Xabi Alonso returns to his roots

Spain Xabi Alonso returns to his roots At the World Cup final, Xabi Alonso spoke out about drugs in football. In Spain, he spoke out about drugs in football. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the…

Xabi Alonso returns to his roots

Spain Xabi Alonso returns to his roots At the World Cup final, Xabi Alonso spoke out about drugs in football. In Spain, he spoke out about drugs in football. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

At the time, Xabi Alonso was an icon of Spanish football. A two-time European champion, the footballer was arguably the best midfielder ever to compete at the highest level. But after such success, it was not long before those around him began to doubt Alonso’s commitment to the national team.

In 2010, Alonso headed home and spoke out about the scale of the drugs problem in Spanish football. “I have been thinking about this for a long time,” he said, sounding even more passionate. “The vast majority of players are clean. However, the most visible group in the national team are … [with names on the back of shirts]. These are the ones who are still trafficking.”

With the words, Alonso set off a controversy that continues to this day. His intervention was remarkable and, at the time, echoed what the Welsh footballer Ryan Giggs had said in a similar situation 12 years earlier. “I wouldn’t talk about it any more,” Giggs had said. “I’ve opened up wounds I would never want to reopen.”

Since then, the burden of his own reaction has never really seemed to leave him. One senior footballer once told me that, while talking about this particular problem, he heard something he did not like. When it came to doping, Alonso had done more harm than good. He had further undermined himself by going on to make a TV documentary called The End of the Point. This cost him his position as captain.

To this day, the Spaniard remains haunted by that moment in 2010, and the impact it had on his career.

Meanwhile, Alonso’s name has been a frequent guest at the court of sports public opinion. When the story about the Panama Papers rocked sports in February 2016, his name was circulated repeatedly. Then there was the time, in late May, when three Spanish companies were accused of selling banned treatments in China. Alonso was also named in the indictment of four Fifa vice-presidents over kickbacks paid to secure broadcasters’ deals, at a time when a bid had been made to host the 2030 World Cup. And then there was the news that, during the 2000-01 season, there was a mass protest against the use of human growth hormone in Spain. Not only were the revelations terrible for Alonso, but from the perspective of football, it was a serious embarrassment.

Within the team, too, there was confusion as to whether the worst was over. “Xabi is a real skipper,” one source says. “But if he said anything negative about anything, he would have suffered some repercussions.”

Four years later, Alonso is part of the team that will attempt to win Euro 2020 for the third time in a row. For many in the Spain team, his return has marked the end of a chapter. Now, there is a sense that perhaps, for once, it is time to look forward. One hint of the change in mood was suggested by the manager Vicente del Bosque last week. Del Bosque was effusive in his praise for Alonso. Even – and perhaps even more – so when he referenced the words that had sparked the controversy in the first place.

“In my opinion, the Spanish team has become united in recent years,” he said. “I always liked having Xabi, he made an important impact on the national team. He has a great influence on the group. You could really see that with [Luis] Suárez and Iker [Casillas].”

So, will the return of a player who has always represented Spain in an admirable way be worth all the controversy? Will the ghosts be exorcised? The truth seems to be less complicated than this: Alonso will always be remembered as a player who turned out in an era that saw many good things but also a lot of mistakes. For them, that’s what matters.

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