The unique bond between Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta: from Spain’s streets to Mersey masters

The unique bond between Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta: from Spain’s streets to Mersey masters

Over the past two decades, a footballing revolution has swept through the streets of Spain. In a bid to shed their inferiority complex and reach the summit of international football, the Spanish Football Federation set about refining their country’s philosophy, recalibrating their academies; instructing them to become more specialised, more nuanced. From behind the curtain, the mad Spanish scientists emerged with a conveyor belt of the technically proficient at their mercy.

Over the coming years, as their new crop of players matured, the fortunes of their national team flourished in tandem. They transcended their perennial failings to finally become winners. An overnight sensation almost 20 years in the making, Spanish football suddenly represented the pinnacle of international football in both style and substance, as they vanquished their foes with their evolving, idiosyncratic brand of pass-and-move. “Why don’t we play like Spain?” lamented a chorus of rivalling countries.

Fast-forward to the current day and the Spanish have gotten used to winning. Though their national team’s frailties were inexplicably exposed at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, the future remains bright. Their country’s domestic football also shows no signs of slowing. A pulsating pantheon, LaLiga is the stage upon which the Champions League and Europa League’s usual suspects perform for the open-mouthed masses each week. It is the hymn sheet from which the world’s most extravagant talents sing, between sips of their sangria.

Many years have passed since the dawn of Johan Cruyff’s brand of Catalonian Totaalvoetbal but his influence is still clear to see throughout the nation. One World Cup and two European Championships, along with the embarrassment of on-field riches in their national team and in the squads that compete for LaLiga’s crown, are living testament to the countrywide reform that saw their departure from physicality over technicality. Planted deep in the Spanish soil by Johan Cruyff, watered by Luis Aragonés, and tended to by Vicente del Bosque, the seeds of hope sown in what was once a barren wasteland is now a vast field of red carnations, clear for all to see in La Roja’s every triumph.

One needn’t be sitting up in the gods at the Camp Nou to see evidence of Spain’s transformed footballing culture. One modest little academy in the Basque Country, owned by amateur football club Antiguoko Kirol Elkartea, has played its own part in Spain’s revolución de fútbol.

Operating in the towering shadow of La Masia, situated 500km to its north, Antiguoko, a feeder team to La Liga mainstays Real Sociedad, play their football in an area of the famous Basque city San Sebastián named Antiguo. Meaning ‘antique’ in Spanish, Antiguo’s borders hug the coastline overlooking the Bay of Biscay. And it was here, as the millennium crept closer, that Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta discovered their love of football, honed their technical finesse, and first laced their boots ready for careers that would take them far beyond Antiguo.

Though both boys naturally gravitated towards football, the two players experienced contrasting beginnings in the game. The older of them, Xabier Alonso Olano, was born on 25 November 1981 in the Basque province Gipuzkoa, but spent the first six years of his life in Barcelona.

Never requiring much coaxing, having taken to the sport like a duck to water, his very participation was perhaps predetermined prior even to his conception. At the time of Xabi’s birth, his father, Periko Alonso, a three-time LaLiga champion, was playing at Sabadell, where he would regularly take Xabi’s older brother Mikel along to training with him. Xabi was quick to join them – as soon as he was old enough to stand on his own two feet.

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Mikel Arteta Amatriain was born three months after Alonso, on 26 March 1982, in the heart of San Sebastián. While the hereditary link to Xabi’s love of the sport was evident from the get-go, Arteta was blessed with no such genetic virtues and so it was on the streets of the city he was born in that he discovered his passion for the beautiful game.

The two first met as young boys on the pale sands of the Playa de la Concha, a brief walk from their neighbouring homes in Calle Matia. Here they would compete against each other in impromptu exhibitions of skill and bravado, to the amusement and envy of the beach’s less gifted spectators. Though inseparable on the weekends, the two friends would spend weekdays apart as they attended different schools. This made Xabi and Mikel all the more determined to play for the same football team, so when the pair both received invitations to play for local club Antiguoko the decision was an easy one.

