There was perhaps no better way to honour Xabi Prieto.
Real Sociedad’s decision to play the penultimate game of the season with his face adorned on the club crest summed up in the best possible manner what he meant to them.
No minute’s applause, testimonial or ceremony would’ve been enough. Instead, in front of an adoring Anoeta crowd, his face face was made the symbol of the club.
“A historical example deserves a historic gesture,” said a statement from La Real. “Xabi has always played for the badge, therefore in his last game at Anoeta [Stadium], Real Sociedad will take him for a day as the badge”.
— Real Sociedad (@RealSociedadEN) May 12, 2018
In his fifteen years with the club, eventually making it to fifth on the all-time appearance list, he did not win a single trophy. In truth, it doesn’t matter. The 35-year-old was old school: socks rolled down, shirt hanging out and boots often blacked out. Prieto was something of a throwback.
He was a player from the days when money and trophies weren’t an obsession, when what mattered is how you played the game, and if you did so with class. A one-club man, he’s a rare breed.
He won’t be pitching up in China, MLS or anywhere else; it simply isn’t his way. A season ticket holder at La Real since he was a youngster, he will likely be seen in a giant parka with a scarf wrapped around his neck, cheering on his beloved team from the stands.
Offers arrived throughout his career, of course; his undeniable talent was not lost on people. One came from Liverpool, another from Ajax. He also had the chance to leave following La Real’s relegation, but told the club he wanted to stay and didn’t plan to abandon ship.
They were in the second tier for three years, too, so it wasn’t a rapid return. The challenge, as Prieto has explained many times, only made him hungrier. Prieto couldn’t see himself happy anywhere else, and rather than money or trophies, the feeling of being with one club, his club, forever, motivated him more than anything.
It is possible to stay with one club, despite plenty of evidence suggesting the contrary. When asked what he’d tell all the exciting young players in Sociedad's famous Zubieta academy, his response was beautifully predictable: “What would I say to new generations? You can play for La Real all your life and be happy.”
As well as bleeding blue and white, he also has class running through his veins.
An exceptional professional, he played the game at his own pace. Never quick or physically adept, he instead played with smarts and cunning. He’s a reader of the game, and someone who understands what is in front of him; in this profession, the pitch, the ball . . . and his team-mates. Having Prieto on the field made life that bit easier.
As the game has moved on off the field, it has on it, too. Things have become more pressurised; there is less time to think and do what you planned to do. Prieto fortunately adapted his game, and became better at using his initiative when receiving the ball. Without natural speed or strength, his brain became his greatest weapon. Like Xavi often said, the mind doesn’t slow down and instead it becomes more wise, refined.
Prieto played the game in slow motion at times, akin to the actions of Juan Román Riquelme and Juan Carlos Valerón. Time seems to slow down when these players are in possession, and as everything moves around them they glide gracefully across the turf. Even in games of high pressure and intensity they remain true to their style: methodical and elegant.
He became famous for his use of the ‘panenka’ penalty, and even had the audacity to do one at the Bernabéu, despite only being in his tender years. That performance in Madrid in the 2003-2004 season perhaps summed Prieto’s style up better than most. Sharing a field with greats like Luis Figo and Ronaldo, it was the Sociedad youngster who shone the brightest.
The next move for Prieto will be interesting, and in some way shape or form he wishes to be linked with football, and ideally his beloved La Real. Much to his delight, his son has already told him he wishes to follow in his graceful footsteps by signing for the club. The legacy, therefore, could well be continuing in the Prieto household.
Asked recently by ESPN what mattered to him most in football, Prieto responded with one short answer: “Feeling loved is the nicest thing there is.”
He might not have won trophies, and his bank balance is hardly on par with many footballers of today, but Prieto has the one thing few have found in football: love.