Xabi Alonso to Bayern Munich leaves Real Madrid without their 'professor'
MADRID -- Xabi Alonso's last significant sprint as a Real Madrid player came in a sharp suit, silk tie and shiny shoes. When Sergio Ramos headed his last-minute Champions League final equaliser in Lisbon, Alonso was sitting in the stands, having been suspended for the final, but he clambered over the barrier and raced down the touchline, leaping into the pile of celebrating players. Real Madrid's long wait for the decima had finally come to an end. So, it turns out, had Alonso's time at Real Madrid.
That was the moment, he said Friday morning. Alonso arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu just after 11 a.m., again dressed in a suit and tie. There was time to say goodbye before catching a flight to Munich, where he joins Bayern Munich. He gave thanks to the president, the staff, the fans and his teammates. "We had fun, we struggled, we laughed, we cried, but in the end we won the decima," he said. Madrid had obsessed about it for over a decade and at last they reached the summit.
The thing about the summit, though, is that there is nowhere else to go. "We had fought a lot to get to the final. Three years in a row we had reached the semifinal and we took a big weight off our shoulders in Lisbon," Alonso explained. "It was a great achievement, but then we needed, I needed, to seek out another challenge. You need motivation ... a stimulus. Maybe that ended when we won the decima. To be at my best maybe I need that change, that motivation."
Lisbon reinforced the idea but this was also a move that Alonso had contemplated before. That sense of an era coming to an end, that desire to seek out something different, a new experience, was already there.
His contract at Real Madrid had entered into its final six months before he renewed his deal with the club in January of this year. At that stage he was officially allowed to talk to other clubs, and Bayern were among them then, too. Any agreement would have been for him to go to Germany at the end of his contract, ie now, but it did not eventually materialise and he signed for two more years at the Bernabeu. The renewal, when it came, had not been inevitable. Ultimately, though, it was convenient for both player and club, a logical step.
At boardroom level, there had been no desperation to keep him; the relationship was good and they were willing to allow him to make up his own mind, even if more time had passed than was ideal. From manager Carlo Ancelotti, there was a greater need. Fans, too, wanted him to continue.
Ancelotti talked often of the significance of Alonso, without whom Madrid lacked fluidity and stability. They had signed Asier Illarramendi to be his successor, a move driven by the boardroom more than the training ground, but he did not (yet) convince. The coaching staff admired Alonso for his talent and his intelligence. Ancelotti considered him indispensable. When injury or suspension meant they had to dispense with him, you could see why.
This summer, Toni Kroos made the same journey as Alonso but in the other direction and sooner. Some have suggested that Alonso was departing because he thought his place had been taken and that he would play less. He will be 33 in November. Today he talked about "knowing when to say goodbye" and being "honest with yourself." But he would have still played often under Ancelotti. The biggest games would have begun with him on the pitch. This is not a departure the coach wanted.
Meanwhile, in Munich, Javi Martinez's injury and those suffered by Thiago made signing Alonso appear attractive once again.
On Sunday, Alonso told Florentino Perez that he wanted to leave. Player and president agreed. This is a move that could have been finalised eight months ago. Instead, it has happened now, and a 10 million-euro fee has been paid. In that sense, renewing Alonso in January and selling him now has been good for Madrid too. For Alonso, he departs as a European Cup winner. He goes out at the very top. By going to Bayern, that desire to find a new challenge has been met.
Motivation comes in the chance, perhaps, to win the European Cup with three different clubs. Clarence Seedorf and, officially, Samuel Eto'o have done so before. (Eto'o was in the squad during the group phase when Madrid won it.) Now Alonso could join them. There is also the opportunity to experience a new country and a different type of football, to complete an enviable portfolio of clubs since leaving Real Sociedad: Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich. Twenty European Cups between them.
The portfolio of managers is more impressive still and that may just have been a factor. For most this would be the end, the last move. For Alonso, it could be just the start, the first move in building a new career. Or the final stage in an apprenticeship. Listen to him talk, watch him play, and it is easy to imagine him as a coach. Intelligent, analytical, clear sighted but adaptable, open to other ideas.
Alonso has still never said publicly that he will become a coach but he came close here and some are convinced that he will take that path. Alonso also comes from a footballing family; his brother Mikel plays professionally and his dad, Periko, played for Barcelona and Real Sociedad. Periko became a coach as well.
The way Alonso bade farewell here, the gratitude and the elegance, left the door open for a return in a different role one day. The "Zidane path" -- coaching Madrid's B team Castilla just as Pep Guardiola coached Barcelona B, as a prelude to an opportunity in the first team -- may appeal should it prove successful for the Frenchman.
Alonso made his debut under John Toshack and has played under Rafa Benitez, Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho and Ancelotti. Now he will play under Guardiola, the player he most identified with as a boy. For all the conflict between Madrid and Barcelona, their philosophies and ideas are similar. Indeed, that was one of the reasons some Barca players felt antipathy toward Alonso: from some Madrid players they didn't expect anything else; from Alonso, they did.
"Football people understand it in much more simple terms [than fans], Alonso insisted here. "What can happen on the pitch are sporting things that are left there." And while the tension was real, it was also a reflection of his adaptability, a professional not so easily pigeonholed. At Liverpool he had admired and followed Benitez's work, studying and learning even when he did not share every idea. From Guardiola, the next lesson will be a positional game. His own ideas will inevitably be a synthesis of all he has seen. And he has seen much: watching, listening, taking it all in. Different lessons from very different men with different skills, different obsessions and different personalities.
"I have been lucky enough to have great coaches, and my dad was a coach too," Alonso said, when he was asked if this could lead to a coaching career. "To play in my position you already need understanding, knowledge and [an ability for] tactical analysis. I've had Carlo, Mourinho and Pellegrini here and I have learnt a lot. You take things from all of your managers, and I am sure that I will take something from this."
"Alonso is an intelligent player who will give us a lot," Guardiola said. Guardiola, in turn, will give Alonso a lot back. He will learn. As befits a man whom Ancelotti called "professor," he will probably teach, too. At Bayern and beyond.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.