Standing side-by-side in the centre of midfield, the two would dictate the tempo of each game with ease; their range and accuracy of passing a sight to behold for parents and opponents alike, helping their youth team to victory in tournament after tournament. Off the field, and often on it, the two boys dreamt of how it would feel to play together for Real Sociedad.

Their partnership was momentarily postponed when, aged 16, Xabi Alonso’s school organised a month-long foreign exchange programme, with the aim of helping their students develop their level of English. Naturally, Xabi saw this as an opportunity to develop his level of football.

Xabi travelled with his schoolmates to Kells, County Meath, in the Republic of Ireland, where he stayed with the O’Brien family: a homely Irish couple with two sons and two daughters. During his stay in Ireland, Xabi practiced his English, took in his unfamiliar surroundings, and made time for other activities like playing a little Gaelic football and wondering where exactly in Ireland you had to stand before you could catch a glimpse of that enormous, golden, celestial fireball in the sky, which was seemingly rather more elusive when viewed from his temporary vantage point than was customary back home in Spain.

Though his stay was brief, young Xabi enjoyed the change of scenery and, able to play a handful of games with locals Kells Junior football team, got a taste of the British penchant for physicality; an experience he later claimed equipped him well for his time in the Premier League. But that was still to come.

Upon returning to the north of Spain, Xabi discovered Mikel in euphoric mood and he quickly learned the reason for his friend’s delirium. Arteta had been informed of firm interest in his services coming from Barcelona and their plans of adding the 15-year-old to their B team. This wasn’t Real Sociedad; this was even greater. This was Enrique, Figo, Kluivert and Ronaldo. This was a chance to walk in the footsteps of his boyhood hero Pep Guardiola.

Without a second’s deliberation, he accepted their offer. As fate would have it, it was to be Guardiola who Mikel Arteta would replace as a substitute on his debut appearance for the Barcelona reserves, aged just 16. After nine wonderful years playing together, the boys no longer shared a club.

Following Arteta’s departure, Antiguoko were in need of a new midfield general, but that demand soon doubled as Xabi Alonso received his own outstretched hand from a LaLiga club, and for him it was Real Sociedad. Xabi benefitted by his older brother’s presence at La Real, with Mikel Alonso having trodden the same path just a year before, smoothing the transition from Antiguoko for Xabi. But the younger brother was determined to make his own mark at the club he had spent years dreaming of representing and put everything he had into impressing their staff.

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Much like his distinctive passing ability, Xabi’s progression through the youth ranks was measured and consistent. Just a month after turning 18, his rise culminated in a deserved first-team debut, featuring in a Copa del Rey tie against CD Logroñés. Though he failed to end the 1999/2000 season in the Real Sociedad first team on a permanent basis, manager Javier Clemente sought to fine-tune his abilities in preparation for his inevitable promotion, and saw a season’s loan in the Segunda División as the perfect way to do so.

While Xabi agreed to spend the following season with Eibar, he managed only 14 appearances for Los Armeros. He settled well at his temporary club and they were impressed with his input. His influence on the team, and their willingness to utilise him, pleased both parties immensely. But back home, Real Sociedad were languishing at the foot of LaLiga and new manager John Toshack was desperately scrambling for answers to the question: “Can La Real stay up?”

He believed he had found his answer in Xabi Alonso. In January, the Welshman brought the 19-year-old’s loan spell to an abrupt halt and not only installed him in the Real Sociedad first team but made him captain for the remainder of the season. His decision was as brave as it was desperate – but it worked.

Come the season’s conclusion, Real Sociedad were sitting safely in 14th. Alonso hadn’t saved them single-handedly, but he had blossomed under the added responsibility of leading the team and had evidenced a calming influence well beyond his years. As Toshack himself put it: “I don’t remember a former youth team player causing such an impact at the club. Everyone seemed to play better when he was on the pitch.”

Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta had seen his second season with Barcelona B draw to a close without a single opportunity for first-team action. This was not indicative of his lack of talent or application – he had fared well for the reserves and had shown he was keen to build on his undeniable potential. Simply put, there was no displacing Cocu, Enrique, Guardiola or Xavi at the heart of the Barça midfield.

Much like Alonso, he too had been granted his own loan spell, and he spent the second half of the season playing for Luis Fernández’s Paris Saint-Germain. His time in the French capital opened Arteta’s eyes not only to the addicting nature of first-team football, but to the possibility of operating as a playmaker. Under the tutelage of Fernández, Arteta played further up the field than his previous defensive midfield role dictated, and he thrived.

The season ended a little too soon for Arteta as the curtain fell on his finding of form, but word from Barcelona was that PSG were keen on keeping him for the following season too, and this presented the opportunity of a full season of first-team football. He wanted nothing more than to marshal a midfield wearing the Blaugrana’s famous blue and red stripes. Perhaps it was to be those of PSG that gave Arteta his break.

Though they regularly competed as boys, with opportunities to embarrass the other with their skills simply too irresistible, their rivalry was never truly one of competition, and at its heart was affection and respect. Even so, at 16, with Arteta travelling to Barcelona and Alonso being acquired by Real Sociedad, it seemed as though Arteta had perhaps edged ahead of his friend. But now, as they prepared to leave their teenage years behind them, Alonso was captain of his club, while Arteta was struggling to find a place at his.

In contrast to the many geographical and lifestyle adjustments brought about during the preceding years, the 2001/02 season changed relatively little for both players. Alonso remained as captain for Real Sociedad as the club sought stability – given the drastic turnaround needed in the previous season just to avoid relegation – and the Spaniard confidently reaffirmed his value to the club with a steady string of performances.

Read  |  How Juan Carlos Valerón became the most elegant Spanish playmaker of his generation

With a promotion to the first team at Barcelona seemingly no more likely in the new season, Arteta chose not to return to Spain, instead accepting PSG’s offer of another year’s loan. There he continued to operate as a playmaker, confidently conducting attacks alongside the Parisians’ own impressive cohort of conjurors, in the notable form of Jay-Jay Okocha and Ronaldinho.

Alonso and his Real Sociedad teammates were eventually forced to settle for a 13th place finish in LaLiga. Though this showed a slight progression from the previous year, the players were left wanting more, a sentiment echoed by the club’s chairman who brought Toshack’s tenure to an end in favour of Frenchman Raynald Denoueix, hoping this would carry them higher up the table.

In France, Arteta’s season featured similar highs and lows. His 42 appearances in all competitions represented his becoming an integral part of their team. However, despite an Intertoto Cup triumph, the club could muster little more than a fourth-place league finish and a collection of mediocre cup exits on the domestic front.

The season’s end saw both players left to consider circumstances almost identical to those left by the previous season. Alonso’s position in the Real Sociedad team was clear, but he couldn’t help but ponder how the club would progress next year and whether his role would change under a new manager.

Arteta was again left to ponder his whereabouts. PSG’s loan came with a first option to buy clause, meaning a permanent transfer to Paris wasn’t unlikely. But Barcelona knew better than to part with a player of Arteta’s increasingly apparent ability without feeling they had been adequately remunerated for his initial discovery.

What awaited the pair was potentially the most significant year of their careers, and neither could have predicted the serendipitous timing of the personal successes that awaited them in the 2002/03 season.

Paris Saint-Germain found negotiating with a stubborn Barcelona board an exercise in futility and were left further frustrated by their talks’ eventual breakdown. Arteta made no secret of his affection for the club whom he had represented for the past 18 months, but eventually it was Rangers, in the Scottish Premier League, who won his signature. Barcelona held out for what they saw as a fair price and when Rangers stumped up the £6m, it was the Scots who got their man.

