There had been suggestions that this could be Xabi Alonso’s last season, and the Bayern Munich midfielder made it official on Thursday.
Alonso will without a doubt go down as one of the best midfielders of his generation. Over a glittering seventeen year career, he has won nine major honours at club level as well as starring on the Spain teams that dominated international football from 2008 to 2012.
The 35-year-old won league titles in Spain and Germany, as well as the Champions League with both Liverpool and Real Madrid, and has cup triumphs in England, Germany, and Spain. Alonso was also vital to Spain’s wins at Euro 2008 and 2012 and, of course, the 2010 World Cup.
Even at an individual level, Alonso has not gone without recognition, being named the Spanish Player of the Year in 2003 and La Liga’s best midfielder in 2012. He was also named on the FIFA FIFPro World XI in 2011 and 2012, the UEFA Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament and the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League Team of the Season.
Here’s a look at the top ten moments of Alonso’s decorated career.
Sven-Goran Eriksson has grown used to being joined by exalted company since he made his pioneering switch to China. Any questions raised in 2013 about why a former England, Lazio and Benfica manager would make such an unprecedented step have been spectacularly answered since, as the country’s paradigm-shifting spending spree subsequently gripped the globe’s attention.
The “small revolution” the Swede describes has seen the likes of Brazil’s World Cup 2002-winning head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Selecao playmaker Oscar and marauding Argentina forward Carlos Tevez – now reputedly the sport’s highest-paid player – join him as China attempts to make its mark on the world’s most popular sport.
Eriksson’s former charge Wayne Rooney has been feverishly linked with becoming the latest stellar name lured to the Far East.
And speaking to Sport360 as he prepares to kick-off his latest post guiding ambitious Shenzhen FC into the promised land of the Chinese Super League, the 69-year-old reveals a confidence that England and Manchester United’s record goalscorer is destined to make the move.
“Well, I do not know, but I would guess sooner or later, Wayne Rooney will end up in China,” says Eriksson. “I guess this, as I do not know anything about it.
“But I believe one day, he will end up here in China.”
Cooling measures were imposed in January by the Chinese Football Association in a bid to curb “irrational” spending on transfer fees and player salaries, following a winter market in which the Dh233.3m deal by Eriksson’s former side Shanghai SIPG to acquire Oscar from Chelsea was the biggest acquisition of any team on the planet.
But with a 10-year plan laid out by President Xi Jinping to create a domestic sports economy worth $850 billion by 2025 and the CFA determined to grow the nation into a “world football superpower” by 2050, it is clear to see why superstars like Rooney will continue to head there in the years ahead.
“It has been like a small revolution, I would say,” replies Eriksson when asked to describe how much football has changed in China since his arrival. “The money the clubs are investing today is incredible.”
“Even in the second division, many clubs invest big money to be better. All the clubs are sorting out academies for young children.”
“I think it is very, very good for Chinese football’s future. It will take some years, but China will arrive there – that is for sure.”
For a man who has won 19 honours during a 40-year career in football management across Europe and beyond, one spell clearly resonates most with him.
Eriksson’s pitch rises when the conversation moves towards his time at the helm of the England national team from 2001-06.
There he took control of a ‘Golden Generation’ containing the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. The highlight was a 5-1 World Cup 2002-qualifying win in Germany, the lows were successive quarter-final exits from his three tournaments in charge.
Current boss Gareth Southgate was a defender under him, famously lambasting the Swede’s inspirational skills with a disparaging comparison between British politicians Iain Duncan Smith and Sir Winston Churchill.
Despite this jibe, there are only positive remarks from Eriksson when quizzed about him. He says: “I really hope he does well. He is such a smart and intelligent football man. He was a great player, of course. But I could absolutely see him as a coach.”
“He has started very well. I hope they qualify and they can do a big World Cup .”
Eriksson knows better than most about the pitfalls of the post. An intense pressure to succeed was matched by regular revelations about his private life.
“It is a fantastic job, first of all,” he says of the Three Lions role. “It is the biggest football job you can have in the world. I was proud all days during my five-and-a-half years I had it. It is a huge job.”
“Of course, it is not easy. The expectation in England is always to go to the final and win a big tournament.”
“But sooner or later, I really hope England can do it. This is because the fans deserve it.”
Eriksson has become an itinerant figure in the intervening years. A one-season stint followed at Manchester City before the Abu Dhabi takeover, while he failed to impress at Mexico, Ivory Coast and Leicester City.
Positions as technical director at lower-league Notts County, Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana and Al Nasr were also undertaken. It was from the Dubai side that he was recruited by Guangzhou R&F four years ago.
He never finished outside the CSL’s top three there and in two campaigns at SIPG, but was dismissed by the latter in November after criticism about uninspired tactics.
Eriksson was back in the UAE last month to undertake a two-week training camp with Shenzhen, which included a 4-0 friendly loss to Everton. His new adventure – in a metropolis which links the mainland to Hong Kong – then begins in earnest when the ‘Youth Army’ start their China League One campaign at the 32,500-capacity Shenzhen Stadium against Dalian Transcendence on Sunday.
“I am as excited as I was with England, or started with SIPG, Lazio or whatever it is,” says Eriksson. “It is a big challenge.
“I know it is the second division, but you never think about that. You think about preparing the players so they are ready for March 12 and we have to win – win, win, win.”
“The club has done good investments on the infrastructure. They have bought good Chinese [players] and foreigners [such as ex-Nigeria and Hoffenheim forward Chinedu Obasi], so the target is only one here – to play in the Chinese Super League next season.”
Peers such as Fabio Capello and Sir Alex Ferguson are now out of the game, while Eriksson keeps battling on far away from football’s traditional European heartland.
The only fear of the unknown for him comes from what happens when he exits the dugout for the last time, rather than taking on fresh challenges off the beaten track.
He says: “I do not want to stop coaching, it is my life. If I stop that, I do not know what I would do. I like holidays, but not more than a month – I get bored.”
“I do not play golf, so I do not know what to do. I want to go on coaching as long as I can.
“But it is all about whether you are healthy, if you want to do the work on the pitch every day with the players – fighting with players and linking together with them.”
Both teams had maximum points prior to their meeting and it was Japan who were in control when Ozu Moreira and Goto Takasuke ensured a two-goal cushion late in the second half.
However, the UAE roared back and, amid a dramatic finale, did enough to tie up top spot.
In a tight opening period, a powerful downward header from skipper an unmarked Ozu gave Japan a slender advantage going into the interval, with Goto’s close-range finish having seemingly made life more comfortable for Marcelo Mendes’ side.
However, Ali Karim sent a low free-kick into the bottom corner of the net before Hasham Muntaser levelled with less than a minute of the period remaining.
Ali Mohammed then put the UAE in front for the first time as his long-range strike bobbled in the sand to beat Terukina Shingo.