The temptation of prolonging your playing career by an extra season or two is something that has on many occasions been too difficult for some. With the lure of one final payday just too good of an opportunity to ignore for many with the chance to travel to all corners of the world coupled with simply living off your name and past reputation in the likes of MLS, Chinese Super League and Australian A-League, you can perhaps understand why professionals find it all too difficult to eventually hang up their boots for good. Likewise, albeit in a much different context, in every competition in world football there are always individuals that just find it too much of a challenge to finally step away from the game. Whether that be due to personal relationships and bonds with a club that may mean more than just an employer and source of income, players afraid to admit that the years have caught up with them and don’t want to on this case concede defeat or perhaps those who are just so committed to a club’s fabric and ongoing project that they want to see the task out and maybe even lead their side to eventual success in any field, swapping clubs in a given transfer window is one thing but walking away from the beautiful game itself can be much more difficult; testament perhaps to both the draw as well as appeal that the sport can have from infancy up until to your final days.
Many like myself will never know what it’s like to play the game at a considerable level but one thing that can be said with an extreme degree of certainty is that come the end of a playing career in any professional sport, a good barometer of success must be in the number of major honours, titles, trophies and accolades that an individual has earned. Despite many now deeming a fourth placed finish or earning the all-important bragging rights as an example of a successful season, league standings and derby day victories can’t fill a trophy cabinet and whilst they may be seen as achievements, they must however be viewed in context with silverware standing the test of time in the views of many an ex-professional. You could perhaps argue that money has become much more an incentive than it once was with regards to what can be considered a fruitful career but even amongst lower levels of football, challenging for trophies and competing in all competitions appears largely be what motivates players throughout their careers. And with this in mind, you can not therefore underestimate the value of a glittering CV, jam packed with trophies and titles; it is those that will remain in the hearts and minds of football fans both of that team and of the wider sport itself long after said individual has waved goodbye.
In the heat of the moment, it’s very difficult to get caught up in the immediacy of a situation right in front of you as opposed to what’s going on around you and football is no different. As often is the case in the modern game, taking Ballon d’Or and PFA Player Awards as a good example of this in action, it’s the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi that take home the trophies merely for the goals they score and the headlines they grab. Yet behind every good goalscorer or creative midfielder, positions that appear at least in the mainstream media to shine brighter than anybody else, there often lies a number of players whose work rates, effort and most importantly individual quality help the likes of Griezmann, Aguero and Lewandowski perform as prolifically as they do on a weekly basis. Decisive defenders and must-have midfielders may only recieve a slice of the recognition that they deserve in year end team of the season graphics compiled by the press but their individual contributions largely go unnoticed, instead simply being spoke of as just a component to a successful side more so than the individual quality that such players consistently produce on the pitch. Likewise it’s then only when these ‘cogs in the system’ leave a club once and for all until a club realises just how much they miss the centre-back or defensive midfielder that appeared to do just the dirty work that wasn’t as pretty on the eye as that of his teammates in front of him.
As the old proverb goes, you only start to miss something once you no longer have it yet in a game that appears to be increasingly seeping every drop of sentiment out of its long-standing reputation, there’s no denying that is and continues to be the case even now. Subsequently after Spanish veteran and Bayern Munich midfielder Xabi Alonso responded to speculation about his future by confirming that he is indeed set to retire at the end of the 2016/17 season, it was only following his expected announcement that not only fans of Bayern and former clubs Real Sociedad, Real Madrid and Liverpool began to once again reminisce about his time as a player at each individual club but more strikingly, wider football fans at long last started to pay tribute to a man whose talents have been long eclipsed by the numerous number of Galacticos that Alonso has had the privilege of lining up alongside; perhaps a true reflection of just how good of a player the 35 year old has been during his 18 year playing career. Where’s there’s been a successful team domestically, in Europe or on the world’s biggest stage at international level, a midfielder once capable of covering every blade of grass would have been found competing at the highest level in all three. And once the dust has settled and retirement sets in, regardless of Alonso’s next destination his footballing CV at least can not be questioned.