While Alonso and his fellow Txuriurdins were beginning their season in fine form, careering towards the top of LaLiga, Arteta was preparing for a season in his third different country. The city of Glasgow made for a stark contrast compared to Barcelona and Paris, but the geography of his club made little difference to Arteta who was determined to make his mark on Scottish football. First, however, he had to come to terms with just how many players had intentions of leaving a mark on him.

Arteta rose to the challenge and quickly established himself at the Ibrox. It took little time for Rangers manager Alex McLeish to start believing the millions he’d spent on Arteta constituted a bargain and he became near certain of the fact upon witnessing the Spaniard giving Rangers the lead against Celtic in his first Old Firm derby, though the game eventually ended 3-3.

Order  |  Spain

Ending the season with 35 appearances and five goals to his name, Arteta had wasted no time in becoming every bit as indispensable to his new team in blue as he had in Paris. Unlike his time on French soil, though, his team’s successes matched his on-field efforts, and he ended his first season in Scotland clutching a domestic treble: the Scottish Premier League, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup.

The shelves in Alonso’s trophy cabinet weren’t to be put under quite such stress come the end of his season, though, for him, what his team lacked in silverware was somewhat eclipsed by the praise from his every observer following a stellar season. His shackling of Zinedine Zidane in a thrilling 4-2 win at home to eventual champions Real Madrid was a particular highlight for many.

Alonso was unable to imitate his father by winning LaLiga with Real Sociedad, but he had led them into their first genuine title race since the year he was born, finally finishing just two points off the top, and this was an achievement worthy of its own celebration. Stepping out of his father’s shadow, climbing higher than his brother, he was fast becoming a cult hero to the people of Donostia.

His performances had not eluded the adoring eyes of La Roja head coach Iñaki Sáez either, and Alonso soon found himself called up to make his debut against Ecuador in April 2003. It was the first of what would become 114 caps for his country.

The year that followed can be best described as a dose of reality for both players. The season began with an ethereal glow of disbelief similar to the last for Alonso, as he led his club’s expedition into foreign territory, starting every game of their maiden Champions League campaign, even orchestrating their impressive group stage progression beyond Galatasaray and Olympiacos. But without adequate strength-in-depth, the squad struggled to juggle the responsibilities of European and domestic competition. Despite acquitting themselves valiantly on the continent, they baulked at the chance to establish themselves as a force in LaLiga. La Real lost more league games than they won and slumped to a 15th-place finish.

Perhaps worse, their swift decline coupled with the continued excellence of the prodigious Alonso resulted in rumours of Real Madrid’s courting of the player arising in January, persisting into and beyond the close season, even following him into Euro 2004.

For Arteta, he too was unable to replicate the successes of the previous year. Financial insecurity saw Rangers sell a number of key players, too many for them to remain on par with Celtic. Their Glasgow rivals not only recreated Rangers’ domestic treble from the previous year, leaving the blues trophyless in the process, but did so with an emphatic 17-point gap at the Scottish Premiership’s summit.

Similar to Alonso back in Spain, Arteta’s flair and growing goal output had lips moving across the continent and rumours began of a reunion for the pair. These rumours soon grew into a genuine interest from La Real and this interest led to official talks. As spring gave way to summer, so the negotiations gave way to settlements, signatures and smiles.

Read  |  What Xabi Alonso meant to me: the Liverpool years

After seven years away, Arteta was heading home. He and his friend Alonso would cross the white line walking side by side again, and the innocent yearnings of children, to whom playing together for Real Sociedad was once little more than a dream, had become a reality for the young men. Only that wasn’t quite how the script of their lives had been written. If the timing of their breakthrough seasons had been serendipitous, fate’s composing of the events that awaited them were profoundly cruel.

Rafa Benítez, fresh from a remarkable season in which he led Valencia to a spectacular LaLiga and UEFA Cup double, took the reins at Liverpool and laid the groundwork for a revolución of his very own. One of his first actions as manager was to seek out a defensive-minded, possession-oriented partner to dovetail with the enigmatic Steven Gerrard. His number one choice was a certain Xabi Alonso.

