The Orbit

The Orbit

Xabi Alonso: The Real Centurion

As the storm clouds swirl around Madrid and in Barcelona they rejoice, a moment of reflection brought the following: how is Xabi Alonso able to stay, consistently, above the fray as Jose Mourinho, players, press and rivals tussle in Madrid? Even as a leader on the squad, he is not identified as a pro, nor anti, Mourinho. How can he be so indispensable, yet not get pulled into one of the factions? 

If Real Madrid is a group of mercenaries brought in to complete a task (to win the tenth European title, La Décima), Barça is home-grown product, inextricably linked with the terroir of Barcelona. As much as we may tire of polemicizing about Real and Barcelona, this man stays out of the spotlight while central to every battle.

Alonso, a native of Guipuzcoa province of the Basque region, won the European title with Liverpool in 2005 after being transferred from Real Sociedad. Since 2009-10 at Real Madrid, (Alonso's debut for the Merengues came against Toronto) his first league title with Real came last year.

In Rome, a centurion commanded legionnaires, and fought alongside them in battle, usueally leading about 60-80 men.

As Mourinho has criticized his squad, tussled with Sergio Ramos and Mesut Ozil, benched Iker Casillas or upbraided Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria – guys who are normally part of his stable – Xabi has sailed clean through the whole soap opera.

This temperament has allowed him to be an outsider, an observer with great influence and a captain at age 19 at Real Sociedad. What in the movie business and typecasting is referred to as the "strong, silent type."

No man is an island, but maybe the Basques, as a society isolated linguistically and by mountains, have a better capacity to endure. It is the only part of Iberia not to be conquered by the Romans. Linguistically, theirs is one of three European languages not related to language families (Hungarian and Finnish are the others).

To sign with Liverpool and succeed, to hold the midfield at Real Madrid, without recurring to violence nor seeking attention as the midfield axle of a team. The same position Sergi Busquets plays at Barcelona. The same position Claude Makelelé occupied in Madrid without making a fuss. The one position every successful team must have covered. It's the insurance on your home. The restart of the attack. (Not coincidentally, the Makelelé departure coincided with the last Champions League trophy in Madrid.)

If any Twitter account reveals secrets of its owner, Xabi Alonso likes watching films, listening to Leonard Cohen and other music and catching "Homeland," "Mad Men" and "Dexter." In reading his posts over a year, I have yet to see an inflammatory or self-indulgent tweet. In brief, a diplomat and perfect ambassador.

He has pedigree. His father, Periko Alonso, played for the last champions of Real Sociedad, which won the title in 1982-83. As a youth, he lived in Barcelona while his father played there.

He watches his words like he surveys the developing danger in front of the Madrid defense and relaunches an attack. A true centurion.

Keyvan Antonio Heydari Keyvan Antonio Heydari

Keyvan Antonio Heydari

A journalist/documentarian, Keyvan has covered soccer for 20+ years, traveling as contributor to The New York Times, France Football, NPR, Univision, Terra and more. Sport through a cultural prism.

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