Soccer Kept Changing, but Xabi Alonso Never Did. Then He Retired.
Xabi Alonso, one of the finest midfielders of his generation, announced his retirement in March. “I am a mature fruit,” he said recently, “and I have dropped from the tree.” Credit Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts, via Getty Images
By RORY SMITH JUNE 8, 2017
MUNICH — It’s not the summer that Xabi Alonso worries about. The next couple of months, he knows, will be easy.
There is a family vacation to the United States scheduled, and then weeks of empty days to fill however he sees fit. His calendar has been left deliberately, enticingly blank.
He wants to use that time to travel more. He will continue to read, voraciously, once he has finished his current book, “Where Are We Going to Dance Tonight?,” a collection of short stories by a friend, the author Javier Aznar.
Maybe he will not keep quite so close an eye on his fitness as he normally does. Maybe there will be the occasional morning when he does not take himself off for an hour or two and do some light conditioning work. Certainly, though, he will spend most of his time with his wife, Nagore, and their three children, Jon, Ane and Emma. They are 9, 7 and 3 now. “A good age to start learning life,” he said. He intends to be there to see it.
Alonso, right, with his Spanish teammates after they defeated Germany in the semifinal of the 2010 World Cup. CreditClive Rose/Getty Images
It is August, the middle of August especially, that concerns him, when the summer does not suddenly end, and the only life he has known does not resume. That will be the moment when Alonso’s retirement will become real.
“I have negotiated with myself, dealt with the process, and I am feeling it is right,” he said. “After the vacation, when the Bundesliga starts, La Liga starts, the Premier League starts, and I am here on the sofa, on the other side, that is the moment when I will realize, when I will find out if I am fine here, or I would love to be there.”
On March 9, Alonso, 35, picked up a pair of spotless soccer shoes and walked with Nagore to the park near his home in Munich. He turned his back and waved as she took a picture.
A few minutes later, he uploaded it to Twitter, along with a brief message. One of the finest midfielders of his generation, a player who has won everything there is to win, in a career that has taken him to Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, was saying goodbye.
Lived it. Loved it.
Farewell beautiful game. pic.twitter.com/1aSN7GGNzZ
— Xabi Alonso (@XabiAlonso) March 9, 2017
In the months since, Alonso said, he has not doubted his decision. He was not tired of soccer, had not fallen out of love with the sport. He still watches as many games as he can, indulging his “weakness for midfielders.” There is much about it he will miss: the “adrenaline” shot of being in the thick of the action, and the more quotidian feel of training.
Alonso, with Liverpool, contesting Frank Lampard of Chelsea in a Champions League match in 2005. Because more data is available now than when he began playing, Alonso said, “You know your opponents much better.” Credit Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
“I am going to miss this,” he said, taking in the view of Bayern’s sun-bleached Säbener Strasse training complex a few weeks ago. “The grass, the sound of the ball, the jokes with my teammates. That’s what I will miss most. That is what fulfills you most on a daily basis.”
But he knew that the time was right. “I read that leaving is like buying and selling stocks,” he said. “It is either too early or too late. In football, it is similar. It is hard to find the right moment, but I feel in peace. I am a mature fruit, and I have dropped from the tree.”
It is a ripening so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible. At his peak, Alonso was always said to be one of those players who had time, on the ball, on his side, and that was the case in what turned out to be the last year of his career, too.
Alonso in the center of the action in one of his last games for Bayern Munich, in April. “I am still as slow as I was when I was 20,” he said. CreditOscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
He jokes that age has not improved him — “I am still as slow as I was when I was 20” — but nor did it visibly diminish him. Right up until his last game on May 27, he was the same Alonso who won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, the European Championship with Spain in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup in 2010: composed, assured, spraying passes the width of the field, gently seizing control of the game until it bowed under his command.
What makes his longevity remarkable is that, even as Alonso did not change, the game around him did. In the 18 years since he made his debut for Real Sociedad, the team he supported as a child, the team with which his father, Periko Alonso, won the Spanish championship, Alonso has witnessed firsthand dozens of evolutions and revolutions. His relationship with soccer has never changed, he said, but soccer itself is markedly different.
He was at Liverpool when the Premier League was the best league in the world, and in the thick of the most toxic years of Real Madrid’s rivalry with Barcelona. He played tiki-taka with Spain to conquer the world, lived without the ball for José Mourinho’s Madrid, and became an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s shape-shifting Bayern Munich.
当英超是世界最强联赛时，他是利物浦的一员，他也经历了皇马与巴萨最为剑拔弩张的日子。他随西班牙踢着tiki-taka征服了世界，体验过José Mourinho皇马中的非控球风格，又成为了Pep Guardiola转型中的拜仁慕尼黑不可或缺的一块拼图。
He has seen the game favor the slow and fetishize the fast; he has dropped back and he has pressed. A few weeks ago, Alonso, in a quiet moment, disappeared down a YouTube rabbit hole, watching videos of the Argentine playmaker Juan Román Riquelme.
他能拖后组织，他也能压上逼抢。几个礼拜前，Alonso，在一个静谧的时刻，迷失在了YouTube的兔子洞里，他看了一堆阿根廷的进攻组织者 Juan Román Riquelme的录像。
Alonso shared one of his final games, on May 20, with his children, Jon, 9, Ane, 7, and Emma, 3.CreditMichaela Rehle/Reuters
Riquelme is regarded by many as a player born half a century too late; an analog player forced to operate in a digital world. He was around when Alonso started his career, but is now the first name that leaps to Alonso’s mind when he is asked how soccer has changed. Riquelme, Alonso said, was too much of an individual, too contemplative, to thrive in the modern era. “I loved him,” he said.
His eyes light up, too, at the mention of Juan Carlos Valerón, Riquelme’s Spanish equivalent, but these are just the parts of the game we see.
当提及Juan Carlos Valerón，这位西班牙的Riquelme时，他的眼睛也亮了起来，但这只是我们看到的足球比赛的一部分。
Beneath soccer’s surface, its internal structures are different, too. In recent years, Alonso’s fitness work has become more individual, more tailored. Coaches have access to more data, more analysis, more knowledge — and so do players. “You know your opponents much better,” he said. And they know you better, too.
Off the field, social media has transformed the landscape, and not necessarily for the better. “Many players are losing their focus of what the real job is,” he said. On it, many of the coaches he has worked with and learned from — Mourinho, Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti — are “thinking, and trying to bring new things to the game.”
“It’s hard to have new ideas,” he said, “but they are coming.”
Alonso feels he understands the game better now than he ever has, but it is the parts he does not quite comprehend that fascinate him.
“I don’t think I will stop learning about football,” he said. “There are certain parts we will never understand, like what happens in the brain of a player, or makes a team fear. We do not understand the mental part so well. I don’t have an answer.”
Finding an answer, you sense, may be what eventually draws him back when the lure of the normal has started to fade. The game will have changed countless times again when he returns, if he returns, of course. Most likely, Alonso — deeply thoughtful, fiercely intelligent, endlessly successful — will be the same.
Correction: June 8, 2017
A caption with an earlier version of this article misstated the game depicted between Spain and Germany in 2010. It was a World Cup semifinal, not a final.