For all of Real Madrid’s interest in Alonso, they never met La Real’s valuation of the player, unlike Benítez. In August 2004, a £10.7m deal was concluded and Alonso became a Liverpool player. Just short of six weeks after their long-awaited reunion, Alonso and Arteta were opponents once again and countries apart.

Xabi Alonso arrived at Liverpool in the same week as fellow Spaniards Luis García, purchased from Barcelona, and Real Madrid’s Antonio Núñez, adding to the early signing of Josemi from Málaga, and followed in January by countryman Fernando Morientes. He made an instant impact on Merseyside, scoring on just his sixth outing for the Reds. With Liverpool finding themselves 2-0 down away to Fulham at half-time, Benítez brought Alonso on for Salif Diao and sat back as he watched his team transformed by the Basque’s influence. A Milan Baroš-inspired double brought the sides level before Xabi Alonso’s 30-yard free-kick looped into the top corner, edging ten-man Liverpool ahead. The win was sealed thanks to a stoppage-time Igor Bišćan goal.

Six weeks later, Alonso scored his second Liverpool goal, the first in a 2-1 win against reigning Premier League champions Arsenal. The Kop couldn’t help but serenade their new Spanish hero.

Despite Alonso’s absence in the Real Sociedad midfield, Arteta was unable to cement his place in the team. La Real coach José Maria Amorrortu afforded Mikel 15 appearances in the first half of the season but couldn’t shake the belief that the playmaker was a square peg in a round hole and, in the lead up to the January transfer window, Arteta was informed he would be made available for another loan away from Spain.

With many potential suitors competing for Arteta’s affections, the midfielder eventually joined one of only two clubs that could possibly have added another ludicrous twist to the perpetually entwined paths of Alonso and Arteta’s careers. Despite Benítez’s ever-increasing quota of Spanish players, it wasn’t to be Liverpool whom Arteta would join. Instead, he departed San Sebastian, once again, en route for the blue half of Merseyside.

As dependable Danish midfielder Thomas Gravesen headed in the opposite direction, with a spot in the Real Madrid line-up his destination, Arteta’s role in the Everton team was clear. At the 2004/05 season’s first light, many were tipping Everton to struggle, some journalists even fearing David Moyes’ team could be waving goodbye to the Premier League come the end of May. The previous season had ended with them in 17th place, just six points from relegation, and the sale of teenage sensation Wayne Rooney to Manchester United alleviated the fears of no Everton fans.

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But, to the surprise of many, at the time of Arteta’s arrival in the new year Everton were just a few points off the summit and had kept pace well with title chasers Arsenal and Chelsea. As the season wore on, they fell away. The quality of the top two became increasingly evident; particularly the incredible resilience of José Mourinho’s champions-in-waiting Chelsea, and what Everton hoped may have been a charge ended as an amble.

Nevertheless, immense pride was felt following the season’s conclusion as the team secured the club’s highest ever finish in their Premier League history, beating local rivals Liverpool to fourth place. To his delight, Arteta had done enough to secure a permanent move to Goodison Park, and signed a five-year contract in the summer, meaning all that was left to do was to celebrate his new club’s achievement and find a permanent home in the city. A flat next door to Xabi Alonso in the Albert Dock apartments overlooking the Mersey would do nicely. Just like that, the two friends were neighbours again.

As ever in football, though, one man’s win is another man’s loss, and following the conclusion of the domestic season, Arteta’s joy was Alonso’s misery. The latter’s first Premier League season had begun with such promise, yet it culminated in his Liverpool team finishing below their bitter rivals Everton for the first time in 17 years.

Still, five days prior to the 2-1 defeat to Arsenal that ensured their impending finish behind Everton, Liverpool had overcome Chelsea in their all-English Champions League semi-final, with Luis García’s divisive fourth minute finish enough to book them a place in the final. On 25 May 2005, against the unique backdrop of Istanbul, Alonso and his Liverpool teammates would have the chance to right their season’s wrongs against Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan.

