Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa has special place in Madridismo lore
One-club men are a rare breed in modern football. The lure of greater riches and a mantelpiece creaking under the weight of trophies has forced players who only ever wear one club shirt to the brink of extinction. Those that exist can be divided into two categories: players already at a club where fame and fortune are derived naturally from consistent success, and footballers unlikely ever to be afforded that opportunity and who wear their loyalty purely as a badge of honour.
Alvaro Arbeloa falls somewhere between the two. The veteran defender was given a heartfelt send-off at the Bernabeu on Sunday night after Real Madrid's 3-2 win over Valencia, hoisted aloft by his teammates to a chorus of appreciation from the crowd, some 3,000 fans remaining in the stadium long after the rest had left to salute El Espartano. The scenes were fitting. Although Arbeloa also turned out for Deportivo and Liverpool during his career, he is a one-club man, his loyalty embedded in the fabric of the club where he started out.
Arbeloa was not blessed with the natural ability of some his peers at Castilla -- Roberto Trashorras, Jose Manuel Jurado or Roberto Soldado for example -- neither was he as physical a central defender as Alvaro Mejia, with whom he partnered in the heart of the Real B defence in his debut season in 2003-04. Mejia would go on to be promoted to the senior side, where his versatility allowed him to rack up 57 appearances over four seasons from 2004-07. His most active was 2005-06, when he played 17 times in La Liga. Arbeloa, still in the reserves, understood only a move away would see him make his breakthrough.
In the summer of 2006, Arbeloa signed for Deportivo, but he would not remain long in Galicia. Just six months later, another former Castilla defender dipped into the Anfield bank account to take Arbeloa to Liverpool. It was there, under Rafa Benitez, that Arbeloa was converted from a central defender into a full-back, the first piece of a puzzle that would eventually be filled to reveal the club crest of Real Madrid. The second was Arbeloa's shut down of Leo Messi in the last 16 of the 2006-07 Champions League, the first leg of which was his debut for the club. The third and perhaps most important was his call-up to Spain's Euro 2008 squad.
A year later, Real Madrid paid €5 million to bring Arbeloa home. He slotted straight into the first team at right-back, replacing the departed Michel Salgado. Poetically, his second full debut, five years after his first, was a victory against Deportivo. During the course of the 2009-10 season Arbeloa started 30 Liga matches, the highest total throughout his entire Real career, featuring on the left and the right of the back four.
Arbeloa was a regular in the Real side under Jose Mourinho, making 43 appearances in all competitions in 2010-11, 38 in 2011-12 and 39 in 2012-13. His alignment with the Portuguese and his methods came to epitomize his association with the club and the Bernabeu stands. Mourinho's reign was more than a touch monarchic heads certainly rolled. First to leave were Raul and Guti. Then went sporting director Jorge Valdano. Finally, although it was stayed for a season, was Iker Casillas, who ruefully observed after Arbeloa was afforded a hero's farewell: "Every Real Madrid player deserves this kind of send-off."
But Arbeloa's was a different case. At a club where loyalty means, rightly or wrongly, unbending adherence to the money man and the manager above all, Arbeloa has always toed the party line. When the curtain fell on the Mourinho era, Arbeloa was the first to leap to the Portuguese's defence: "He's always put Madrid first, ahead of himself and at the cost of his own image. I don't think that anyone at this club, including the players, could say the same. There have been some people that have lacked maturity. There are some players that don't care about the image we have with the press, others care more about their public image."
As befitting a man nicknamed "truffles" by his Spain teammates, Arbeloa has never cared a jot about his own. On the pitch and off it, he has always been the greatest defender of Madrid's interests. His very public feud with Gerard Pique, pantomime villain No. 1 in Chamartin, only endeared him more to the Madrid faithful. When Arbeloa kissed the club crest and the Bernabeu turf after his last appearance in his spiritual home on Sunday, there was no affectation, only genuine affection.
It's also safe to assume Florentino Perez doesn't receive too many signed shirts from outgoing players.
However, the writing was on the wall for Arbeloa's Madrid career during the 2013-14 season, when a knee injury sustained in March of the campaign finished what the arrival of Dani Carvajal from Leverkusen had started. A few months later Arbeloa -- a member of the 2008, 2010 and 2012 World Cup and European Championship-winning squads -- was omitted from Vicente del Bosque's provisional list for Brazil in favour of Carvajal.
In a recent interview with Spanish radio network Cadena Cope, Arbeloa said of his 56-cap career with Spain: "I don't suffer through Spain matches any more because I don't watch them. I'm completely relaxed about the whole thing. I did everything I had to do and now I'm happy not to have to join up with the national squad."
As with everything Arbeloa says, you suspect he means every word of it. Which is why he will always retain a special place in the heart of Madridismo as an honorary one-club man.
On Sunday, Arbeloa signed off with a simple statement: "It's been incredible, I'm really thankful to all the fans. I don't know how to express my thanks for all these years. From now on I'm one of them."