FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's not often U.S. fans get the opportunity to mingle in the presence of footballing royalty. So when adidas organized a meet-and-greet recently with nine members of the reigning World Cup champions in advance of Spain's recent friendly against the U.S., plenty were on hand at the "We Got Soccer" store to get a glimpse of Spain's stars up close and personal.
There's been some talk lately about the Spanish team's travel fatigue -- understandable after a long European club campaign for the players, and the national team's own virtually nonstop schedule since winning the European Championship in 2008. Compounding matters is the perception among some in the Spanish media that a rift has appeared within the team -- largely after the potentially fractious series of clásicos played recently between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two super powers that provide the bulk of the Spanish squad roster.
On this day however, there's very little evidence of the existence of any such discord. The players are relaxed and joke with one another during preparations for the photo shoot and appear well at ease in each other's company. It's a notion that's reinforced by Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso, who stresses the closeness of the squad in general.
"We have 70 or 80 percent of us who come from Madrid or Barcelona, so we have all had a long season and played in a lot of competitions and played at a high level," said Alonso. "Most of us have known each other for a long time, so that helps. Whenever we make a national team we keep the club separate from that and we come together as one team.
"We put the club apart for that time and we try to share and fight to make the same dream together. It is a great atmosphere and we play as a team. You can talk about it [club matters] but we don't do this very much and when we do it is not a big matter."
While some of the players posed for photos with their adoring public (to no surprise, Barcelona's David Villa was in particularly high demand), I took some time to speak individually with the trio of Alonso, David Silva and Alvaro Arebeloa.
First up, is Real Madrid's versatile Alvaro Arbeloa, a utility player whose primary position is fullback. Arbeloa is a former Real Madrid youth team player who returned to the club in the summer of 2009 when club president Florentino Perez embarked on a pursuit of a second
The affable Arbeloa is known to be an TV/film aficionado, so we initially discuss his fondness for American TV shows (he's currently a fan of HBO's Game Of Thrones) and joke about the World Cup trophy the players have brought with them to the meet-and-greet. "No, we have to be really careful with the trophies and for now we have to keep this [one] away from Sergio Ramos," laughs Arbeloa.
Although he's been with Real for two seasons now, Arbeloa's arguably still best remembered for being one of the few defenders on this planet that actually managed to shut down Barcelona's Lionel Messi (on Arbeloa's debut for Liverpool in the Camp Nou in 2007).
When Arbeloa is told how Liverpool fans still hold him in fond affection, it's clear the feeling is still reciprocated on his part. "Always when I can, I try to watch Liverpool," said Arbeloa. "This [past season] at the beginning it was a little bit difficult and when they have changed the manager, I think they have improved a lot and finished better.
"So I am supporting them and when I was there I was really, really happy and the supporters were good to me."
Arbeloa's own assessment of the turnaround in Liverpool's fortunes is succinct. "I think the style under [Roy] Hodgson, they played maybe too many long balls," said Arbeloa. " I think Liverpool is the type of team that has to play more football. Technically they have some really good players and they need to play more football. I think with [Kenny] Dalglish, who was one of the best players in the history of Liverpool, they look more confident and they improved a lot."
It certainly doesn't hurt that Liverpool also picked up the whirling dervish otherwise known as Luis Suarez. "I think Suarez is a very good player, he was doing really good from the first day," said Arbeloa. "It was a little bit of a surprise because it's not easy to come to England to play that well from the first day and he did."
And his former teammates, does he keep in touch? "Yes I keep in touch with some of them, especially with Lucas Leiva, he's a really good friend. I think he had a good season and I think he's growing a lot at Liverpool."
As for his own form, Arbeloa's ability to fill in at both right and left back has been invaluable for Real. Some have observed that his on-field temperament at Real has been noticeably more aggressive to his previous demeanor in England. "Not really, I think that maybe you have to play different as the Liga and the Premier League are different and the style of the games are a little bit different," counters Arbeloa. "But I think my style is more or less the same, you have to improve, and you have to try to do new things, but I don't think that I have changed."
As our conversation ends, Arbeloa asks me for my own impression of Game Of Thrones (I'm also a fan of the show), and for a recommendation for his next viewing material (I suggest Spartacus).
When talking with Real Madrid's Alonso, one immediately notices how calm, intelligent and thoughtful he is in his responses -- qualities which could also easily be used to describe the midfielder's metronomic, instinctive playing style.
You could make a very strong case for Alonso being the finest deep-lying midfield playmaker in the world. Now 29, Alonso's in his prime, but even early in his career at Real Sociedad -- when he was barely in his 20s -- he was already regarded as a leader on the pitch with his precise passing and ability to control a game's rhythm.
Those attributes make Alonso indispensable to his teams. Liverpool's midfield has never been the same since his departure in the summer of 2009 and Real has been the beneficiary of Alonso's unerring sense of how to dictate tempo, mounting club-record point totals in La Liga the past two seasons.
How frustrating is it then for this Real team to find this all-conquering Barcelona squad standing it its path? "I think [the gap's] closing, because this season we have not been that far away," said Alonso. "In the [Copa del Rey] final we beat them, in the league it's been really tight.