Receiving a pass from Andrea Pirlo deep inside his own half, Kaká opened his body and allowed the ball to graze his instep before spinning to meet its path. With one touch, one turn, defence became attack. The Brazilian strode ahead of his marker before sweeping the ball up-field with his right foot. Inch-perfect, the flight of the pass that was his second touch beat the attempted interception of the outstretched Jamie Carragher and beckoned Hernán Crespo further forward. The Argentine streaked ahead, leading another assault on the Liverpool resolve. A third touch, the most impudent of pokes from Crespo, sent the ball sailing over Jerzy Dudek’s shoulder and into the net behind him. Another Italian roar. The goal was Crespo’s second and Milan’s third of the night.

You’d have forgiven the engraver’s attempted expediency should he have etched the Rossoneri’s name into the trophy’s silver base during the half-time interval. But the events of the ensuing 45 minutes conspired to conduct arguably the greatest, most unlikely comeback in football history. A revival of biblical proportions, Liverpool’s fightback brought Istanbul to its knees and gifted the city an eternal role in Champions League folklore.

In the minds of many the trophy had already been won, so there was simply nothing to lose by taking the game to Milan in the second half. Benítez substituted full-back Steve Finnan, bringing on defensive midfielder Dietmar Hamann, and switching the side’s formation to a 3-5-2 with the aim of silencing the talismanic Pirlo. Benítez told his men: “Just score one.” He thought – hoped – that one might just change things.

Nine minutes after the restart, John Arne Riise attempted to find a teammate in the box from the left. His cross was blocked by Cafu, but the Brazilian couldn’t get in the way of Riise’s second attempt. The left-back’s ball looped into the area and was met by Gerrard. Leaping high between Nesta and Stam, Gerrard’s header drifted beyond Dida into the goal. Statuesque, the Milan goalkeeper could only watch as Liverpool pulled one back.

Read  |  Liverpool and the defiant heroics of Istanbul

Barely two minutes later, Vladimír Šmicer received an in-field pass from Hamann. Immediately recognising the space in front of him, the Czech midfielder, a first-half replacement for the injured Harry Kewell, rifled a shot towards Dida’s right. Dida got down well, as glove and ball made contact, but still the net bulged. 3-2.

The Liverpool pressure became relentless. The echoes of You’ll Never Walk Alone had changed in tone from sorrowful to jubilant, from desolate to expectant. On the hour mark, the Reds threw themselves forward again. Carragher, charging through the midfield, played a pass into Baroš whose deft flick on the edge of the area sat kindly for Gerrard. As the skipper pulled back the trigger he was impeded by a desperate Gennaro Gattuso challenge. Manuel Mejuto González immediately pointed to the spot. Twelve yards from the goal, one goal from history; Xabi Alonso stood alone, awaiting the whistle.

His friend Arteta still remembers the events that preceded the pair’s very first piece of silverware, won as children. The youth tournament final had gone to a penalty shootout: “I remember that final,” Arteta told The Independent. “He missed his penalty.” Gutted as he was, to miss his own penalty, Alonso watched Arteta score his moments later and his fears were pacified. The trophy was theirs.

Though so much had changed since those days in Antiguo, the scenario that faced Alonso was a familiar one. He approached the ball confidently and attempted to find the inside of the bottom right corner, only Dida’s outstretched arm beat the ball to its destination. This time, however, Alonso didn’t need Arteta to spare his blushes. The Spaniard pounced on the rebound and his left-footed shot tore into the roof of the net.

Eventually it would take more penalties to part the finalists. Upon the impromptly jelly-legged Dudek’s saving of Andriy Shevchenko’s tame penalty, the comeback was complete. The Atatürk Olympic Stadium had witnessed inimitable history. Aged 23, Xabi Alonso was a champion of Europe.

