Slowly but surely, the Spain team that dominated world football between 2008 and 2012 is being disassembled—the dismantler in this instance not a manager, but the effects of time.
In 2011, it was veteran left-back Joan Capdevila retiring from international duty; in February 2013, stalwart defender Carles Puyol played his final match for La Roja.
Striker David Villa was given a send-off against Australia at the 2014 World Cup, after which pass-master Xavi Hernandez committed what remained of his career to club level.
On Wednesday, after “much thought,” he said, according to Marca, Xabi Alonso also called time on his international career, ending his part in what he referred to in a farewell letter as a “glorious era.”
“The hardest part is knowing when to say goodbye,” he continued, “and, after much thought, I believe that time has come.”
He retires with 116 caps, 16 goals, two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup, where he received a karate kick to the ribs from Nigel de Jong during the final and proceeded to play through the pain.
That match, against the Netherlands in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, epitomized Xabi Alonso’s importance to the Spanish national team.
Committed, intelligent, competitive and self-sacrificing—as well as tactically competent—he was never as flashy as Villa or Andres Iniesta, never as lauded as Xavi. But he provided generous measures of heart, leadership and organisation, and without his influence, it’s unlikely his country would have ruled the football world as effectively as it did.
He was the glue.
Incidentally, the 32-year-old’s final international goal was Spain’s lone marker in a 5-1 defeat to the Dutch at the 2014 World Cup, a tournament the then-world champions beat a hasty exit from.
But his two before that fateful, embarrassing day in Salvador were the goals that vanquished France at Euro 2012.
It’s unlikely Xabi Alonso had ever played better for Spain than in that quarterfinal, and that the bottoming-out in Brazil came so quickly after the triumph in Poland and Ukraine served as a reminder of the relatively fine difference between the highest highs and lowest lows.
It’s a reality that certainly wasn’t lost on the midfielder, who recognised the generational change when he saw it. And so, thoughtfully and gracefully—in typical Xabi Alonso style, in other words—he announced his retirement.
It’s doubtful whether any one of his contemporaries so embodied Spain’s dominance as he.