Xabi Alonso at Vanity Fair
One word: perfection.
He’s the best midfielder in history, a crucial piece of the national team and one of the sexiest footballers in the world. Everyone knows who he is, but not many know what he’s really like. Xabi Alonso leaves the field (for a couple of hours) to submit to our third degree. We talk about his family, his dislikes and yes, the locker room of Real Madrid and his coach, José Mourinho.
He was eight years old and he loved taking risks. One day in San Sebastián, he decided to jump from the top of a slide to a basketball rim. He didn’t make it. The result? A bloody eyebrow. Two weeks later, when the wound was still not completely healed, he returned to the same place and tried again. He once again failed and tore open the area above his other eyebrow.
“They say that I’m stubborn, and it’s true that I’m not easily convinced,” Xabi Alonso Olano (Tolosa, 1981) admits, surprised that Triki, one of his best friends, had told me that anecdote. The midfielder knows very well what he wants and what he doesn’t want, what he likes and what he doesn’t like. “For example, I detest rude people, those who try to get themselves noticed and those who are nasty. And I can’t stand unpunctuality.” Fortunately, I arrived on time for our meeting. The place is Valdebebas, Madrid’s sports city. It’s 1.2 million square meters in size, with 14 football fields. A few days ago, Florentino Pérez had convened an unusual press conference to deny a supposed confrontation between the players and José Mourinho. But the Basque midfielder, who is called “the peacemaker of the team,” arrives relaxed and smelling strongly of cologne. He’s wearing jeans, a black sweater and elegant Italian shoes. The fashion firm Emidio Tucci made him the image of its campaign. His height and burliness are surprising. He’s a solid man, not only physically speaking or on the football field, but also with his speech. His red beard, one of his identifying signs, does not manage to hide a half smile that sometimes lights up his face. It’s his look, at times shying away, that seems to say: not one more step. Like his football, he stops the attack of the rival and he’s the one that implements the rules of play.
- Do you believe Mourinho has his back to the wall?
- He’s smart, he’s always known how to live with criticism. When the results are good, everything seems beautiful, and when they’re bad, it appears that all the conflicts, personal disputes and problems arise. But it’s true that this year we’re not content because we’re losing more than we usually do.
- How is the míster?
- As a coach, he’s very, very good. One of the best in the world. He has helped me to grow personally and professionally. And he’s excellent when it comes time to empathize with the players.
- That’s not what is said…
- I’m telling you first hand. He wins you over in the day to day, the face to face. I’m speaking of a coach-player relationship. I don’t know about other types.
- Is the locker room of Madrid divided against Mourinho, as it is said?
- No, it’s not divided. I know about everything that’s going on and I can see the differences between the reality and what was reported. And we can’t spend all of our time denying things. We are and we should be a team, we have to continue being united, because this is a team sport.
- Is the relationship between Iker Casillas and the míster good?
- They have a good professional relationship as coach and player. There’s no reason for them to go out and get a beer.
The interview takes place in a tiny room, very close to Madrid’s press room. The walls are decorated with silkscreen vinyls of photos of the Santiago Bernabéu and the trophies the team has won. In the center of the room, there is a table and two chairs. He has sat down with a somewhat forced posture. At times, when he responds, he bows down his head, perhaps out of shyness, or perhaps because he doesn’t want to answer some questions in depth. But when it comes to answering thorny questions, he looks at you steadily. For example, the question about how he can be part of Real Madrid when he’s so Basque: “I’ve never had a problem because of that. It’s normal to me. If anyone is offended, it’s his or her problem, not mine.”
His teammate and good friend Álvaro Arbeloa tells me that “Alonso is direct and he doesn’t let anyone influence him. As a good Basque, he keeps his distance, he looks at you, he evaluates you and with the passing of time he gains confidence in you. People will never be able to know him. He knows what he wants to show, but he hides many things. I am lucky to be able to count on him and I know that he’ll be there for me for the rest of my life.”
