El Centrocampista

THE NUMBERS GAME – A tale of Thiago, Fabregas and merchandise.

By Lee Roden

In contemporary football, numbers have little value compared to the days of old. In the past, the number 9, for example, was your out and out striker, your target man and often, the focal point up front. This is no longer true, players like Lionel Messi blur these lines – the “false 9” if you will. A winger that is also a striker, that is also a midfielder, that is also… (you see where this is going).

Numbers areimportant when it comes to marketing and sponsors though. Much was made of Cristiano Ronaldo dropping his usual number 7 in favour of the number 9 (thanks to a certain Mr. Raul) when he joined Real Madrid from Manchester United.  The real fuss surrounding this numerical mishap wasn’t football based. Rather, it was in relation to Ronaldo’s various brands associated with the number 7. Such ventures include a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike, and even the “CR7” fashion boutique in Lisbon and other cities, along with an online store. “CR7” is a brand, and a lucrative one at that, but in adopting the number 9, Cristiano had to accept that his “7” was no longer in the spotlight, at least in terms of football.

It didn’t last. One year later, Raul was out the door and Cristiano was “7” again, or “CR7”, if you’re incredibly annoying and write for Marca. Yes, Cristiano literally became “CR7” according to the Madrid dailies, no longer a name but rather 2 letters and one number, a symbol if you will. Much like superman, except more likely to stoop his shoulders and go in a huff when things don’t go his own way, CR7 was the hero Real Madrid always needed, much better than that “Cristiano Ronaldo – 9” chap from the season before, of course.

The numbers game isn’t exclusive to Real Madrid. Barcelona’s coveted number 4 jersey was made famous by Pep Guardiola as a player and, to a lesser extent, by Rafa Marquez later on. It has laid vacant over the last season; waiting impatiently for the arrival of the one many Catalan’s believe to be Guardiola’s true successor, Cesc Fabregas. This is guaranteed, set in stone and certain, Fabregas will wear the number 4 if, or, as the Catalans are more likely to say, when he comes to Barça. Or is it?

Catalan daily ‘Sport’ seems to think otherwise. It reported today that the F.C Barcelona website had indeed confirmed there would be a number 4 at Barça this season. There was only one problem; it wasn’t Cesc Fabregas. It wasn’t even a new player. It was Thiago Alcantara.

Intrigued by all the potential hints that could be extracted from this morsel of information, I scoured the Barça website: in Catalan, in English, in Catalan again and even in Castellano for good measure. It appeared however, that I arrived late to the party and this “error” had been corrected – neither Thiago’s name, nor the number 4 appears between “3. Pique” and “5.Puyol” on the squad information page.
(You can check it out for yourself, here http://www.fcbarcelona.com/web/catala/futbol/temporada_11-12/estadistiques/jugadors/Equip/fitxa.html)

Even more curious is the fact that Thiago’s name doesn’t appear on the squad name and number list at all, though he is on the main squad bio section. Clearly someone at FC Barcelona has been reading Sport today and quickly corrected the “error”. But what does this online Freudian slip mean?

Potentially, we could read that Fabregas will not be at Barça this season, and considering how long negotiations seem to be taking (and how much Arsenal seem to want for the player) this scenario is a real possibility (despite what el Mundo Deportivo might tell you).

If this is indeed true, and the club has agreed to hand Thiago the coveted number 4 jersey, it could be of huge significance. Firstly, it shows the confidence placed in the young midfielder. Having proved his worth throughout the season when given the opportunity and, more so, at the European under 21’s championship this summer (including THAT free kick), Thiago is finally ready to step into the spotlight as a main player in the Barça team, not just the squad.

It would also send a clear message to Fabregas – that he has “missed the boat” so to speak. Potentially lucrative marketing deals surrounding the “Fabregas – 4” brand at Barça would certainly be complicated by Thiago occupying “his” number. It also sends out another clear signal, both to Arsenal and the player, that FC Barcelona are no longer prepared to wait around for Cesc’s eventual arrival. Harsh, but certainly in line with Sandro Rosell’s more heavy-handed policies when compared to his predecessor.

Of course, there are other equally plausible scenarios. One is that when Fabregas eventually does arrive, Thiago will be asked politely to hand his number 4 jersey over to his superior. Oh to be a fly on the wall in that meeting between Alcantara and Rosell, where the youth is unceremoniously informed that he’s worth less money to the club in promotions, and despite scoring 15 goals with 20 assists (hypothetically, and I’m definitely being facetious here) in the season, he has to give up his number 4 to his more lucrative la Masia graduate.

The most likely situation however, is that it was a simple error. Someone on work experience, somewhere in the Camp Nou offices, is probably being given the lecture of a lifetime right now (if he or she is even still there) after “filling in the blanks” when being assigned the seemingly simple task of updating the squad list. A mistake, nothing more and nothing less, and we can all calm down and continue to speculate.

Until the transfer window closes, or at least until the club comments on the matter, we cannot know for sure. It is however, interesting to speculate. The numbers game may yet prove to be important, not only in the ongoing Fabregas transfer saga, but in the development of Thiago Alcantara.

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