MADRID: For all the artistry of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Spain's renowned midfield would not have dominated world football for the past four years without the biting tackles of Xabi Alonso.
The 30-year-old Real Madrid star – who made his debut back in 2003 and could break the 100 caps mark at Euro 2012 – is also a fine passer of the ball.
But he is happy to allow the Barcelona's Xavi and Iniesta orchestrate the chess-like passing movements while he sits back and breaks up opponents attacks.
“I have always been a midfielder since I played with my brother Mikel on the beach in San Sebastian (in northern Spain),” said Alonso. “Every kid wants to be a striker and score lots of goals but I enjoy being further back.”
Alonso has been the unsung hero of Spain's extraordinary achievements and a major factor in Real ending Barcelona's hold over the La Liga title but he has never been one to shout from the rooftops about his talent.
Indeed despite all the success during his career, beginning at a young age – the proud Basque being made captain of Real Sociedad aged just 19 by then coach John Toshack – his brother Mikel said he has not changed a bit.
“Xabi has enjoyed unimaginable levels of success, but has not changed,”said Mikel, who is also a professional footballer, in a 2010 interview.
“You learn things and have to deal with an awful lot when you go to the very top. You have to deal with so many people and have so many commitments but to me he remains as he always was.”
These characteristics were what made him a fans' favourite at Liverpool, whom he joined for 10.5 million pounds in 2004.
His loss to the English giants after effectively being forced out by then-manager Rafael Benitez in 2009 and his 30-million-pound move to Real is still felt at the club.
Steven Gerrard for one believes that his departure set back the club's fortunes by several years.
“To say Xabi's leaving was a setback to the club and to its ambitions and its ability to fulfil them would be a massive understatement. It was a body blow,” said the Liverpool captain.
Alonso, who won the Champions League and the FA Cup while at the club, remembers those days fondly and still has a great attachment for the city where his first child a son Jontxu was born.
“Anfield is the temple,” said Alonso. “It might sound over the top, but for me it is the most wonderful stadium in the world.
“In Liverpool, most of the people are working class, tough, suffered a lot under (former British prime minister Margaret) Thatcher when they closed down the shipyards.
“The people there are used to fighting for what they believe in, and that sort of character is contagious. I was really happy there.”
Alonso's ability to fit in wherever he goes is due in large part to his father, Penko.
Penko was also a distinguished footballer, who won three Liga titles two with Real Sociedad and one with Barcelona as well as 20 caps, but instilled in his boys the need to make the most of their studies.
“We have never felt extra pressure because of who our father is,” Xabi told Real Madrid TV.
“I don't think he wanted us to be footballers. He just wanted us to be responsible and serious, whatever we did.
“Our studies always came first. I remember the one and only time I failed an exam at school my punishment was that I was not allowed to play football.”
And it is thanks to his father that Alonso will have something in common with Ireland when they play their group match in Gdansk on June 14 – Gaelic football, which he learnt when he went on a school exchange to Kells, Meath, aged 15.
“I played Gaelic football with some of the local boys,” he told eircom.net.
“It was very different, very physical. The players should wear crash helmets!”