Xabi is not a typically footballer. He’s not one of those players who isolates themselves in La Finca. He decided to move with his wife Nagore and his children Jon and Ane from the suburbs, where he lived for only two months, to the center of the city. It’s easy to run into Alonso in Madrid having a cappuccino in Café Comercial in the Glorieta de Bilbao, at the Proyecciones cinema on Fuencarral or in any restaurant in the Salamanca neighborhood. He prefers going to the Prado over the club Joy Eslava, to recommend on twitter, where he has almost four million followers, the latest season of Homeland or Leonard Cohen’s new album before anything related to sports, and to go out to eat with his friends from his gastronomical society in the Antiguo neighborhood of San Sebastián before showing up at the latest in spot in Madrid.
He says, “I’m very Basque, very donostiarra, of my neighborhood and of my lifelong friends, those from school, from the time I was six until I turned 18, when we graduated.”
Triki, Chufo, Balán, Goyo… and so on and so forth until we reach the 10 friends that make his group, and each one has a nickname. Xabi is known as Bone (it comes from Xabo → Xabone → Bone). Four of them live in Madrid, and the rest in Donosti. They try to get together whenever they can, either in Madrid or in San Sebastián. Triki says, “on Dec. 29, the festival of Santo Tomás is celebrated, and the schools have stalls selling chistorra and cider. On that day, we all get together and we put on the typical costume, with the txapela and neckerchief included. During these times, Xabi is Bone.”
Bone looks at me a bit nervously when I ask about the anecdotes that his friends have revealed, perhaps wondering what the hell they told me. He says, laughing,”at least I gave you the phone number of one of the more serious ones, because I have no confidence in what the others would have told you.”
To understand Alonso’s roots, you have to go to the Goierri region, the high basin of the Oria River, the heart of Gipuzkoa. Alonso was born in Tolosa, the village of his father, Periko Alonso, who played for the national team 20 times. Together with his older brother Mikel and his younger brother Jon, he grew up between San Sebastián and Orendain, the village of his mother Isabel Olano. When he was one year old, his father signed for Barcelona and the family moved to a house near the Diagonal. His first memories are of there, where they lived six years. Periko Alonso played three years in Barça and three more in Sabadell. After this adventure, they returned to País Vasco. He reveals “we would spend summers at the country house Okaingorro catching lizards or throwing eggs at all the cars that passed by. Yes, we were a bit restless” before telling me another of those histories that could have changed his destiny. It was the summer of 1990, and he was nine years old. He was playing a game with some friends and his brother Mikel at the Ondarreta beach. Back then, an unknown Julio Medem was about to start filming Vacas and needed a red-headed, athletic boy to play the role of his young protagonist, Peru. Two casting agents spotted Xabi from the boulevard. They went up to him and asked him if they could speak to his mother. He explains, “she was at the beach with a few friends. They proposed their idea to her, but they didn’t convince her. They only wanted us to consider it. My mother is the typical Basque matriarch, who thinks for herself, her husband and her children. She’s reflexive and analytic.” Those are two qualities that Xabi has inherited. He doesn’t leave anything to chance, at least not his answers.
- Do you maintain strict control over your image?
- I try to be careful, I don’t like appearing everywhere.
- You appear to be a restrained man. When do you lose control?
- On the field, at times, but I don’t lose too much control. It’s not me. I try not to exaggerate because when I see a teammate do it, I don’t like it at all…
- Out of everything that is shouted at you from the fans, what hurts you the most!
- ¡Gandul! (laughs). Some of them always try to hurt you…
Periko Alonso, who won the Liga three times, graduated with a degree in business and demanded that his sons study. Xabi combined his training sessions with his homework at the Ekintza school, where he learned euskera, the language he spoke with his family. He says, “I was never an involved kid in school. I was mischievous, but a good student, although not brilliant.”
