Xabi Alonso is a rare breed in soccer, a world-class player who’s also whip-smart at explaining the game—and in more than one language, no less. Plus, at 33, his longevity at the top is remarkable. He was a key player on UEFA Champions League winners nine years apart at Liverpool (in 2005) and Real Madrid (in 2014), and now he’s bossing the midfield for Bayern Munich, one of the favorites to win this season’s UCL crown.
I caught up with Alonso over the phone in advance of Bayern’s round of 16 tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, the first leg of which takes place in Lviv, Ukraine, on Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2) and is Alonso's 100th Champions League appearance. Here’s what he had to say:
SI: You had just won a long-awaited Champions League title with Real Madrid last May. Why did you want to move to Bayern?
Alonso: It was a difficult decision to make, because I was already set in Madrid. It’s a fantastic club, and I have always been very grateful for everything that had gone on for four to five years. At that moment, I thought after winning Champions League it was a big accomplishment for myself and for the club, and I probably needed a new experience. Coming here to Bayern has been good for me.
SI: You’ve already set passing records for the Bundesliga. Does what you do as a player in some ways fit Pep Guardiola’s style even more than the styles you played at Real Madrid?
Alonso: The style at Madrid and now at Bayern, it’s because of the philosophy of the coaches, it’s because of the players that you have around. Here the tempo of the game is different as well in the Bundesliga. So for me, I have to adapt and play under the circumstances. And so far I think I have adapted well to the new club. It hasn’t been a problem.
SI: Is it a desire of yours to coach someday? And is that connected to wanting to work with Guardiola?
Alonso: The way he has managed his clubs over the years, it’s something that you need to know firsthand why he’s been so successful, so methodical, why he’s trying to bring that idea to the team. So far in the months I have been here I am learning a lot. That was a good reason to come here as well.
SI: Bayern drew Shakhtar in the round of 16. How are you approaching these games?
Alonso: For us it’s a massive tie. We know that Shakhtar has the European experience, they have great players. Maybe they don’t have that big name in Europe, but we know they are very dangerous.
We know if we’re not on top of our game and don’t pay attention to the small details and have one bad game, the tie can go. So we need to be very careful and very focused for the game.
SI: Expectations are so high for Bayern that even one loss like the 4-1 defeat to Wolfsburg can bring questions. What happened?
Alonso: Of course, there were mistakes, and we try to learn from the mistakes we made that day. We have already determined them and tried to correct them and not make them again. Because we know against good teams like Wolfsburg you’re going to be punished when you make big mistakes. You have to learn from the things you haven’t done properly.
SI: You’ve played in Spain, England and now Germany. What’s the most enjoyable part for you coming to Bayern?
Alonso: So far in my football career I think I’ve been lucky to enjoy wherever I’ve been. I came from my hometown team, Real Sociedad, and next I went to a historic and very prestigious club in Liverpool, then came back to La Liga at Real Madrid, one of the biggest clubs in the world. And now coming to another great club with prestige and a great organization at Bayern, I am trying to learn from everything. I try to notice how football works in different countries. And for me to be able to live that experience firsthand in my career, it’s something I am trying to build.
SI: If you happen to meet Real Madrid in Champions League, how tough would that be?
Alonso: There is a long way to go. If that happens it would be very special, very emotional for me, because I am very grateful for everything I lived there for five years. And of course I know pretty well that team. We’ll see what happens!