Xabi Alonso shared a slice in Spanish football history by playing a pivotal role in their two European Championships and FIFA World Cup triumphs between 2008 and 2012. He amassed over 700 competitive appearances for six different clubs and accumulated 14 major honours over a sensational 18-year playing career.
His journey started in Sociedad and ended in Munich with his third successive Bundesliga title. Alonso drew the curtain on his footballing career on his own terms with yet another success story at the ripe old age of 35.
Alonso was always destined for stardom and was majorly influenced by his father, Periko Alonso, who won three La Liga titles with Real Sociedad and FC Barcelona respectively. He first discovered his passion for football whilst living in San Sebastian, where he’d persistently practice his technical skills on the sandy beaches with former Everton and Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta.
He was engulfed by his father’s style of play, which revolved around passing the ball rather than solely concentrating on shooting. This encouraged Alonso to begin playing as a central defensive midfielder from an early age and allowed him to blossom from a fixed position during his primitive years.
Arteta and Alonso were identified by a variety of high-profile Spanish teams, but whereas Arteta moved to Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy, Alonso instead joined his father’s former club Real Sociedad. He instantaneously made an impression for The Royal and was promoted into the first team to make his senior debut at just 18.
Real Sociedad were experiencing a tumultuous transitional period, which made it very difficult for Alonso to cement a starting place due to the chopping and changing of managers. John Toshack transformed his career by gutsily promoting him to captain at just 20, but in hindsight it was a masterstroke from the Welshman.
Toshack’s decision was perceived as being on the verge of insanity but Alonso fulfilled the role magnificently and quickly became a fan-favourite. The team had been rooted to the bottom of the league table prior to Alonso’s promotion to captain, but miraculously climbed into 14th place by the end of the season.
This marked the beginning of the revolution at Real Sociedad, although Toshack was just a stepping stone to a more prosperous future. Despite Toshack’s departure, Alonso remained firmly in the frame to continue his rise as captain under the tutelage of French manager Raynald Denoueix.
The Blue and Whites finished runners-up to Real Madrid in La Liga in 2003 and secured qualification for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history. Their success would be short-lived and international recognition and participation would soon attract the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool to their door step.
Alonso joined the latter when returning from international duty at Euro 2004 in Portugal and quickly established himself in the heart of midfield with Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard. The duo were heavily involved in arguably the most memorable night in The Reds’ history when both players scored to force a miraculous second half comeback from a three-goal deficit.
Liverpool went onto defeat AC Milan on penalties in Istanbul and Alonso wrote his name in history during his debut season in England. The Premier League title would elude him, but his spell at Liverpool ended with four major honours and enhanced his chances of achieving his dream move to Real Madrid.
This became a reality in 2009, although his arrival was overshadowed by the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United and Kaka from AC Milan. His debut season at the Santiago Bernabeu ended without silverware, but he was able to win the first of his three major honours at international level with Spain at Euro 2008.
Mauricio Pellegrini was relieved of his duties and replaced by Jose Mourinho who’d won the treble with Inter Milan in the previous season. Alonso’s mind-set was fixed on his international career during this period, as Spain aimed to follow their European Championship success with further glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Vincente Del Bosque started him in every fixture on their route to the final, but Spain, who were tipped as one of the favourites opened the tournament with a shock defeat at the hands of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland. Spain bounced back to beat Honduras and Chile and finished top of Group H to secure their place in the knockout stages and the rest was history…
Portugal, Paraguay and Germany were victims of their hypnotic and majorly successful possession-based brand of football, which was influenced by Pep Guardiola and FC Barcelona. The likes of Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta and Villa were hailed as heroes for their performances in South Africa, but only a fool would fail to acknowledge the importance of Alonso in their World Cup winning team.
The final was contested on a knife edge and English referee Howard Webb had the unfortunate job of controlling the fierce and famous encounter between Spain and the Netherlands in Johannesburg. That Spanish team that defeated Holland in the 2010 World Cup final are deemed by many as the greatest team in history. The Dutch surged to fame with their beautiful brand of “Total Football” in 1974 but their performance in this final was in stark contrast to that of Rinus Michels’ team 36 years ago.
Eight different Dutch players were booked during the 120 minutes of play, including Jonny Heitinga, who was given his marching orders during the first half of extra-time. Andres Iniesta dealt the decisive blow deep into extra-time to crown Spain world champions for the first time in their history.