When Spain plays its final World Cup game tonight against Australia,
it’ll most probably not field Xavi Hernandez, the legendary midfielder
who has conducted his team’s success for six years and won
everything there is to win at the pinnacle of football. Our writer takes a close look
at Xavi’s rise and what made him so successful, so influential
and so unusual in contemporary football.
It was halfway through the 2008-09 football season and I was looking at pieces of what had been my life. There was little desire to talk to anybody. Friends trying to talk me out of my depression were getting tired of the brooding silence. What made it worse was the decline and decadence of Ronaldinho, the magician who had dominated football’s biggest stages from 2002 to 2006.
I could have used some Ronaldinho magic on television; with one ridiculous-looking twist on the ball, he could make me forget any misery. But an inexperienced Pep Guardiola, 37, had taken over as the manager of FC Barcelona that summer, and he didn’t want any of Ronaldinho’s stardom. And I didn’t want any of football – certainly not the hustle and combat of the English Premier League – so I disconnected my TV.
“Have you seen that little magician? He’s the only player I’ve seen who doesn’t look down at the ball while it is moving towards his feet,” said a friend with whom I had seen some stunning Ronaldinho moments on TV. I’d caught glimpses of Xavi before (pronounced Chavi; full name: Xavier Hernandez i Creus), playing second fiddle to the likes of Deco and Edgar Davids for that Barcelona side. But that summer of 2008, playing for Spain, he had come into his own at the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland. I’d seen newspaper articles describing Xavi as the man of the tournament for helping win Spain’s first major football trophy.
I caught one of the UEFA Champions League games in the winter – I remember noticing Xavi moving all over the pitch to play with every player in his team, deciding the run of play with his ball distribution. He had a refined touch on the ball, that hallmark of elite playmakers. There was a striking difference, though. He worked terribly hard on the field, even if he made it look easy.
The ball seemed attached to his feet by a yo-yo string – he pinged it around and it kept coming back. The people playing around him constantly gave him the ball, as if requiring him to consecrate each move. Xavi hogged the ball selfishly, and offered goal-scoring chances selflessly. The man was obviously gifted with superb technical skills: he could jink, dribble and make opponents look foolish repeatedly. He could also assist the business of goal-scoring that is central to football.
I’d found a player to watch. Soon, there were conversations with friends before big games; there was anticipation, excitement. The Daily Mail of England, though, disagreed. On January 13, 2009, it carried a photo of the five players who topped the FIFA Player of the Year nominations. “The best players in the world (and Xavi),” it declared. The piece has since been removed from the website. (The Daily Mail has apologized for the headline, though even the apology is churlish.)
That year, Barcelona won the Spanish premier league and reached the UEFA Champions League final against Manchester United. I called several friends and asked them to keep an eye on Xavi – I watched the game with two friends who were rooting for United. That evening, Xavi rolled off a master class, controlling and running the game, the man of the match. The high point was a delectably-weighted aerial pass that assisted the second goal – it stayed cleared of the 6’2” defender Rio Ferdinand and the 6’5” goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, to be headed into the back of the net by Lionel Messi, who stands at 5’7”.
Watching the pass-master over the past six months had already been therapeutic for me. For passing a football is a transaction with a teammate, a connection with another human being. One has to emerge out of oneself and look at other people; no time to hang your head and sulk. You have to combine and create, you have to move on. The 2008-09 season belonged to Xavi; he moved from one triumph to another, inspiring his club to an unprecedented sextuple: six trophies. Barcelona won each competition it entered that season.
The 2008-09 football season was my Passover; I recovered my joy watching Xavi pass the ball around in that inimitable manner of his, turning his head side to side, not looking at the ball while receiving a pass. Since then, he has led Spain to a World Cup victory in 2010 and another European Championship in 2012. By now, Xavi has won everything there is to win at the pinnacle of football, becoming Spain’s most successful footballer.
* * *
Football lore is full of the achievements of great pass-masters – Didi was the engine behind Brazil’s first World Cup victory in 1958, Socrates led the greatest side to never win the World Cup, France had a sublime passer in Michel Platini. How does Xavi stack up in that roll of honor? Some of the most respected football writers have begun to say he is right there at the top.
