x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

After a rocky patch, Thiago Motta has matured into a gem for Inter and Italy

Four years ago, the midfielder went AWOL from training while at Barcelona. Fast forward to 2011 and the Brazil-born has been revitalised by a move to Italy, a Champions League win and a call-up to his adopted team.

Thiago Motta, the Inter Milan midfielder, celebrates scoring the only goal of the game for Italy against Slovenia on Friday night in their 1-0 Euro 2012 qualifying victory. Claudio Villa / Getty Images
Thiago Motta, the Inter Milan midfielder, celebrates scoring the only goal of the game for Italy against Slovenia on Friday night in their 1-0 Euro 2012 qualifying victory. Claudio Villa / Getty Images

Thiago Motta looked a sight. His angular face seemed gaunt, sad, and he had clearly not shaved for a while.

He had missed morning practice, without explanation, or a leave-of-absence and his club had been unable to contact him.

He now arrived to offer his apologies, and to admit to his head coach and colleagues that: "I have been having rough time, not just for one day, but longer."

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That was four years ago this month. Motta, then 24, had glimpsed the dreams of his youth tarnishing and the career he had been encouraged to aspire to slipping out of reach.

"I started doubting myself," he told his teammates. "And I didn't know where to turn. So I did the worst thing possible, I didn't go to work."

It is safe to report that Motta's life has changed a great deal for the better since then. Last Friday night, he was telling reporters that his competitive debut in international football "could hardly have been more perfect".

He had just scored the only goal, following a neat exchange of passes with Federico Balzaretti, in Italy's 1-0 away win against Slovenia in Euro 2012 qualifying.

To shape that turnaround in his fortunes, Motta's circumstances have altered radically.

The grim day he went AWOL he was at Barcelona, saying sorry to teammates like Victor Valdes, Xavi and Carles Puyol whom he had known for the best part of seven years, since he enrolled at Barcelona's fabled La Masia academy as a 17 year-old.

Motta was born in the Sao Paulo region of Brazil, but crossed the Atlantic after his talent had been spotted by Barca scouts, who also liked the convenient fact he qualified for a European passport by virtue of having an Italian grandparent.

He had been a contemporary at La Masia of Pepe Reina, the Spain and Liverpool goalkeeper, of Valdes, Barcelona's current goalkeeper and of Fernando Navarro, the Spain full-back.

He developed a powerful left foot, and many of the admired characteristics of midfielders schooled at that club: a range of passing, the head-raised, comfort on the ball.

He also had qualities that other celebrated La Masia graduates, like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Leo Messi or Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas do not. Motta is tall, and physically imposing.

He made his first-team debut for Barcelona as a teenager. He scored some spectacular goals and showed versatility enough to be picked not only in the centre of midfield but at times at left-back, even in the centre of defence.

He was popular in the dressing-room, where he maintained his youthful ties with the in-house players but also befriended the Brazilians, such as Ronaldinho.

What Motta struggled with was guaranteeing himself a place in the Barcelona first XI.

Under Frank Rijkaard, a coach who showed Motta great support at the time of his personal crisis, it was Xavi, Deco and Iniesta who became the midfield strategists; other men were signed to take the anchor positions: Rafa Marquez, Edmilson, Mark Van Bommel.

Some doubts about Motta's temperament - he could be over-aggressive in the tackle and sometimes hotheaded - surfaced, and he was too often struck by muscular injuries.

Barcelona sold him to Atletico Madrid in 2007, two months after his unscheduled day off. Injury restricted him to a mere six league matches for Atletico.

He moved on to Italy with Genoa, and a new lease of life in Serie A.

After an excellent first 12 months in Serie A Jose Mourinho, then the head coach of Inter Milan, put Motta on his wanted list.

He duly joined the Italian champions and scored in his second match, a derby win over AC Milan.

Motta is still combative - a fact that Barcelona remembered when Sergio Busquets, another La Masia graduate, overreacted to a challenge and helped get Motta sent off in the Champions League semi-final at Motta's old home ground last season - and Mourinho liked that.

But Motta is more mature, at 28, and self-assured.

Being rather Brazilian had threatened to keep him out of the thinking of Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach.

Motta actually represented his native country at youth level and in a 2003 Gold Cup tournament, although Fifa last month ruled that should not prevent him representing the senior Azzurri team.

Italian football has been good for Motta, and he is now looking pretty good for Italy.

 

sports@thenational.ae