By Jamie Braidwood
“Lived it. Loved it. Farewell beautiful game.”
These were the seven short words that announced the end of Xabi Alonso’s career, and what a career it has been. At Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, he lived it. Through his numerous honours, from league titles and Champions Leagues to European Championships and a World Cup, he loved it. Farewell beautiful game. The perfect send off from a man whose grace, style and class earned him universal respect and admiration from the football world.
Now at the age of 35, Xabi Alonso has arguably been the coolest man in football for some time. He will play out the remaining months of his career at Bayern Munich, the club he joined in the summer of 2014. Alonso arrived in Munich with little else to achieve. He had just won the Champions League at Real Madrid, his second triumph in the competition where he first made his name with Liverpool nine years earlier. He was a World Cup winner and had been part of the Spanish national team that were virtually invincible and had dominated world football from 2008.
Even though Real Madrid were European champions at the time, Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola arguably boasted the strongest squad in Europe. Despite this, Alonso was able to walk straight into Bayern’s team. It was an indication of Alonso’s reputation that even though he was 33 and had recently retired from international football, Guardiola personally wanted him to fill such an important part of his team.
It wasn’t always like this. The Alonso that joined Bayern had been there and had done it. Rewind a decade, back to 2004, to when Alonso joined Liverpool and you would find a fresh faced 23 year old. He was new to English football and you could tell. During his first game Alonso was quickly introduced to the physicality and directness of the Premier League as Liverpool were beaten 1-0 by Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers. He had a lot of learning to do.
Alonso had moved to Merseyside from his hometown club Real Sociedad. He spent four years at the Basque club and it is a spell in his career that, given his subsequent achievements, is often overlooked. For example, it is hardly known that in 2001, with Real Sociedad bottom of the league, Alonso was made club captain. Following his appointment, Real’s results improved dramatically and the club eventually finished the season in 14th place. Two years later Real had their best league season in over 20 years and finished runners up to La Liga champions Real Madrid.
Alonso’s stock was on the rise and he was selected in the Spanish squad for Euro 2004 a year later. After the tournament, Sociedad accepted a bid of £10.7 million from Liverpool and Alonso left San Sebastian to join Rafael Benitez’s Spanish revolution. Benitez had just won the Spanish league title with Valencia and he had made Alonso his top transfer target upon arriving at his new job on Merseyside. Neither of them would have dared to imagine what would unfold during their first season together.
Across his career, Alonso played in some great teams. Strangely, Liverpool’s Champions League winning side of 2005 was not one of those teams. That though, is the beauty of it. Liverpool’s run to the final in Istanbul was improbable itself. From Steven Gerrard’s heroics against Olympiacos, to knocking out Juventus and Chelsea, the champions of Italy and England, across two legs, the Reds found themselves up against AC Milan in the final but three goals down at half-time.
Xabi Alonso has never been a prolific goalscorer. During his five seasons at Real Madrid, for example, the midfielder only managed to score six goals. He had many other qualities but across his career, Alonso has a goal scoring record of one in fifteen games. That’s roughly three a season. There is one goal, though, that will be played over and over for a very, very long time. Liverpool had found themselves down at half-time but 11 minutes after the restart had clawed themselves back to 3-2. Four minutes later, Gerrard, who had pulled the first goal back, drove into the Milan penalty area. Gennaro Gattuso, desperately trying to keep up, hauled him down. Penalty. Up stepped Alonso. Brazilian goalkeeper Dida seemed to fill the goal and Alonso looked like a man with the world on his shoulders. His penalty was low, to the left, and saved. But then, the rush to the rebound. Alonso got there first and his left foot shot flew into the roof of the net. The rest is history.
Liverpool had no right to win the Champions League in 2005. They made the final again two years later but lost as Milan got their revenge. However, Liverpool arguably played better in 2007 than they ever did in Istanbul and were unfortunate to lose. A year earlier in 2006 Alonso added an FA Cup to his Champions League and European Super Cup medals, but even though he would play for Liverpool for three more years, it would be his final trophy at the club.
By the start of the 2008/09 season, Liverpool had added considerable talent to their squad. In Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard and Fernando Torres, Liverpool arguably had one of the strongest spines in Europe. Alonso was also fresh from playing an integral role in Spain’s triumph at Euro 2008, the country’s first major honour in 40 years. Liverpool should have won the league that season. In 38 league games the Reds only lost twice and even though they beat eventual champions Manchester United 4-1 away from home, Liverpool fell short by four points.
Alonso’s £30 million departure to Real Madrid that summer devastated the club and signalled the start of the end of Benitez’s reign. The Spaniard was fired the following season and players such as Mascherano and Torres left soon after. Overall, Alonso’s time at Liverpool was a curious one. He was part of of the team that won the greatest prize of all when they had no right to but also fell short as part of the team that could have won it all. The point though, is that when Alonso joined Liverpool he was a young man, who had just left his hometown to live in a different country and different culture. When he left he did so as one of the best midfielders in the world.