"Being second two years in a row with over 90 points in the league, it's not really normal . In the Champions League we were really close as well so I think [we're closer]. Of course they have a fantastic team and the way they won the Champions League final was fantastic, but I am optimistic looking forward to next season."
The debate in Spain continues as to how best to stop Barcelona. Does the answer lie in the primarily defensive tactics as laid out by coach Jose Mourinho in the clásicos which earned rebuke from club legends such as Alfedro di Stefano, or would a more positive attacking mindset pay dividends? According to Alonso, there's no easy solution. "You have to analyze the strong points they have, and the strong points we have," said Alonso. "We know they are a special team, because they share and have that quality to keep the ball and it's really difficult to regain the ball from them.
"So we try to control the midfield and try not to let them get comfortable and win a little battle in that part of the game and that's the way we need to play in the clásicos."
Alonso of course references the
It's safe to say Alonso is still close with his former teammates. Like Arbeloa, the midfielder appears nostalgic at times when reminiscing about his days in England. "I have great, great relations with my former Liverpool teammates," said Alonso. "I have been in touch and I have been at Anfield a few times as well. I watch all the games I can, because sometimes [Real] are playing at the same time, but as I've said a few times, I still keep my
There's also a palpable sense of relief in his voice when he discusses Liverpool's ownership changing hands last October from the troubled Tim Hicks and George Gillett regime to the more stable Fenway Sports Group. While Alonso says the players weren't aware of just how much money was being siphoned from the club to service debt interest repayments, it's obvious the squad knew something wasn't quite right. "No, we were quite apart from that. I was there when [Hicks and Gillett] bought the club and they stayed there for a few years, we didn't really realize what was happening, so we were just focusing on football matters. It wasn't a great sporting adventure for them, but it finished, luckily and now with another American owner of the team, it looks in better hands."
And of what of the team itself since his departure? In watching Liverpool over the past two seasons, it's been plainly apparent to all observers that there's been a void in central midfield where Liverpool is crying out for an Alonso-esque player. Alonso himself though, ever modest, doesn't quite see it that way.
"No, no, I think that Lucas for example, has improved quite a lot the last few years, he has won a lot of importance in the team and has become quite mature," said Alonso. "But [let's not] think about a new Alonso. Try to think of a new pattern, a new pattern of play, a new idea of how to play and that comes from Kenny [Dalglish], as well as Steve Clarke who's done a great job. That's going to be important to create a style, and that's what they're going to try to work on. And now, when they sign new players, try to jell them as well as possible."
Only 29, and with a cerebral style of play and economy of motion that suggests he could remain at the top of his game for quite a few years to come, Alonso, like many players in Europe is intrigued about a possible post-Europe career in MLS. "Absolutely, it is something that I have in mind to enjoy that experience in the future for me, for my family as well, it'd be really interesting," said Alonso. "In a few years, probably I will research it and I will think about it because I think it could be good for me and for the MLS to bring that experience from players that have played in important leagues. Why not?"
The last of the trio to show up is Manchester City midfielder David Silva, who hails from the tiny town of Arguineguin (population approx. 7000) in the Canary Islands. The diminutive Spaniard might stand only 5-foot-7 or thereabouts, but he is the possessor of a magical left foot and plays with verve and vision. As Spanish teammate Pepe Reina has said in the past, Silva "has talent to die for." For years while at Valencia, Silva was one of the most coveted playmakers in the world, and it was somewhat of a surprise when he ended up at City last summer.
"There was a lot of conversations with a lot of different clubs [over the years], but Valencia would not let me go for quite some time," said Silva through an interpreter. "But when they did open it up, then Manchester City was the first one that came in and made the push to get me. [There were rumors], but I've never spoken to Liverpool, but I really wanted to play in the Premier League."
Inevitably skeptics had focused on his size or supposed lack of it, and assumed he'd be too lightweight for the Premier League. It's a theory that Silva dimisses -- in fact he points out that it's actually the weather in England which is probably the hardest adjustment for many foreign players. "I'm very happy with how it went," said Silva. "The first few weeks were physically a little tough, just changing and adapting to the new style, but over a few weeks I adapted and [City ended up] winning the FA Cup and qualifying directly into the Champions League, so I'm feeling good."
Given that Canary Islanders are famed for their technique and skill on the ball (famed former Spain playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron also hails from Arguineguin), does Silva feel that too much made of size then when assessing players? " If you look at the Spanish national team, [you can see] the sport is for everybody. We're the reigning World Champions and we have small players, big players and tall players. Everyone adapts to the game and it depends on that individual."
Safe to say then that Silva doesn't think much of the rather ludicrous notion espoused in some quarters that Lionel Messi would struggle to replicate his form on a cold, wet day against the likes of Stoke. "I've no idea," said Silva. "Until you see it it's hard to judge even for a great player like Messi, but for me, it wasn't hard at all to adjust [to the Premier League] and it's been great."
Before he leaves, there's one last question. Something that has taken on almost urban myth proportions on the Internet: Silva's supposed part-Asian ancestry. Quite simply, is it true? "No, No," smiles Silva. "It's been in the press before, but my family has no Asian background whatsoever, please clear that up for me!"