REPORTS today suggest that Xabi Alonso has told Bayern Munich he plans to retire at the end of the 2016-17 season.
The Spaniard has been at the Allianz Arena since 2014, having previously been at Real Madrid and, of course, Liverpool.
His stellar career has spanned over 18 years and in that time he has won almost everything there is to win at club and international level; including a Champions League and FA Cup trophy in five years at Liverpool.
Here, Neil Atkinson recalls the Spaniard’s time at Anfield and the moment when Reds realised Liverpool had signed a special talent.
IT’S the game against Norwich City. That was the one. This midfielder that everyone had said was special turned up and he pinged it. And he pinged it. And he pinged it. His hair bounced around the gaff and he pinged it.
He hadn’t been scouted yet and he made playing centre midfield at Anfield look like the easiest thing in the world. Look like a joy. Made you weep, made you weak.
This was Xabi Alonso’s proper introduction to five seasons at Anfield. It was his big hello. We swooned and we would continue to do so.
That first season was steeped in class and in pinging it but two gutsy performances prior to Istanbul showed the footballer he would become — one at home against Arsenal, one away at Juventus. The former was against a truly great side and while it would overstate it to say he ran the show, he ensured no-one else would.
The latter, my god. Back from a broken ankle and he dominated. It’s one of the truly great 90 minute performances in Liverpool’s European history. Antonio Nunez, Igor Biscan and Milan Baros around him. It’s 90 minutes which defined a man and went on to define a career. It wasn’t just about pinging it, it was about running a game, metronomic in and out of possession. My god. When I think about it today, my god.
Istanbul was what it was. A glorious moment but the season had been inconsistent. The following season, though, was tremendous. When Steven Gerrard got sent off in the Derby and the Blues went wild and then Alonso decided to absolutely ruin them, running another game in adversity. Liverpool resplendent, Alonso imperial — understanding football on a macro and micro level. Every big idea, every fine detail.
Where Gerrard was the chorus, the big chorus, Alonso was the verse. He’d get you there with class before lighters out, the big sway, the huge singalong. The two of them clearly loved the bones of each other, saw what the other could do that they couldn’t. That said I actually think Alonso ever so slightly struggled between a combination of that trip to Japan, injury and the growth around him. He wanted to be constantly integral but Liverpool found it harder to rely on him.
The third and fourth seasons grew tougher, though he was my pick of the Liverpool players in Athens, before his fifth. The 2008-9 season. As this crop begins to retire, it’s no disgrace to reflect on how close they pushed what could well be the greatest of Manchester United sides. What hurt then can hurt less with time. This was Alonso’s finest season – dovetailing with Javier Mascherano he fit beautifully with Dirk Kuyt, Gerrard, Fernando Torres and whoever Benitez lashed in the other position.
I saw him in Heebies once, you know. Everyone saw him once somewhere. He lived in the city and embraced it, a young man in his 20s, switched on, travelling, learning, being. I saw him and said “played well today” and he said “thanks”. Well in everyone there.
He left Liverpool, went to Madrid and won the lot, was part of a golden Spanish generation. He went to Bayern Munich. What a CV, what a career. The lad who pinged it with aplomb, hair bouncing, had the brains and developed the brawn to be a true great of the game, his hair harder, like him. I’ll remember Norwich, of course I will, but the rest of it, I mean, walk around it.
It probably isn’t the last we hear of him. In a way very few players actually manage, he embodies so much of what is good about the game in this century when we can’t quite pin footballers down, the gilded weirdos that we perceive them to be. His decency is clear and always was. The player magnificent, the man quite clearly sound.
He isn’t solely one of ours, we can’t claim him in that annoying way we claim things. He belongs to the Basque Country, to Sociedad. He belongs to Spain, to Madrid. He belongs to Munich, to Europe. But to have had him, to have watched him, to have seen him grow. He belongs to us too. Resplendent in Red, magisterial, everybody wants to know, Alonso, Alonso, Alonso.