A paen to the one, the only Xabi Alonso and what lies ahead for the suave gent.
April 18, 2017. It’s a quarter past ten over at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid. 75 minutes into a high octane Champions League quarterfinal match, Don Carlo brings on Thomas Muller. His job is simple. Provide an added surge to get the Bavarians a crucial second goal. Instead, a minute later, the Portuguese powerhouse of Los Meringues makes the six inch difference in height between him and Phillip Lahm count; a header on target, out of Neuer’s big outstretched hand. Then follows a seven minute period of jubilation and more heartbreak for the Bavarians, with the Real Madrid captain first putting the ball in his own net keeping Keylor Navas confused as to which way to go, to an undeserved red card for Arturo Vidal, the first of many controversial decisions of the night. Half an hour and some more dodgy refereeing decisions later, Bayern Munich are kicked out of Europe by Real Madrid by an aggregate of 6-3. An event that leaves the footballing world going hard on their smartphones, voicing opinions in less than 140 characters.
When all the dust has cleared after the conclusion of a tie of such big proportions — two giants facing off, and the French padawan welcoming the Italian master back in Madrid, there is a man still soaking it all in, sitting in an unfamiliar locker room inside a familiar stadium taking some time for himself.
A player who has relied more on his brain than his brawn to act as the cornerstone at every level of a career spawning two decades, mesmerising one and all in the process, had to stop somewhere. It is somewhat like being hit by Doraemon’s reminder hammer: only a month before he hangs up his boots. No more of his trademark diagonal Hollywood passes. No more of his trademark spot kicks. No more of those deft passes from deep to start the counter attack. No more of him giving the folks over at Daily Mail something to write about; making the headlines for not opting for a blanket on a Champions League matchday on a wintry night. No more of him watching a solar eclipse and breaking the internet in only the coolest way possible.
But what about the man and what does indeed lie ahead for him? Judging by who he is, and how his love for the sport tops it all, he’d walk on in the hope of a golden sky. If he could survive a kick to his chest from The Destroyer, Nigel de Jong himself, then getting back up on his feet and running to guide Bayern Munich to a fifth consecutive Bundesliga title will be as easy as scoring from sixty-five metres.. That’s who he is — the strawberry blond bearded calm in a 90 minute storm, an indispensable cog vital to the functioning of a footballing system. Ever since John Toshack unleashed him on the La Liga, Xabi Alonso has always stood out like a phoenix rising from the flames. He’s done it time and time again, starting from guiding a struggling Sociedad team to second place finish in 2003, to scoring a decisive penalty against Dida on that night in Istanbul in 2005, to being vital to the squad that won Spain two consecutive Euros and a World Cup, to celebrating like a teenager at Estádio da Luz after a Gareth Bale header in 2014 whilst putting Barney Stinson to shame in the art of looking debonair and handsome, to playing a key role for Bayern Munich in the twilight of his career, in their mission of consolidation of German football.
His ingenuity and versatility is apparent in his talent to adapt to different leagues, from the combative approach of football in the Premier League to the counter-attacking style of football in the refined La Liga. An adaptability that caused his mate, Steven Gerrard, to regard him as “royalty” from their very first training session; good enough to be, hypothetically, his assistant manager someday. Pep Guardiola, the renaissance man of the passing game, went a bit further with Alonso’s scope of being successful as a manager, believing that he has the gravitas to make it big. While there has been talk in every nook and cranny about the Spaniard managing teams after his retirement, he himself has most certainly taken a reserved and more composed position of just concentrating on his game in an attempt to avoid all the speculations by the hounding journos.
“Charles Mingus, a famous jazz musician, once walked into a bar to see an impetuous young drummer attempting a frenetic solo.”No,” Mingus said, “it’s not like that. You have to go slowly. You have to say hello to people, introduce yourself. You never enter a room shouting. The same is true in music.”
– Ezequiel Fernandéz Moores, in La Nacion
Maybe Mingus wouldn’t know how the same is also true for football, but Alonso certainly does. He’s been known to have a quieter presence on the field compared to the Vidals and the Nainggolans of the world, and if someone opens a dictionary from the Spaniard’s personalised bookshelf, “desperation” would be one word that they wouldn’t find. Even after spending five years playing for Liverpool, he is of the opinion that a slide tackle is nothing more than an excuse for poor positioning skills — slide tackles going hand in hand with the English-style brawl and commitment. Instead, he favours being a midfield metronome, with an emphasis on not giving the ball away in the first place, on being at the center of everything darting his gaze to the far ends of the pitch in a fashion that’d put quarterbacks like Brett Favre to shame. The master of the art known as “la pausa”, Xabi Alonso, football’s answer to Nostradamus in terms of soothsaying capabilities, possesses an unmatched understanding of the modern game that allow him to make rapid computations accurately — when to delay a pass by a fraction of a second or how to position himself according to his team’s shape. He is the wet dream of any manager, with a superior intelligence to read the game even before it actually unfolds. How Gareth Barry was prioritised ahead of him in the summer of 2009 is still a mystery to the Anfield faithful.
Now at 35, he has come to a close like a weary gunslinger leading a life people can only dream of. So, is it time for him to inspire a young mind, to influence him so much that the kid would call out his name when he rides off into the sunset at the end of the day? Some would nod their heads in agreement. Playing under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti in the last season of his illustrious career almost feels like completing the Masters in football management. Coming into prominence under Rafa Benitez and then going to play for managers like Luis Aragones, Manuel Pellegrini, Vicente del Bosque, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola ought to have let him know some tricks of the trade.
One would like to think he wouldn’t ban his players from having paella on Sundays like Benitez, nor confuse Yuri Zhirkov with a rib-eye steak like Ancelotti. No sir, Alonso would be the one who would settle for a well-maintained diet for one and all. From the calculative nature of his defensive game to the way he could change the pace of the game with simple passes, he is sure to introduce us to a breed of football never seen before. Another student of the game, following the scholarly lineage that includes Hall of Famers such as Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, Luis Aragones, Bielsa, Victor Maslov and Valeriy Lobanovsky, among illustrious others. Although the TV producers would cry themselves to sleep every night for losing the articulated man to the world of management, it would work as a tool for the benefit of mankind, because let’s ask the real question here — who wouldn’t want to see Xabi Alonso with his majestic beard in his Tom Ford suit holding a cup of coffee in his hand shouting instructions to his players from the touchline?
Imagining him as a manager is something everyone has done recently — an Obi-Wan Kenobi just recovering after the death of his master Qui-Gon Jinn, ready to take Anakin Skywalker under his wing in an attempt to bring balance to the Force. Now whether or not he lets his apprentices burn out (not necessarily on the fiery lava streams of Mustafar though) remains to be seen, but if anyone knows Alonso, they’d choose to remain optimistic. With Zinedine Zidane’s success in Champions League in 2016, Julian Nagelsmann’s wonder season for 1899 Hoffenheim or even Steven Gerrard’s quick ascension to the Liverpool U18s squad, the world knows that it’s approaching a juncture where younger managers with fresher ideas are going to be appreciated. If he can carry over his philosophy successfully to his apparent future endeavour, the World Cup winning midfielder would feel exactly at home, because, all in all, Xabi Alonso is the limited edition when it comes to potential managers in the world of football.
He lived it. He loved it. But surely not a farewell to the beautiful game, already? Because it would be too soon. Because frankly, we’re all yelling from the deepest corners of our heart like little Joe from the 1953 classic, “Shane! Come back!” There’s no denying that. See you soon, Xabi.