Xabi Alonso was supposedly in his twilight years when he joined Bayern Munich from Real Madrid in summer 2014 at the ripe old age of 32, but the Spanish midfielder certainly didn't play like it in what was a fitting conclusion to a laudable career.
For three decorated seasons, the former Real Sociedad, Liverpool and Real Madrid pass master served as the fulcrum of one of the most successful Bayern teams in history, pinging laser-sighted passes around with the peripheral vision of a golden eagle. He added three Bundesliga titles and one DFB Cup to an exhaustive CV, before bowing out from the game alongside legendary club captain Philipp Lahm in May 2016.
"We were rivals, big rivals when he was at Real Madrid," recalled Pep Guardiola, the man who brought Alonso to Bayern. "After that I was so lucky to have him in Munich. He understands the game and has curiosity to understand the game. He knew during the weeks what we would have to do to win the next games, to beat them. He already had the curiosity to know.
"How the people speak about him - all the managers that he had in his career - is like a human being. He is one of the best midfielders I've ever seen in my life."
Guardiola meant every word. Alonso's passing accuracy, feel for the ball and intuition, and tactical awareness put the Basque synergist on a par with some of the finest midfielders of his generation. He was refined elegance personified and a model professional, whose raw abilities, appetite for success and thirst for knowledge allowed him to play at the top level in club football for almost 20 years.
In 2002/03, Alonso led boyhood club Sociedad to within two points of a first La Liga title in 21 years. He got his hands on the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FA Cup and FA Community Shield during an unforgettable five-season stay with Liverpool, and collected six trophies in five years at Real, helping deliver the elusive Decima in 2014 - the club's 10th European Cup. He also played his part in the single most dominant era the Spain national team has ever witnessed.
Alonso earned 114 senior international caps between 2003 and 2014, making one start and three substitute appearances as La Furja Roja beat Germany 1-0 in the final of UEFA Euro 2008 to end a 44-year wait for major honours.
Spain travelled to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup two years later as one of the favourites and duly delivered their first world crown, despite losing their opening group fixture to Switzerland.
This time Alonso manned the engine room in every game, though it was an incident with Nigel de Jong - the Spaniard took an infamous kung-fu kick to the ribs from the Dutchman in the final - rather than his metronomic midfield mastery that provided one of the tournament's enduring images.
"All I felt was extreme pain in my chest," Alonso told FourFourTwo of the moment he was pole-axed by De Jong. "It felt like my body had been torn apart and then not put back together properly. There were a couple of stud marks but nothing else, as the impact was right on my rib cage.
"My body was shaking, but this was the World Cup final – there was no way I was going off. I played for as long as I could."
A string-puller and fighter, Alonso eventually called time on his international career following his country's group-stage exit at the 2014 World Cup, but not before lifting further silverware at Euro 2012. He scored both goals - a towering header and penalty - in a 2-0 quarter-final win over France as Spain went on to beat Portugal and Italy en route to lifting their third successive major international trophy.
Unsurprisingly, the silverware-laden trend only continued at Bayern. As well as winning three Bundesliga titles, the 2015/16 DFB Cup and 2016 Supercup, Alonso set a new Bundesliga record - later surpassed by Borussia Dortmund's Julian Weigl - for most touches in a single game (204), and became the German top flight's oldest Matchday 1 goalscorer with his postage-stamp strike against Werder Bremen on 26 August 2016, aged 34 years, nine months and one day.
"I wanted to end my career still at the highest level, and Bayern is the highest level," said Alonso, who registered five goals and seven assists in 79 Bundesliga appearances between 2014 and 2017. "I'm incredibly proud and happy to play for FC Bayern and to be a part of this family.
"I’ve experienced so much as a player with Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. They are all great clubs. And of course, with the Spanish national team. I never would’ve thought I’d have such a great career."
Watch: Xabi Alonso's Bundesliga goals
Playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe is an achievement in itself - but three is the stuff of footballing fantasies. And yet the journey isn't over. Alonso made a winning start to his coaching career, guiding the Real Madrid U13s to the 2018/19 Division de Honor Juvenil title, crowning a dream debut season in the dugout.
He subsequently returned to boyhood club Real Sociedad in 2019 as coach of the reserve side, and steered them to a fifth-placed finish in the Segunda B table in 2019/20. The following year he guided the team to a play-off victory that secured the them promotion to the second division for the first time in six decades.
The only second-string team at that level in 2021/22, Alonso's charges would fall five points short of safety and be relegated to the third tier, with their coach departing in the summer.
Long before then, former Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had openly discussed bringing him back to Munich.
"I think we have to make an effort to bring Xabi Alonso back to Bayern at some point," Rummenigge told kicker in April 2019. "He is the best central midfielder we've had in recent years. He wasn't the quickest, but he was the best strategically and the most intelligent I've ever seen in our midfield.
"He was a marvellous player, who speaks four languages and German fluently. He was a real personality. I'd really like him to return to Bayern one day, he's a true gentleman."
Alonso might not quite be back at Bayern, but he's come close in name as he now takes his first senior coaching job at Bayer Leverkusen as of October 2022, returning to the Bundesliga five years since he last graced a football pitch but now looking to impart the vast knowledge he accumulated in his playing days on a young Werkself side.
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