“At his best, Xavi controlled matches better than any midfielder in the world, maybe better than any midfielder ever has…” writes Michael Cox. The Guardian’s senior sports writer Barney Ronay is known as much for his original line of compound adjectives as for his excoriating profiles of famous footballers – even when he gives a compliment, the reader isn’t sure if there isn’t a subtle joke there. In March this year, he wrote a profile of Xavi:
“…all things considered, [Xavi] has been the best player in the world for the last five years, whose broader influence probably matches that of any player in any era. No footballer has ever played such a decisive role in victory at three major international tournaments, or defined so clearly the dominant club team of the age. Xavi has won 25 major trophies, made more than 180 assists for more than 50 team-mates at Barcelona, and has over the last six years passed the ball more than anybody else, run more than anybody else, and basically played more football than any other human being anywhere.
“…Never mind the goalscorers, the cossetted glory-boys parcelling out the Ballon d’Or between them season after season. Messi may be brilliant, but he is brilliant in a way footballers have pretty much always been brilliant. Xavi on the other hand, is something new, a player of preternaturally precise talents whose style – brutal, exhausting, aggressively unrelenting possession-football – has spread by trickle-down to lend a Xavi-coloured hue to pretty much every high-end midfield in every successful team anywhere.”
Xavi’s role model and mentor Guardiola is credited with giving him the nickname Maqui, short for maquina, or the machine. But then there also is that memorable Guardiola comment on his protégé: “When he has a day off, he goes and picks mushrooms in the countryside, and someone who picks mushrooms can’t be a bad bloke.”
The greatest appreciation of a player, though, comes from his opponents. Iker Casillas is the captain of Barcelona’s rival Real Madrid – it is often described as one of football’s fiercest rivalries. In April 2010, in an interview before a clásico, Casillas said: “People ask me every year who I’d take out of their side to give us a better chance of winning and every year I tell them: ‘Xavi’. Apart from being my friend, he’s just fantastic – his control and use of the ball make him their best player.”
Later that day, Xavi controlled the game at Real Madrid and provided the two assists that won the game 0-2 for Barcelona – one each for Messi and Pedro.
It is playing along with Xavi and Iniesta that Messi has attained the heights that took him to an unprecedented four consecutive years as the world’s best player. By habit, Iniesta appears on Xavi’s left and Messi on his right. If they happen to line up during play, they tend to quickly split into position and form a triangle, within which opponents keep running as if they are on a carousel, as the ball is moved around one-touch.
This trinity has provided some of the most breathtaking moments in football over the past six years. Three players who stand at 5’7” in a sport dominated by tall and strong players. Three players who are from Barcelona’s youth academy where young boys are coached into a brand of football known by its shorthand: tiki-taka. Adopted from the Dutch total football of the ’70s and cultured in the Barcelona youth system, this style has become an identity tag for Spain in recent years.
Success has brought with it a fair share of criticism. There are those who say this insistence on the grammar of football is at the cost of spontaneity. That this relentless possession-football stifles a good contest and is boring to watch for those who are not content with its aesthetic side. It has also engendered a very interesting debate on the nature of tradition and individual talent. For the Barcelona youth system is seen as an assembly line that produces tiki-taka clones.
Xavi is at the center of this debate, being the ideologue and the embodiment of that style. Which means the defeats and setbacks Spain and Barcelona have suffered over the past year or so are also on Xavi’s account – including last week’s humiliating first-round exit from the World Cup in Brazil.
Anything but. Possession is only one part of Xavi’s football. It’s what he and his teammates do with the ball that counts. In fact, what counts even more is how they play off the ball. Xavi’s teammates themselves do not know what he is about to do, for the plans exist entirely inside his head. So all his teammates constantly run hard in search of space and positions to receive the ball from Xavi.
