Xabi Alonso shows courage by opting to stay at Leverkusen

Xabi Alonso confirms he will be staying at Bayer Leverkusen (2:33)

Xabi Alonso insists his "job is not over" with Bayer Leverkusen. (2:33)

Score this one for the little guy. OK, maybe not the little guy exactly, considering Bayer Leverkusen are owned by Bayer -- a pharmaceutical behemoth with 100,000 employees worldwide and $55 billion of revenue in 2023 -- but you get what I mean.

Xabi Alonso had a more-than-realistic chance of filling the managerial vacancy at Bayern Munich (league titles: 33, Champions League titles: 6, domestic cups: 20) or Liverpool (league titles: 19, Champions League titles: 6, domestic cups: 18) this summer. Instead, on Friday he announced that he'd stick around for at least another season at the helm of Bayer Leverkusen (league titles: 0, Champions League titles: 0, domestic cups: 1).

It's the football equivalent of the hotshot mid-major coach turning down a job at the massive SEC powerhouse to stay loyal to the folks who believed in him and the recruits he brought on board.

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"At this moment I feel this is the right place for me to develop as a coach," he said. "It's a process, the development of the team is parallel with my development as a manager. ... I still have a lot of things [to do] to prove myself, to experience, and right now I have a situation in the club where I feel really stable, really happy with the team and the club."

The current season is his first full campaign as a top-flight manager, and it couldn't be going much better. Leverkusen are undefeated in all competitions, have a 10-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga and are on track to set the league's all-time single-season points record. They are in the semifinal of the German Cup and the quarterfinals of the Europa League, which means they could yet win a trifecta of trophies. Such an accomplishment would be hugely meaningful for a club who turn 120 on July 1 and have but two pieces of silverware to show off, the most recent dating back 31 years.

Professional sports have a pretty clear hierarchy and their rat-race rules dictate that when you get offered a (clearly) bigger job, you take it. Partly because it makes you richer. Partly because it makes you more famous. Partly because it's a sign of ambition and confidence that you can handle the biggest challenges. Partly because this isn't the NFL: there's a very obvious class system and the biggest, richest clubs have enormous built-in advantages and usually win, so if you can join the one-percenters, you go for it, because success is measured in trophies.

That's especially true considering these types of jobs don't come along that often. Bayern have an opening because Thomas Tuchel will leave at the end of the season after becoming the first Bayern manager since 2012 not to win the Bundesliga title -- and that's in part thanks to Xabi Alonso. Liverpool are looking for a new boss because, after eight years in charge, Jurgen Klopp wants to take a break.

This sort of thing doesn't happen every year, and it certainly doesn't happen at two of the four clubs for which Xabi Alonso turned out back in his playing days and with whom he has a very evident bond. (Real Madrid, by the way, are another one of those clubs. He was mooted as a possible successor to Carlo Ancelotti until the 64-year-old Italian extended his deal in December.)

That's part of what makes Xabi Alonso's decision so remarkable. He would have had the perfect out. After landing in Leverkusen, building the greatest team that town has ever seen and winning silverware, he could have said, "We made history together and I'll love you forever, but I'm sure you'll understand if I follow my heart to Merseyside." (Or Munich, although given that's another Bundesliga club, that would have been a bit of a heel turn.)

Nope. Instead, he's going to stay and go for a repeat. Despite the fact that Bayer Leverkusen have the fourth-highest payroll in the league and that Bayern's is nearly four times as high (and they will undoubtedly reload in the summer). Despite the fact that he'll likely lose a couple of his star players this summer. Despite the fact that, statistically, it will be nearly impossible to achieve comparable results next season.

It's a brave decision, contrary to what the grumps who moan that he's too chicken to make the leap to a Liverpool or a Bayern may say. They may tell you he's too insecure to fill Klopp's immense shoes at Anfield or too weak to deal with the pressures of the Sabener Strasse's annual Game of Thrones. They're wrong. Staying put is the gutsiest decision he could take.

This isn't just Leverkusen pulling at his heart strings and sense of loyalty, though. No, this also about humility. And the fact that, simply put, Xabi Alonso is clearly wary of believing his own hype.

It's not a coincidence that he referenced the fact that this is his first full season as a top-flight manager and he's still developing and learning the job. Sports have a way of elevating top coaches into demigods blessed with some magical innate stardust that allows them to motivate athletes, inspire fans and out-coach opponents. Those who buy into it are convinced they're born, not made.

I like to think that Xabi Alonso -- who I had the privilege of covering as a player -- knows better than that. Maybe it's the fact that, in his playing days, he worked under just such coaching deities, from Rafa Benitez to Jose Mourinho to Pep Guardiola. He knows that their charisma is just one facet of their success and there's a ton of grinding and learning (and sometimes failure, of the sort from which you learn) behind it.

He's taking a risk by saying "no," and he may pay a price for it. Leverkusen could crash and burn next season (or simply win nothing). The coaching hype machine may move on to somebody else. His next gig post-Leverkusen might not be at a heavyweight like Liverpool or Bayern but at another mid-major. But that's OK. When that happens, he'll arrive as a better manager, having already shown he's a better man.