A year later and Alonso was proving just that. He started all seven matches of Spain’s World Cup winning campaign including the final where he was, infamously, the target of Nigel de Jong’s ‘Kung Fu Kick’. Alongside Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, Alonso was a key member of Spain’s midfield, and was integral to the success of their attractive ‘Tiki Taka’ style of play.
Alonso returned to Real Madrid that summer to find change at the Bernabeu. Despite achieving a club record total of 96 points the previous season, Manuel Pellegrini was fired for finishing 2nd to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Jose Mourinho, who had just won the treble at Inter Milan, was hired, thus commencing one of the most bitter and intense spells in the history of El Clasico.
It was perhaps unfortunate that during his time at Real Madrid, Alonso came up against the best team, and more specifically, player, the world has ever seen. While Barcelona and Guardiola received adulation for playing the game the way it should be played, Madrid and Mourinho were often criticised for the combative style they employed whenever they faced their rivals. The rivalry intensified in 2011 when the sides met four times in 18 days. Clashes between Spanish national teammates were not uncommon as Alonso came face to face with Xavi, Iniesta et al.
Barcelona won the majority of the trophies that were available during Alonso’s spell at Madrid, but the Spaniard eventually won his first league title of his career in 2012 as Real finished with 100 points. That summer Spain won their third major international tournament in a row as they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012. Alonso once again played a vital role in the team’s success. From 2008 to 2012, Spain dominated international football. Vicente Del Bosque, the manager in charge of winning the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship, became one of the most successful managers of all time. Spain were compared to the great Brazil side of the 1970s. Xabi Alonso was part of it all.
There was change again in Madrid ahead of the 2013/14 season. Mourinho had left the club by mutual consent after being knocked out in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the third consecutive year and publically falling out with a number of Real’s senior players. Alonso was left with his third manager in five seasons, Italian Carlo Ancelotti. After Mourinho fell short, it was clear that the success of Ancelotti’s tenure was to be judged on his ability to do one thing, winning the club’s 10th European Cup. By April, Real found themselves in the familiar territory of the semi finals. Bayern stood in their way but Real had a 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg in Munich. They eventually advanced comfortably after winning 4-0 on the night, but Alonso would cruelly play no part in the final. Midway through the first-half Alonso was booked for a foul on Bayern’s Bastian Schweinsteiger. It was his third booking of the tournament and it ruled him out of Madrid’s first Champions League final in 11 years.
Alonso had to watch Madrid’s 10th European Cup success from the stands but even then, the Spaniard still managed to steal the show. As Gareth Bale put Real 2-1 up in extra-time, Alonso, fully dressed in suit and tie, hopped the railing onto the pitch and sprinted down the touchline to celebrate with his teammates in the corner. Even though he played no part in the final, Alonso received his second Champions League winners medal of his career. He would also never play for Real Madrid again.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was a chastening experience for Alonso and the Spanish national team. Perhaps the side got complacent after years and years of highs and success. Perhaps they were unlucky. The truth though, is that certain members of Spain’s golden generation were getting old.
It had all started so well. Coincidentally, Spain’s first match of the tournament would be a rematch of the 2010 final against Holland. They took the lead through Alonso, his first and only World Cup goal, but that was as good as it got. Holland humiliated the defending champions and Spain lost 5-1. The Dutch were too quick and were lethal on the counter attack. In Spain’s next match the came up against a tenacious Chile side that simply wanted it more. The older generation such as Xavi, Casillas and, unfortunately, Alonso, were exposed and Spain were knocked out of the World Cup after only two matches. Alonso’s match against Chile was his 114th appearance for his national team. It was also his last.
Alonso may have arrived in Munich that summer with little to achieve but he still, at the age of 33, had plenty to prove. He had to prove that he was still good enough to play at the top level. Failure to do so would have left his career at a dead end, as illustrated by Bastian Schweinsteiger at Manchester United.
But at Bayern Alonso has proved his class. Under Guardiola Alonso won two Bundesliga titles and completed a league and cup double. Now, once again under Carlo Ancelotti, Alonso has the opportunity to finish his career with a treble. If Bayern were to win the Champions League this season, Alonso would become only the second player after Clarence Seedorf to win the competition with three different teams. It would be an achievement fitting of the player and the man.
But then, what next? During his career Alonso has been managed by five of the great 21st century managers in Benitez, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Del Bosque and Guardiola. He has experienced thousands of hours of training sessions under some of finest football minds, just imagine what he has learned. Surely a future in management would be a natural progression.
Until then, it is time to reflect on what has been. “This might be my last experience in football”, Alonso said when he joined Bayern in 2014. “ I came from my hometown team, Real Sociedad, to the best team in England, to the best team in Spain and to the best team in Germany. It is a beautiful career.”