The majority of boys begin their footballing career at the age of 12, but Xabi did it at the age of 17 at the professional level, when he signed with Real Sociedad. He says, “combining your studies with a football career is difficult. I did it well.” After high school, he began the first year of industrial engineering, but he soon gave it up. That was when he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. He says, “I studied three years of business, but I didn’t graduate. When I retire, I’ll begin my studies again.”
- In your home, did you talk much about football?
- Not always, but we did watch games with my father and talked about them, although he wasn’t one to talk about his battles or give us advice on how to improve. It’s clear that he had a lot of influence on us. I never imagined that one day I would play for Real Madrid or be a world champion. It wasn’t an objective, but rather a natural consequence. I never thought about achieving more than he had achieved. I thought it would be so difficult…
- What values have your parents passed on to you?
- Respect and honesty. I’m a reflexion of them.
- What is the best piece of advice they’ve given you?
- That no matter how much I achieve, to keep my feet on the ground, to maintain balance in my life.
- Any advice from your friends or teammates?
- I like to observe, to listen. I am self-taught for certain things.
An employee of Real Madrid TV knocks on the door and interrupts the conversation. They’re filming a segment with Sergio Ramos in the next room and he asks us to lower our voices. Xabi looks at him strangely, since his voice is smooth and at times imperceptible, and he doesn’t even raise his voice when he laughs. Despite that, he makes an effort to lower his voice until it’s most inaudible when we begin to talk about his brother Mikel. He says, “we’ve shared so much! We were almost twins.” The two began in Antiguoko, a local team in Donosti, and later on, while Xabi signed with Real Sociedad, his brother signed with Athletic. They spent their first salaries together, to buy a Volkswagen Golf. He says, “I’m not eccentric, I’ve always known how to enjoy and use money. I do love simple things, and to spend money on travels, trying out restaurants or on a good watch.”
After three seasons in the first division, being a runner-up in the Liga and getting 15 caps with the national team, it came time to make the big leap. His agent Iñaki Ibáñez – who was also his father’s agent – closed a contract for 19 million euros with Liverpool. Xabi was only 22 years old. He explains, “on the personal and sporting level, it was the ideal moment to change, to leave my family, to fly and grow.” He packed his suitcases and moved to the most modern area of the city, the Docks, on the shore of the River Mersey. And unlike other footballers, he had no problems speaking English, as he had already received the First Certificate in English and had spent two summers in Ireland.
In March 2008, Xabi had already spent five seasons with Liverpool and faced one of the most difficult situations in his career. He says, “Nagore was pregnant with Jon, our first child, and her water broke on a Sunday.” On Monday, he was to travel to Milan to play one of the most important games of his life, a Champions League quarterfinal against Inter. He confesses, “I spent hours thinking about my decision and in the end I decided to accompany my wife and be present at the birth. I called the míster (Rafa Benítez) and I told him that if he wanted, I would take the first flight to Milan as soon as my son was born.” But the coach couldn’t wait for him. In the end, the birth was delayed and he couldn’t play.
- Did the míster understand your decision?
- I suppose Rafa more or less understood. I know now that I made the right decision and I would do it again. Nagore is the woman of my life, the one I’m creating a family with and the one with whom I live intense things.
He has tried to avoid questions about his wife, but he gets emotional when he thinks back to the birth of his first child. “I cried,” he confesses, only to make clear seconds later, while blushing, that “well, I don’t know if I cried. I got emotional.” Nagore Aranburu is a guipuzcoana born in Urnieta. She moved to San Sebastián at the age of 10 with her family, and met Xabi there. When Alonso signed with Liverpool, she left the clothing shop where she was working to move there with him. She began working as a receptionist at a hotel near where they lived, even though her studies had been in fashion (she had done an internship at Inditex and worked as a stylist for movies and Basque TV series). She was completely unknown, and even today, she prefers to spend time with her family and not at photo calls. If you want to find her, look for her in a theater or a park. Or at the football stadium. Xabi says, “she didn’t pay much attention to football, but in the end she had to like it and she understands it well now.”