“I’m a team player,” he has said over and over. “Individually, I’m nothing. I play with the best and that makes me a better player. I depend on my team-mates. If they don’t find space, I don’t find them with the ball and I become a lesser footballer.” He doesn’t have a single individual award of note – no Balon d’Or, no FIFA Player of Year, no Golden Boot. His greatest individual achievement is how his teammates run in the direction that his head turns. He turns another way and they run back into position. When he looks again in an area in front of them, they run again. The biggest, richest, most successful footballers willing to be herded like sheep!
With so many players running around it becomes very difficult for the other team to gauge the run of play. Which explains why some teams playing against Barcelona choose to get ultra defensive – what’s called parking the bus in front of the goal – or wait to hit them with a speedy counter-attack. Some of these teams have been successful, too, most notably José Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010. But it’s not just being found out by the opposition. The Xavi brand of football requires a high-intensity collectivism that is tiring. It is impossible to sustain it year after year. Xavi now shows signs of fatigue.
That should not be a problem given Barcelona’s youth system: theoretically, it should churn out players like Xavi every year. “It turns out that this isn’t the case and that we have instead been living through an era of irreplaceable playing talent,” wrote Ronay last week after Spain’s second defeat in the first round that knocked them out. “As is so often the case, the genius player comes first, the philosophy second, and Xavi is the spider at the centre of this web. There is a theory Spain were not really exposed by the tide of history here. What happened is that Xavi got old.”
Even if Barcelona find another player with Xavi’s football talents, he won’t fill the hole that Xavi’s impending retirement will create. For as much as he is a creation of that club and its unique youth program, he has survived in Barcelona in the face of terrible odds.
To begin with, it was difficult for him to play regularly in the first team, although he made his debut aged 18. He had to compete with Guardiola for a slot, who was a legend by that time. He has talked about supporters booing him when he substituted Guardiola in games, for they played in the same position of the deep-lying playmaker. He thought of leaving the club, especially because Manchester United were interested in him.
The club, too, was considering offloading him in the early 2000s. In his book Barca, journalist Graham Hunter writes that the club’s managing-director had briefed at least one agent that the club was “open minded to the idea of selling Xavi – largely because he didn’t have ‘great marketing cachet’.”
“What eventually made the difference is that I’m as stubborn as a mule,” Xavi told Hunter. “I thought about going to United, but I dug my heels in. I said to myself, ‘I need to prove myself here.’ The lucky break for me came when Pep left. As a player, I needed him to go, but then I loved it when he came back to take over as manager.”
“A product of the La Masia system?” asks Hunter in his book. “Well there’s nothing shinier, prettier, more fashionable or sexy. But let’s not forget that system’s flaws and failures. Xavi was mistreated, almost sold, played in the wrong position and left brutally frustrated by a lack of standards, vision and direction at the club.”
Unlike Guardiola who was handpicked and coached by Johan Cruyff, Xavi had no one coach in his early years after breaking into the senior team at the club. Till 2003, managers played him in the same position as Guardiola, a slower player with a bias to the long pass.
Then Frank Rijkaard took over and convinced Xavi that he needed to change his position, play more centrally and deliver final-goal passes. That’s also the time that Ronaldinho, Edgar Davids and Deco joined Barcelona, which meant more competition in the midfield. Playing with them also sharpened Xavi as a player. So when Guardiola took over as manager in 2008 and purged the club of its stars, Xavi was at hand to take over the mantle of leadership.
Now 34 and clearly over the hill, there is talk that Xavi may finally leave the only club he has ever played for. Leave for the US or for Qatar, where has-been footballers go for some retirement funds. There are those who say Barcelona will absorb him into management, for he has all the signs of a great manager. He may still have a year or two of club football left in him, but it is most unlikely he will play for Spain after this World Cup. The Spanish national team is due an overhaul.
Me? I’ve had an enjoyable run of watching great football on TV for the past six years. The joy has permeated several spheres of my life. I’ve even been to Barcelona in 2012 and seen Xavi perform in the flesh at the Camp Nou.
On Monday night, I will sit in front of a TV with some friends and watch Spain’s last game, hoping to see Xavi in national colors one last time. Not like a fan or a consumer of sport as a form of entertainment. But as one of the innumerable people who have been touched by the idea of holding up one’s head and playing a pass.