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Family values leave Basque brothers feeling at home


Friendly rivals: Mikel Alonso, left, says he would ask the referee to show a yellow card if Xabi, right, made a tough tackle on him

When asked about the differences between Spanish and English football, players who have experienced both tend to refer to the diverse intensity of the game (“In Spain I used to run only for 20 minutes of each half,” Albert Ferrer, the former Chelsea and Barcelona defender, has said) or the different roles played in each position (Thierry Henry talks about the need “to be patient. If you are a striker you have to wait patiently for the arrival of the ball that moves around a hundred times before it reaches you.”)

Or about the pace (“You have no time to think in England,” Júlio Baptista, the Real Madrid forward, remembers of his experience at Arsenal) and the physicality of the Premier League (“The first ball I touched was followed by a kick from the back from Rio Ferdinand that lifted me a metre from the floor and when he picked me up, he said, ‘Welcome to the Premiership,’ ” Luis García, the Atlético Madrid and former Liverpool midfield player, said). For the Alonso brothers, Mikel, of Bolton Wanderers, and Xabi, of Liverpool, there is a bigger difference — England has the perfect environment to work, to focus on their job without unneeded interferences.

Xabi drives daily from his apartment in Liverpool to the club’s training ground at Melwood and stops to sign autographs for the kids who wait for him to arrive and to leave three hours later. That is the only outside interference he endures while he prepares for the next match or recovers from his injury, as is the case at the moment, but he should be back from a broken metatarsal for the game against Everton at Goodison Park on October 20.

He trains, eats, passes all kind of physical tests and, if he wants to, sleeps at the training ground, seeing always the same faces he saw the previous day. For Mikel, his trip to Bolton’s training ground is a similar experience.

The brothers are media-friendly characters, totally at easy with the cameras, joking in at least three languages with the journalist. But it is Mikel Alonso, 18 months older than Xabi, who puts it all in context:

“Nobody sees the rehearsals at theatre. So it is only right that nobody sees us prepare for matches. Preparation is the most important part of our jobs and we can do it in peace here.” Xabi adds: “Players keep their focus when there is no press around.”

It is well known in Spain that footballers often train to please their media audience, for instance, doubling their efforts in tackles or running longer distances if they have been accused of being lazy — all except Ronaldo, who did not care much about that. “I would take to Spain the facility to work behind closed doors every day — that and the noise in the stadiums. It is such a pleasure to play football in these grounds,” Xabi says.

Since the summer, the Alonso brothers — Mikel is 27, Xabi 25 — find themselves less than an hour away from each other and that is one of the most pleasing rewards of playing abroad. They grew up very close, they played the same games in school, in training, in the garden of their father’s house. Perico Alonso, who was a member of the Spain team in the 1982 World Cup finals, moved the family to Barcelona after he signed from Real Sociedad when his sons were still in nappies. Although they spent the next six years in the area, they are both more Basque than Catalan — they both have that dry sense of humour, the strong Basque accent, the combination of friendliness and distance that Spaniards relate to northerners.

There seems to be an instant connection as soon as they arrive in the Liverpool restaurant we met in. Work made the friends part company in the summer of 2004, when Xabi decided to sign for Liverpool from Sociedad. Mikel went on loan to Bolton this summer from the San Sebastián club because Sammy Lee, the manager, got an excellent recommendation — someone told him he could be a player that would fit the style he wants to implement. Xabi denies he was the talent spotter. “When I decided to move here, it certainly helped to have as a reference the positive experience of my brother,” Mikel says. “We used to watch lots of Premiership matches together. Maybe if he hadn’t been here I wouldn’t have had the chance to come.”

The Alonsos are a football family in which the emphasis is first on family and then football. “Our father was a footballer and later on he became a manager,” Xabi says. “Because my parents knew that football meant so much to us, he had to motivate us to study and to be focused on that first. But finally he left us freedom to make our choices. Of course he helped us a lot to become good players. Whenever he had spare time he allowed us to play with him and we really enjoyed that. He never pushed us to be footballers, but we used to watch matches with him on TV. He did not tell us too much but he always tried to focus on the important things of the game — he pointed out little but really important things about a pass, a body move, how you protect yourself.”

Mikel and Xabi are passers of the ball first and foremost. It all comes down to what you learnt as a child. “We always played together and always with the ball,” Xabi says. Mikel adds: “Mostly passing the ball, long and short passes. We have invented games with the ball that some people say now they have started — like ‘crossbar challenge’. You were given different points depending on where you hit the ball, the distance, etc. You had to reach 2,000 points. We loved to make up new games every day.”

Mikel is older and wiser — or so he says with a smile. “I don’t accept Xabi’s advice,” he says. “Maybe one day, if he wants, I will give him some advice as I’m the older brother. But seriously, he has helped me a lot since I arrived to this new country, especially off the pitch. On the pitch, one of the ways to learn is to watch Xabi play.”

There is a famous incident involving two other brothers — Diego and Gabi Milito. While they played for Racing and Independiente, the Argentine clubs, respectively, Diego, the striker, asked the referee for a yellow card for his brother after a tough tackle. “Yes, we would do the same if it is required and then we will go out for dinner to laugh it up,” Mikel says.

The Bolton midfield player made a good start to his Premier League career but lost a bit of confidence after a couple of mistakes in the 2-1 defeat against Everton last month. He is now back in contention and he wanted to play against Chelsea yesterday, despite passing out as a consequence of a knock to the head during the Uefa Cup win over Rabotnicki Kometal on Thursday. He was taken to hospital but will be ready for the game against Arsenal after the international break.

Mikel is happy he has found in Lee a manager he can trust. “It is a big honour to play under him,” he says. “He was a footballer, a top one, and you can tell he is a real professional, one who understands what all this is about. We are all working hard to do our best to help this new project, nobody more than the manager.”

And when there is a need to cheer up or have a bit of banter, at the other end of the phone, or less than one hour’s drive away, Xabi will always be available for a chat.

Copyright - Guillem Balague

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