- Is Nagore the person with the most influence on you?
- I would say yes. When I was younger, it was my parents and now perhaps my children influence me more (on March 30, 2010, Ane was born in Madrid).
- Has your wife ever had to give anything up for you?
- No. I like that she has her projects, her interests, and she likes fashion and design. I like that, because she’s more than a wife and mother taking care of her husband and children.
- You come from a man’s world, so do you feel comfortable when surrounded by women?
- It depends on the situation, I have no problems. It’s not something I try to avoid.
- What is more difficult, scoring a goal or raising a child?
- Both things are difficult. I love raising children. I try to be a good father; my children are my biggest responsibility. Being a father changes your life completely, and there’s no instruction manual. I spend a lot of time away from home, and in the end, it’s my wife who takes care of them more. And that’s very hard, since I can’t be there for the day to day. When I travel, we use Skype to connect and see each other, until they’re exhausted and fall asleep.
- And when you’re with them…
- I love going to the beach or the park with Jon, who is five, and we have that special father-son relationship. He wasn’t aware of who his father was until a short while ago, and he found out from what his classmates said. One day he came home and he asked me, “Aita, do you know Cristiano?” I told him that he was my teammate and that one day I would introduce them. When I’m stopped on the street for an autograph, he asks me, “Who is your friend?” He thinks everyone who stops me is my friend. [Adorable!]
Colin Pomford, an English lawyer who worked for Xabi’s representatives, became one of his friends and confidants. They dived into life in Liverpool together, as Colin was his guide. He says, “perhaps there is a stereotype of a footballer, but he was different, he had many interests – art, literature, politics.” They ate lunch at The London Carriage Works, had drinks in The Quarter, went to Echo & the Bunnymen concerts, played golf and attended Grand National races. Xabi is addicted to TV series, loves film noir and police movies, Eastwood, Coppola and Wilder movies, and reads books as different as Enric González’ Memorias líquidas and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Pomford says, “don’t think that he’s the perfect boy and posh. He’s capable of having a beer in the most normal pub in the world and although he can fly on private jets, he always goes for a budget airline.” When I bring this subject up with Xabi, he says with conviction, “I don’t like to describe myself as cultured and I don’t want others to think I am, but yes, I do have interests apart from football.”
Colin Pomford adds, “Xabi is also very naif. One year he had a Secret Santa exchange with the entire team. There was a player that we said didn’t have a beard, which is an English expression to describe someone without a girlfriend and whose preference for boys or girls is unknown. Xabi drew his name. He went to a pet store and purchased a bird [pronounced almost the same as "beard"] much to the surprise of the rest of the team. He hadn’t understood completely the term. The best thing is that the next year, he drew the same player. He gave him birdseed.” [Jajaja!]
After five seasons with Liverpool, Real Madrid came calling. In August 2009, he was signed for an amount that was never made public, but is said to be around 35 million euros. In these last four years, he has lived the biggest triumphs of his career, he’s considered the best midfielder in the world, he’s unquestionable on the national team and he lifted up the World Cup in South Africa. Today, his future is still uncertain. He’s 31 and the end of his career as a footballer is coming up. “How am I planning my life? I haven’t ruled out becoming a coach, but I do have to prepare myself. I would like to get into the world of software or the creation of mobile apps.” It’s strange then that I didn’t see him with his telephone in any of our meetings. It’s probably an issue of manners.
More photos from the making of here, and a video here (it’s the Vanity Fair edition of The Xabi Alonso pose section™; he’s such a pro at posing!). The photos were done in three hours and Xabi arrived late after Mou extended the training session. According to the agency that handles Xabi’s image, he really liked the casual looks the stylist prepared for him. And the dog’s name is Kyra, and she’s a Weimaraner! Xabi fell in love with her “at first sight” because she reminded him of a dog his dad had: “these dogs are intelligent and noble, although they do their own thing. I love them.”