Although Uefa seem content to turn matches into children's parties, the Real Madrid midfielder took his role seriously
Among a galaxy of twinkle-footed stars, he is not one who attracts the headlines or the nominations. On Saturday night, however, Xabi Alonso not only scored the goals but celebrated his 100th cap by virtually running the show as Spain continued their defence of the European title with a relatively routine victory over France, the last side to beat them in a major tournament.
That was six years ago, in the first knockout round of the World Cup in Germany, a match in which Zinedine Zidane gave one of the last great performances of his career. A repeat never looked on the cards.
Laurent Blanc has done well to restore the charred ruin left behind by Raymond Domenech. His squad contains talented players, but the gap left by their greatest player of the past 20 years remains, unsurprisingly, to be filled. Zidane would certainly have applauded Alonso's performance, crowned by a powerful headed goal in the first half and a confidently taken penalty in stoppage time.
Against a French team set up to block Spain's passing patterns, with two right-backs specifically deployed in an attempt to foil Andrés Iniesta, the 30-year-old Alonso played the measured game familiar to fans of Liverpool and his current club, Real Madrid.
"I think the Czech Republic and Argentina will be among those who remember his goals," Vicente del Bosque, Spain's coach, said when it was suggested that Alonso did not score often (he had a total of 13 goals in the national shirt before Saturday night). "He is a very good team player. He knows how to help and where to help, in midfield or in wider positions, and he's also one of our attacking strengths, because he knows how to create and how to finish."
Blanc's gambit of doubling up at right-back, with Mathieu Debuchy pushed ahead of Anthony Réveillère in an attempt to limit the scope for Iniesta, was exposed by the opening goal. The little Spaniard slipped a pass inside Debuchy, encouraging the overlapping Jordi Alba to make for the byline and clip over a judicious cross that allowed the unmarked Alonso to dive into his header as if in slow motion – a considerable surprise, since who remembers him scoring with his head?
Even he didn't. Could he remember scoring in such a manner for Spain in the past, or indeed for anyone? A long pause, then a shake of the head. "No, you'll have to ask someone else." Blanc called it an "infuriating" goal. Alonso, he said, had been able to "stroll in" and score. Ten minutes later his side had their best chance of an equaliser through Yohan Cabaye's sensational 25-yard free-kick, after Sergio Ramos had blocked Karim Benzema's promising run. Unfortunately for Cabaye, no goalkeeper has ever bettered Iker Casillas in the art of flying across the goalmouth to tip a fierce shot around the angle.
For most of the match Blanc's team looked half-mesmerised, almost anaesthetised, by Spain's patterns. They did not really wake up until an hour had gone, when Franck Ribéry came to life and started driving for the byline, turning in crosses that were cleared with difficulty. At that point Spain appeared to have switched off, although they were enlivened towards the end by the arrival of the busy Pedro Rodríguez, who removed a little of the languour from their approach. Alonso's penalty came as a belated confirmation of the balance of play.
This is a terrific tournament, impeccably organised and held in a variety of excellent stadiums, but it was sad to see so many empty seats in the Donbass Arena for a quarter-final between two of the three sides to have held the world and European championships simultaneously, one of them the current holders of both titles.
A corner of the stadium was packed by perhaps a thousand authentic visitors from Iberia, but many of those wearing Spanish shirts scattered elsewhere in the stadium turned out to be Ukrainian, as were some of the very much smaller number wearing the blue of France. There were plenty of Ukraine shirts and flags, too, as might be expected, but there were also the occasional chants of "Ross-i-ya" that expressed the true allegiance of many of those who had turned up to watch a match of great significance to both contestants.
More annoying was the Mexican wave that went round the stadium before the half-hour mark, and was sustained for five interminable minutes. This is the first major football tournament in which the wave, rather than being reserved for the interval, has been a regular feature of the playing time itself. A regrettable phenomenon, it is perhaps a consequence of Uefa's insistence on dressing up each match as a children's party.
Why the governing body would want to trivialise big and serious football matches is anybody's guess, although no doubt some dimwit in the marketing department had something to do with it. But any spectator who would participate in a Mexican wave during a match between two sides of such history and quality is insulting the players and does not deserve their ticket.
At least when Davor Suker, the great Croatian who also wore the shirt of Real Madrid, presented Alonso with the man-of-the-match award, a sense of proper football values was restored.