He would stay at Liverpool for five seasons in total, where his formidable partnership with Gerrard became a cornerstone of the club’s success during his time there. When he finally departed Merseyside, Alonso did so having added a UEFA Super Cup, an FA Cup, and an FA Community Shield to his prior Champions League success.

It was through teary eyes that both the Liverpool fans and Alonso said goodbye to one another. Though his spirit, endeavour and ability would live long in the memory of the Anfield faithful, Alonso’s eventual return to Spain always felt as though it were an inevitability. Having played an instrumental role in his country’s winning of Euro 2008, his £30m move to Real Madrid represented just this: a return home.

Arteta, however, had no such aspirations of travelling back to LaLiga and continued to inspire an Everton team in which he truly felt he belonged. Seven years would pass before Arteta said his own goodbyes to Merseyside, during which time he was twice named the Toffees’ Player of the Season. Though trophies never adorned his years in the north of England, nor did an international call-up ever underline the calibre of his consistency, he too left the city of Liverpool as a hero.

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Arteta may well have remained at Everton for the remainder of his career, but when Arsène Wenger’s interest in the playmaker became increasingly apparent in the summer of 2011, it was with a heavy heart Arteta told his team that he wished to depart. At 29, he saw this as potentially his last opportunity to play football in the Champions League and believed he owed it to himself to take that chance. There were few who argued different. In August 2011, Mikel Arteta became an Arsenal player.

While Arteta was busy bringing a calmness to the midfield of an Arsenal team desperate for tangible leadership, Alonso was enjoying life in Madrid under Manuel Pellegrini, as well as his successor José Mourinho, and it took just a season for Alonso to be made the club’s vice-captain.

Over the next four years, both players found relative success at their new clubs. Arteta cemented his position in the Gunners’ team, continuing to impress many in England with his passing accuracy, innate leadership skills, and expertly groomed hair. Though his time in London was blighted by recurrent injuries, Arsenal, guided by Arteta’s dependable influence, secured Champions League football in every one of the five seasons the Spaniard spent with the club and it was under his captaincy they ended their nine-year trophy drought. The team triumphed in consecutive FA Cups finals, emerging victorious from two of the most contrasting cup finals you are likely to see one club participate in.

The 2014 FA Cup final demanded Arteta and his teammates fight back from two goals scored by Hull in the first eight minutes of the match. Replies from Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny forced the game to extra-time before an Olivier Giroud back-heel was met by a sumptuous volley from Aaron Ramsey, sending the hysterical Arsenal fans into raptures and the FA Cup en route to Arsenal’s north London home for a record-equalling 11th time.

A year later, Arteta was unable to lead his teammates onto the Wembley turf again as he failed to recover from an ankle injury in time. However, their opponents on this occasion, Aston Villa, were unable to make them work quite so hard for the honour and a comfortable 4-0 victory assured Arteta’s second major trophy with Arsenal.

Alonso, too, added significantly to his growing trophy haul while in Madrid. With Los Blancos he collected six major honours, including two Copa del Reys, the 2011/12 LaLiga title – his first league win in professional football – as well as La Décima, his second and Real Madrid’s long-awaited tenth European Cup success. And with his country, Alonso’s reputation continued to soar, playing a fundamental part in Spain’s conquering of world football and their retaining of their European crown, winning World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 with La Roja.

Since then the pair have continued to tread different paths as they approached the present day. In August 2014, Alonso departed Madrid to join the relentless juggernaut that was Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, the club he shone for before retiring in 2017. He’s since forged a path in coaching, like his friend Arteta at Manchester City, taking charge of Real Sociedad’s B team in 2019.

Though both players experienced unimaginable highs and dispiriting lows throughout their entangled careers, their very participation at the top of the game is a testament to the power of friendship, the necessity of the determination to succeed, and the ability to adapt. But even more so, it presents overwhelming evidence of the inevitability of luck, chance and fate. Wherever they may journey to next, whatever they may achieve on the way, many fans remain grateful for the roles they have played in keeping the game beautiful. The city of Donostiarras watches on, bursting with pride for their two boys.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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