celebration also acknowledged the fact that Morata knows his roots and, more importantly, still has a buyout clause with his former club (which means he could return to play for the Merengues as soon as this summer). The kid is obviously thinking long term here.

Carlo Ancelotti: “Juve Was a Team I Never Loved.” Now one of the most revered managers in history, 17 years ago Ancelotti was still an up-and-coming coach who had achieved impressive statistics with Parma but still needed to find his space in the international stage.

His footballing career preceded him, but he had to prove his worth in a top tier team, and Juventus saw in him the perfect relay to the successful stint of Marcelo Lippi as head coach of La Vecchia Signora.

In Turin, things went wrong from day one for Carletto, where a large part of the fans did not think a former AC Milan and AS Roma star was the right person to lead the Bianconeri. Ancelotti recognized in his autobiography he never loved Juve during his time there, as he was not as sophisticated as they expected him to be in Turin. He even remembered a graffiti-sign on a wall at Delle Alpi Stadium upon his arrival to the team: «A PIG CANNOT MANAGE US.» That one hurt.

He decided to move to San Siro 18 months later, and turned the club around over eight magical years, making them the most successful team of the first decade of the 21st Century—even beating Juventus in the Champions League final of 2003. Payback, they call it.

BAYERN MUNICH vs FC BARCELONA

Thiago Alcántara: Xavi’s Disciple Owns Munich. For the longest time, rumor had it that in Barcelona the son of World Cup winner Iomar do Nascimento “Mazinho” was en route to become a star who would lead the team’s midfield. It was quite true, as Thiago Alcántara didn’t waste time before breaking into the first team at Camp Nou, announcing to the world he was there to stay. When Pep Guardiola leaned on Xavi and Iniesta to conquer every title in sight in his four years at Barça, he knew very well Thiago was the player who would take over and carry on with the historical progression of high-touch, high-possession midfielders at the club: from Pep himself in the 90s, to Xavi, to the Italian-born Brazilian.

But an issue with his contract, and the reticence of sadly deceased Tito Vilanova to play him a pre-established number of games in his last season at the club ended up with Thiago making the move to Baviera and suiting up, once again, for the team managed by his mentor Pep Guardiola.

In two years at the club, Alcántara has had two serious knee injuries, but has returned just in time to test himself in his old stomping grounds. Granted, he may have wished to be on the Blaugrana side as the Catalans rampaged through Camp Nou to win 3-0 the first leg of the semis, but surely the kid has a bright future ahead of him as a true hero in Munich.

Marc-André Ter Stegen: The Beautiful Story of “What Could Have Been.” Ter Stegen never played for Bayern Munich before his arrival at Camp Nou this past summer, but Matthias Sammer had his name atop of a list of transfers that were key for the 2014-15 season.

The goalkeeper saw the opportunity of playing in Munich as a great chance to learn from the best, Manuel Neuer, and at 22-yeards of age, he could still spare a few of his competitive years in the shadow before making a more stable move to a starting position somewhere else.

But when Andoni Zubizarreta showed up in Mönchengladbach with an offer from Barcelona, Marc-André had no doubts. The German goalkeeper landed in Spain expecting to be handed the starting spot for the blaugranas, but Chilean Claudio Bravo’s outstanding performances have kept Ter Stegen on the bench in La Liga.

He has, however, shined both in the Cup and in the Champions League, and so in retrospect, he probably is quite happy with the decision he made last summer. The fact that Neuer is flying back to Munich with three goals against him after the match in Barcelona and Ter Stegen kept a clean sheet is just the cherry on top for the Culé keeper.

Alfonso Duro is a Spanish freelance writer. When he's not managing Google's agency in the United Arab Emirates (his current job), chances are he's watching and writing about soccer.