In spite of the trophy laden career that it has been for the Spanish anchorman in midfield, Alonso began his career at the end of the last millennium at Real Sociedad. Following a short loan move to Eibar during his time as the Basque club, his talent was soon noticed as then manager John Toshack made Alonso club captain before the Spaniard went to make over 150 combined appearances for Sociedad’s first and second team and even led his side to second in the 2002/03 La Liga season. So much talent could only stand out for so long and it wasn’t long before Alonso was on the move, swapping Northern Spain for the North West of England as Liverpool and manager Rafael Benitez displayed just how highly they rated Alonso, investing £10.5m for his services at a time much different to the free-spending nature of English clubs nowadays.
Irrespective of the initial cost however, Liverpool fans will tell you that for his equalising goal against Milan in the club’s famous ‘remontada’ against AC Milan in their eventual 2004/05 UEFA Champions League Final victory, his transfer fee had fully justified itself within the space of a season. Given then that Alonso went on to win the Super Cup, FA Cup, Community Shield and then went on to become a pivotal fixture in Liverpool’s weekly starting XI, it’s perhaps no surprise that at some point other clubs would come knocking and as the opportunity of playing at the very highest level in his native Spain soon appeared, the lure of Real Madrid was clearly too good to refuse. And unlike many who leave the Premier League, both at a similar age snd similar point in their careers as Alonso and ultimately fearing the wrath of their club’s fans for departing in search of a bigger club or equally as increased wage, from Liverpool fans there was nothing but admiration and widespread respect for Alonso; a club serving who in the discs of five years rightly earned the tag as a club servant and legend, arguably one that ever since has yet to have been fully replaced.
Liverpool of course capitalised on Alonso’s move to Real Madrid and almost tripled their money in a deal reported to be worth around £30m. But at 27 years old, arguably at the peak of his powers after signing for the Spanish giants, this wasn’t a player that was simply preparing for life basking in Spanish sun as he wound down the final years of his playing career. Instead Alonso had so much more to give for both club and country and after settling into life at Los Galacticos it wasn’t long before entering the twilight years in his already impressive career. Even during a period largely ruled by Pep Guardiola and his iconic and incredibly powerful FC Barcelona, the first of five trophies that Alonso would gain at his new club was the Copa del Rey only a year after joining La Real. A much-desired La Liga trophy soon followed with Alonso forming an essential part of Madrid’s title winning season in 2011/12, providing a platform for Alonso to go and enjoy his best season in the white shirt of Madrid during 2013/14 as Alonso enjoyed a double winning season lifting vice the both UEFA Champions League and Copa del Rey, both for the second time in his illustrious playing career.
As many players struggle to leave a club or call an end to a playing career on a high, in a similar fashion to his recent decision to call an end to his time in the sport, after lifting both trophies and winning everything possible with Madrid, Alonso was soon on the move once again and this time at the mature age of 33, to German powerhouse Bayern Munich, managed by none other than former rival Pep Guardiola and later Carlo Ancelotti. Once again for Alonso, not only was a move to the German Bundesliga clearly done with the right intentions given the number of top flight appearances the midfield veteran has made at the highest level to date at the club but more importantly, it has been another clean sweep for the Spaniard – lifting both the German Cup and Supercup during his time at the club and of course not forgetting the Bundesliga title. Likewise with Alonso ending his career at Bayern at the end of the current league season, there’s every chance that the 35 year old could add to his trophy cabinet once more with what looks likely to be Bayern’s and Alonso’s third consecutive Bundesliga title.
Together with two European Championship victories (2008, 2012) alongside the trophy that every professional one day dreams of lifting, the coveted World Cup which Xabi Alonso earned in 2010, the widespread credit that Alonso had received in recent weeks is hardly surprising. Current club Bayern labelled Alonso as a ‘great player and person’, thanking the Spaniard for representing the club ‘to such a high standard both on and off the pitch’ and finding the right balance between being an idol both on and off the pitch is incredibly rare in modern day football. Above all, Alonso will be remembered as a special player for this reason alone regardless of his star quality and match winning performances which distinguished him as a world-class player from the many very good or even mediocre midfielders in the sport at the same as he was. And to finish, in the words of Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Xabi Alonso should and will hopefully be remembered as ‘one of the greats of world football… a thoroughly remarkable person and a gentleman of the game’.
The reaction to his initial announcement was inevitable and for many a difficult piece of news to come to terms with, leaving an incredible void that will be equally as difficult to fill both on and off the pitch for club and country. After all, simply living for and loving the beautiful game is all that you surely hope for when starting out as a young professional and Alonso has done just that.