Xabi Alonso’s retirement from football has loomed large for some time, but it’s only now that the end of his playing career has arrived, that the reality has sunk in for me.
I was in the Atatürk Stadium on the evening of 25 May 2005, one which arguably defines my very footballing essence. I’ve never written about Istanbul before. In many ways, I’m not actually writing about Istanbul now. Even though I was there, I’ve never felt there are the adequate combination of words which could ever do the experience the justice it deserves.
It wasn’t a football match or a European Cup final; it was more akin to a pilgrimage. A sea of red kept emerging over the top of a rocky hill in Basaksehir, one of the 39 second-level districts of Istanbul. Never be under the illusion that the Atatürk is located within the heart of Istanbul. In reality, it is sat more than 18 miles from the iconic Taksim Square. In English footballing terms, the distance between Anfield and Wigan Athletic’s DW Stadium covers less ground.
Of all the instances and occurrences of that pilgrimage to Istanbul, there has always been one image, one memory, more than any other, which refuses to drift into the ether of my mind. During the warm-up, Jamie Carragher is deep in conversation with Luis García. Carragher towers over the diminutive free-spirited Catalan. You can almost read the conversation.
Carragher, with his arm draped around García’s shoulder, appears to be answering a question. The question seems to be enquiring about which parts of the stadium the Liverpool’s supporters are in. Carragher points to the far right-hand corner flag, towards where the AC Milan fans are, then he sweeps his arm around three-quarters of the stadium, all the way until it reaches the left-hand corner flag.
García is clearly stunned. He jogs over to Xabi Alonso and slaps him on the back before uttering a few words and copying Carragher’s sweeping arm gesture. Alonso shakes his head in disbelief. The sense that we were there in the name of a cause rather than the name of a football team had reached those who were taking to the pitch that night. If the thought or mention of a football player has the power to make you smile, then you need to celebrate that football player.
Read | Liverpool’s miracle men of Istanbul
Just over seven months later I was at Kenilworth Road for the FA Cup third round tie away to Luton Town. It was a tumultuous game in which Liverpool led 1-0 before falling behind 3-1, eventually winning 5-3.
Alonso had already scored with a beautiful dipping effort when, with seconds remaining and the score at 4-3, Liverpool were defending a corner, with Luton’s goalkeeper Marlon Beresford joining the push for an equaliser. A clearance, an untidy yet effective clearance, brought the ball to Alonso. He successfully navigated his way around Beresford, who was by now occupying an advanced midfield position.
Just shy of the centre-circle, Alonso looks up and, ignoring the directions of his captain, Steven Gerrard, hits the ball with his left foot, precisely and with perfect measure into the Luton goal. As Alonso pulls the trigger, Gerrard remonstrates his displeasure with his midfield partner for what the captain sees as a hit-and-hope effort that doesn’t play the percentages. Spinning around, Gerrard watches as the ball rolls into the empty net, body-language melting from its “what did you do that for” posture, to applauding the vision, near-mendacity and sheer cheekiness of what has just unfolded. Liverpool go on to win the FA Cup.
Eight months later I was Anfield for the visit of Newcastle United. Leading 1-0, there are 12 minutes remaining. Around 35 yards from the Liverpool goal, Alonso dispossesses Charles N’Zogbia of the ball and advances.
Wanting to play the ball to Dirk Kuyt, the referee, Mark Halsey, gets in the way and the opportunity for the pass is lost. Instead, Alonso looks up and spots the Newcastle goalkeeper, Steve Harper, away from his penalty area and back peddling. Right-footed, he hits a remarkable shot which is strong and true. It has power, pace and precision. It arrows towards the Kop as a frantic Harper contrives to slip in his own six-yard box. The ball hits the back of the net with just one bounce, which is on the goal-line itself. Anfield erupts into bedlam.
When I come to think of it, I was there for all those moments of Alonso genius in the red of Liverpool. The perfectly timed strike against Arsenal, which seemed to fall into his path as if somehow pre-ordained; the 30 free-kick at Fulham; another set-piece work of art against Arsenal; the vicious volley at Hull City; and the curling effort that found the top corner against Watford.
Read | Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta: two boys who dreamt of making it big
There was a calm assurance to Alonso that was utterly refreshing to watch. A third eye capability which meant he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the classic Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s.
Alongside Gerrard, Alonso was the perfect accompaniment to the passionate – sometimes volatile -emotional and supremely talented and driven Liverpudlian. Alonso’s intelligence and unerring knack of seemingly knowing what was coming next complimented Liverpool’s talismanic figure. If Gerrard was the quickening heartbeat of Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool, then Alonso was the calming voice at the back of the mind. Each one of those moments of genius in Liverpool red from Alonso was met with a celebration which appeared to insist that the outcome had been a formality all along.
There was an eventual dip in the form of Alonso. The arrival of Javier Mascherano changed the demographic of the midfield and it took Alonso time to find a new niche. When Benítez made overtures to Aston Villa for the services of Gareth Barry in the summer of 2008, Alonso was actively advertised to other clubs.
Unable to agree a transfer fee, the deal for Barry fell through, and an alienated Alonso remained at Anfield. Instead of brooding, he redoubled his efforts and provided the brainpower of a Premier League title challenge that fell narrowly short.
With Gerrard pushed forward, operating behind Fernando Torres in a 4-4-1-1 formation, Alonso embraced a new lease of footballing life, blessed by the protection of the deeper-lying Mascherano. With the added motivation of a point to prove to Benítez and a Euro 2008 winners medal in his possession, Alonso was back to his influential best.
Liverpool lost just twice in the league, half the number of defeats the eventual champions Manchester United accumulated, also outscoring Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, but they contrived to draw 11 times. Alonso and Liverpool did all they could but came up short against the Cristiano Ronaldo-powered champions.
Read | Dirk Kuyt: a selfless hero for all the ages
And with that near-miss on the Premier League title, Alonso was gone. Twelve months on from being a potential pawn in Benítez’s transfer manoeuvrings, a rejuvenated Alonso held all the cards in the summer of 2009. Having been visible for almost a decade but still only 27, Alonso, with a degree of reluctance, accepted the call from Real Madrid. Approaching the peak of his powers, he had new mountains to scale.
An elusive domestic league title eventually came in 2011/12 under an old foe in the shape of José Mourinho. A third Champions League final appearance was denied to him in 2014 due to suspension.
Three years at Bayern Munich, the first two under Pep Guardiola and a final campaign under Carlo Ancelotti, each brought a Bundesliga title with it. It was fitting that Ancelotti oversaw his final season, the man who was at the helm of AC Milan back on that dusty, humid and windswept night in Başakşehir in 2005.
Alonso played at the highest level for eight years beyond his departure from Anfield. I watched from a distance as he matured into a player who was way beyond the one I saw play week-in and week-out for Liverpool.
While Real Madrid and Bayern Munich got to see an older and wiser Alonso, at Liverpool I got to see the blossoming, instinctive and studious Alonso. He’s one of the greatest midfielders to ever pull on a Liverpool shirt and an utter privilege to watch.
On one level, I’m glad he moved on in the summer of 2009. He got to miss out on the civil war era of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the dirty linen days at the High Courts in London, the Roy Hodgson months, and the sliding-scale extremes of the Brendan Rodgers years, which he simply wouldn’t have suited.
In Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool now have a manager who Alonso would have thrived under. But the image of him in a Liverpool shirt was best left in that span of time between 2004 and 2009 – an image that still has the power to provoke an involuntary smile.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74