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Five Aside: Matchday 12

Five Aside Jun 23, 2014
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 Posted by Graham Hunter
Jun 21, 2014

Alonso's honesty a breath of fresh air

Regardless of the newspaper headlines back in Spain, Santi Carzola insists the national side are still united despite being unable to progress outside the group stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The first thing to say about Xabi Alonso and the mini row over his comments after the Chile defeat is that, whether you sympathize with him or not, he needs to have our understanding.

We are all desperate to hear what star sportsmen and women have to say about victory and defeat -- above all, when they actually have something meaningful or interesting to add to what we've witnessed.

- Report: Del Bosque to decide future post-World Cup
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- Hunter: Alonso's spot-on assessment

Alonso stopped in what's called the "mixed zone" in a stadium, where the press and broadcast media can queue up behind a barrier and ask players to stop for brief question-and-answer sessions.

Often a player won't know all those who are in the huddle bombarding him with questions. Often he will be on his guard.

Kudos, first of all, to Alonso for stopping to answer questions. After what might be his final international match for Spain (though I'd like to see him play against Australia), he was left with the sour taste of defeat and a performance far below the standards he has set.

Yet he fulfilled what we'd like to think of as his obligations. Not all do.

When he did stop, he said this: "This has been an unanticipated failure. We haven't managed to maintain that hunger, and probably the degree of success we've had had come to its natural limit. Mentally, we weren't fully prepared, and physically we were at our limits."

Tell me this: Didn't that correspond with what you saw in Spain's two games here?

Unfortunately for Alonso, there has long been a slight chill between him and one or two other leaders in the Spain squad -- notably the Barcelona players and, recently, Iker Casillas.

The causes are varied, but they mostly revolve around Jose Mourinho. During the "Clasico-wars," when Mourinho was in charge, Alonso was second only to Alvaro Arbeloa (among Spaniards, at least) in the outright enthusiasm he showed for Madrid's extremely robust behaviour.

Xabi Alonso is expected to retire after the 2014 World Cup.

My view is that relations are civil enough, and while Spain has had trophies to play for things have remained totally manageable.

But it's a good story. It runs and runs, and immediately after what Alonso said, there were many in the media who then fed it to the players most likely to feel resentment and to feel they were perhaps the victims of his remark.

Right from the start, I noted two things. Alonso spoke accurately, and he used the correct pronoun: "We."

By Friday at training, the media buzz was about how miffed certain Spain players were with Alonso. But in watching training hawkishly, there wasn't one sour glance, not one sharp word and traditional to football when there's bad blood, not one studs-up challenge.

That's something I've seen dozens of times. A personal disagreement leads to a late slide into a tackle, and there's a flare-up. Often it clears the air. Sometimes not.

There wasn't even a hint of that in training. When I saw Alonso briefly on Friday, my advice to him was to take no notice of provocative headlines.

"Not concerned in the slightest" was the gist of his reassurance to me.

Later in the day, he helped dampen things down and removed any possible misinterpretation by speaking to the radio programme with the biggest audience in Spain, El Larguero, and detailing: "When I spoke about lack of hunger, I wasn't talking about commitment or questioning anyone's attitude -- simply pointing out that the competitive hunger in matches hadn't been the same as in the tournaments we won".

It is a storm in a teacup, as far as I'm concerned, and when he went on to add that Spain had committed loads of "errors" against two very good rivals, it was, again, typically blunt and to the point from one of the guys who has known how to treat success and failures as equal imposters.

We all -- not just the media but the supporters too -- benefit from guys such as Alonso, who'll face facts and tell their version of the truth with openness when they speak, be that regularly or rarely.

This has been one of those "don't kill the messenger" moments. Within the squad, Alonso still has plenty of allies, and frankly, I don't think he really cares if some others don't keep in touch with him once he quits La Roja -- a moment which is coming in the next few days, by all accounts.

For the moment, thank heavens for guys who can play and talk like Xabi Alonso. Even if there's sometimes a sting in the words.