Alonso weighs in on Spain, France, goal-line technology and more
Xabi Alonso says this Spain team is more determined and focused than in 2006
The matches have been close but Alonso says Spain has done what it needs to do
He is in favor of using goal-line technology to remove doubt about goal rulings
GDANSK, Poland -- If there's an equivalent to Tom Brady or Derek Jeter at Euro 2012, it has to be Spain's Xabi Alonso. Think about it. The guy wins trophies, whether he's with Spain or Real Madrid. He exudes class without appearing to try too hard, and he seems ready-made for a GQ cover shoot. More than any other player here, Alonso would look perfectly comfortable spraying passes from the central midfield in an Armani tuxedo.
If he wasn't wearing the number 14, his best option would be 007.
I spoke to Alonso over the phone ahead of Saturday's Euro 2012 quarterfinal against France (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN/Deportes, ESPN3), and we talked about a number of topics, including:
This Spanish team compared to the Spain of 2006. The last time Spain was eliminated from a Euro or World Cup was at Germany 2006 against France. Alonso played all 90 minutes in that 3-1 loss, which marked the end of the "Old Spain," the one that underperformed and failed to win trophies. How is the historic Spain of today, the one that's aiming for an unprecedented third straight major title, different from the Spain of six years ago?
"There are a lot of differences," Alonso told me. "Of course, many parts of the group have changed. Some players have continued. I think we have a much clearer idea now of how we want to play. At that moment we had a good team, but the style of the way we wanted to play wasn't defined at that time. We were much more doubtful about how to approach each game."
"After the success of mainly 2008 in the Euro, it gave us a lot of team spirit, to know how we wanted to play, whoever we were facing. At this moment we continue with that idea. The group is really determined, focused on how to approach each game. That's the important thing. During the game anything can happen, but before the game we know how to approach it."
Should Spain play Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso on the field together as twin defensive midfielders? There has been plenty of talk about coach Vicente del Bosque's choices on the front line, but the more intriguing conversation is about his preference for two defensive mids, which is something we almost never see from Real Madrid or Barcelona.
"Of course, around football teams there are always opinions," Alonso says. "But the manager is the one who makes the decision, and he's taking that one. I think we provide balance and we complement each other quite well -- and the players in front of us as well. I think the team here is working. I feel quite comfortable playing that way."
Are we holding Spain's Euro 2012 team to an unfair standard? I've been one of many journalists who have found some faults with Spain's performances so far, but maybe it's unfair to compare Spain to the Spanish teams that won Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. Maybe we should just compare them to the other teams in the tournament. After all, Spain won its group, which might have been the toughest group in the tournament overall. The Spanish have probably been the second-best team in Euro 2012 behind Germany.
"We don't really care if people compare us to the last Euro and the World Cup that we won," Alonso says. "Most of the games have been competitive. Most of the games we have controlled, but it has been difficult to break their defenses. Nothing is easy. It's going to be difficult to repeat, but we've done what we need to do so far."
How does Alonso see France? Spain has never beaten France in six competitive games going back to 1984 (with five French wins and one tie). Now that we're in the quarterfinals, "the make-or-break games" are here, says Alonso, who thinks Spain will be ready for the French. "They are a really good team, a complete team that's good with the ball and can score goals. They keep the balance between defense and attack. We know them pretty well, so there won't be any surprises."
What's Alonso's take on goal-line technology? Alonso saw what happened in England's game against Ukraine, in which a Ukrainian shot went completely over England's goal line, only for the goal-line official to botch the call. It was one more piece of evidence for Alonso and a lot of other people as we near IFAB's decision to adopt GLT on July 5.
"For goal-line technology, I'd like to see it be used," he says. "It's important to know if it's a goal or not a goal. It's not an interpretation, not something subjective. If we have the technology, it's a good idea."
What's Xabi watching? If you follow Alonso on Twitter (http://twitter.com/XabiAlonso), you'll know that he has impeccable taste in movies, TV shows and music as well. So I asked him what he's up to during the long stretches between games here. He didn't disappoint.
"Mostly I have been watching Homeland," the excellent Showtime series with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. "I just finished the first season. I spend lots of time on my computer with Spotify on music. We have time to do these kinds of things. My job is not to be on the streets enjoying the atmosphere of the Euro. I'm looking forward to Season 2 of Homeland!"
I spoke by phone to Phil Neville, the Everton captain and former England international whose brother, Gary, is now serving as an assistant coach on England's Euro 2012 team. Phil has been in Los Angeles with his family and Everton teammate Tim Cahill doing some training at Athletes Performance to get ready for the Premier League season.
Neville took in a recent L.A. Galaxy game with his son, Harvey. "My little boy is nine now, and he loves watching football," Neville says. "We know David [Beckham] really well, and the Galaxy are obviously my favorite MLS team with David and Landon [Donovan, his occasional Everton teammate]. I like to look at other football styles. The league is getting stronger and stronger, and from a career/life experience playing here would be unbelievable. I'm not saying I'll do it, but I love coming here on vacation."
Neville has been in daily contact with his brother Gary at the Euro, and he has been impressed with England's performance so far. "The expectation has been really low, but I think we've done really well," he says. "[Danny] Welbeck has been a breath of fresh air. [Steven] Gerrard has been doing well, and [Theo] Walcott has shown he can be a secret weapon with pace down the right side. Speaking to my brother, one of the things he says is the spirit is fantastic. When you've got a good spirit, that can take you a long way."
As for Donovan, I asked Neville if he was trying to persuade the U.S. star to make a full-time move to Everton. "If there is a chance, I make sure that I try every time I speak to him," Neville told me. "That's the first thing I say to him. Toward the end of his spell back in January I even tried to kidnap him for a while and keep him in England."
"I'm telling the truth here when I say the last two times he's been over he's totally transformed our season. He's the ultimate professional, he's got great quality, and the Everton fans love him. He's a hero at Goodison Park, and he's probably only played 20 to 25 games for us. I've played with some world-class right-sided players in my time, and he's up there with them."
Didier Drogba announced this week that he signed with Shanghai Shenghua, but it wasn't for a lack of trying by MLS to land his signature instead. MLS confirmed to me that the league's executive vice-president, Todd Durbin, and one other official met with Drogba's reps in Morocco when Drogba was there for a recent World Cup qualifier. Their offer wasn't good enough, apparently, and now it's worth asking how the financial rise of soccer clubs in China, Brazil and elsewhere may impact MLS's hopes of signing big-name players toward the end of their careers. Clarence Seedorf is the next Euro star who may be headed somewhere other than MLS (Brazil perhaps), so keep an eye on this developing trend. Will it push MLS even more toward youth development?