With typical understated class, Alonso gets ready to walk away from football
The Bernabeu tends not the be the most sentimental of venues during the heat of the battle, so what happened in the 75th minute of Real Madrid's Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Bayern Munich -- with the tie in the balance -- was especially significant.
Facing an away-goals exit, it was reasonable enough for Bayern that a forward like Thomas Muller should replace the deep-lying Xabi Alonso; more significant, though, was the spine-tingling ovation that the former Madrid midfielder was afforded as he departed, with clear emotion, with all sides of the stadium chanting his name.
Few players would get this treatment but then there have, in the last 15 years, been very few like Alonso; when he plays a competitive fixture for the final time on Saturday the appreciation will be even louder and longer. Alonso has made a career out of understated class but Freiburg's visit to the Allianz Arena will see him bow out to a crescendo.
"I couldn't ask for a better midfield partner and when you left, it broke my heart," said Steven Gerrard in a video message to wish his former Liverpool teammate luck in retirement. That Alonso's absence has always been felt as keenly as his presence is, perhaps, the mark of an individual who makes a difference.
In 2008 Liverpool wanted a fee of £18 million if Arsenal were to have their wish of signing Alonso, then 26 and close to his prime. However, in perhaps the most misguided decision of his career, Arsene Wenger was unwilling to go quite that high and the move collapsed; it is a situation frequently revisited by those mourning the lack of personality in Arsenal's midfield, the implication being that adding Alonso could have changed everything.
And perhaps it might. Alonso's effect on the teams for which he plays -- ever since, as a young midfielder at Real Sociedad, he often was referred to as "Don Xabi Alonso," a prefix usually reserved for respected seniors -- has been extraordinary.
His maturity and sense of responsibility have helped propel him to the top; Alonso has dictated midfields through his sharp mind and passing range but there is something about his gravitas, his seriousness and his judgment, that has raised him to the highest level.
To many of his managers, Alonso has been a coach on the pitch, someone who can direct traffic while being an integral part of its flow. He has had the effect of making those around him better -- "I like the players around me to play well because that is when I feel I have done my duty," he once said -- but he has provided enough creative flourishes of his own, too.
Preposterous efforts, scored from well inside his own half for Liverpool against Newcastle and Luton, are perhaps the best-remembered. There have been not been as many goals since he left Anfield in 2009 but the assists, particularly when picking out Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema from deep for Madrid, have kept coming. Few midfielders over the years have been blessed with Alonso's range and ability to open up the pitch with a glance up and flourish of the right foot.
Alonso said last year that, if he could have avoided tackling, he would have been better at his job, better positioned to exert control. But he was just as capable in that department too; the physicality of the English game sharpened his physical edge while, all the time, his intelligence set him a yard or two ahead of most opponents.
Will there be another like him? That tends to be a reductive and somewhat mawkish question but, on a weekend when his teammate Philipp Lahm also bows out at the top, their combined absence will be keenly felt.
Others may come through and emulate the 13 major trophies -- including two Champions Leagues, three Bundesligas, one Liga, two European Championships and a World Cup -- and 114 caps Alonso has amassed, but it is pertinent to wonder whether football still creates individuals of his unselfishness and preparedness for the fight.
Alonso has been a warrior-technician, a player whose words and actions demand that others want to follow. Personalities like this are becoming hard to find and, increasingly, worth their weight in gold.
As with many of the most lauded sporting figures, there are some regrets. A booking in the 2014 Champions League semifinal meant Alonso did not play in Madrid's Decima-clinching victory over Atletico, his role in such a historic success fading into the background as his teammates celebrated in Lisbon. In a sense it was fitting; Alonso was always the understated one, after all.
But the Bernabeu crowd certainly knew exactly how much he had contributed when he played there as an opponent almost three years later; Bayern's following will respond similarly when, as arranged, he and Lahm are substituted during the Freiburg fixture.
"Lived it. Loved it. Farewell beautiful game," read the tweet with which, on March 9, Alonso announced his retirement. Its clarity and brevity were fitting: He has been the kind of player, who made an often complex sport simpler for everybody around him.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.