In an interview with Sid Lowe in February of 2011, his eyes lit up as he mentioned the names of Matt Le Tissier and Paul Scholes, especially Paul Scholes. The question was asked, “Is Paul Scholes the English Xavi?” to which came the response, almost spluttering in excitement, “Paul Scholes?? A role model! The best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years!”
It encapsulates the essence of Xavi. In his response, he deflects the attention to the Ginger Prince, self effacing and humble, representing the ideals of the teams he has come to embody and symbolise. Oh, and this writer humbly begs to differ, not that he knows better than the Barcelona maestro himself – Xavi is the best central midfielder of the last 15, 20 years. Perhaps in history even.
Why? Xavi is consistently decisive; staggeringly so and it has been this way the last 5 years. His recent performance against AC Milan, with Barcelona staring down the “no team has ever recovered a 2-0 deficit from the first leg”, marked him out as a champion. Standing at 1.70m, his stature belies his gargantuan intelligence, his eyes ever probing, head spinning left-right-left as if on a dial, on the lookout for that teammate in space or spinning away in trademark style from the opposition:
It is a riveting experience watching Xavi in his element. On Tuesday, he stood tallest, even Lionel Messi’s brace not able to detract from the brilliance of Barcelona’s number 6. Brilliance for yes, he almost always is, particularly in the ‘biggest’ of games.
That Xavi’s rise comes as surprise to many is understandable, even to the man himself. With all the praise that has come his way, he insists, “I have always played the same way”, and with truth. A video of his performance versus England in 2004 showcases the little maestro stroking the ball around for fun, dominating his illustrious opposition with his ball craft and eye for a pass. It looks very much like the Xavi we all drool over today, the same bowlegged gait, the reflex glance over the shoulder all there, the tempo of the passing kept in tick-tick consonance not in any way dissimilar to what we see today.
That Xavi started a Champions League final, when fully fit, on the bench as recently as 2006 defies reason, the man preferred to him being Brazilian defensive midfielder, Edmilson. As Xavi, outspoken as he is, remembers how he became “Barcelona’s cancer” under then coach, Frank Rijkaard, it is apparent how bleak it looked for the man. Like his mentor before him, idol and the man he ultimately replaced, Guardiola, he would disappear into obscurity, trampled into irrelevance as football succumbed to the invasion of the physical titans. Just what if. Fast forward 6 years – In the top 5 of the FIFA World Player of the Year vote for 5 years running and IFFHS ‘playmaker of the year’ for 4 consecutive years, he symbolises an ethos, one based on patient, probing possession designed to ‘vaccinate’ opposition at the slightest loss of concentration. Yes, from cancer to paradigm of worldwide admiration and excellence- a lot has changed since then.
So from nearly ‘extinct’, as he often says, to arguably the best midfielder in history – how did that happen? So what did change? In short, it was, as Iniesta recently described it, “a pragmatic’’ switch, a shift to a style of football which suited the little men of Catalunya and Spain at large that brought about this incredible change in fortune, the short-passing brand of football, tiki-taka. In many ways, it encapsulates all that was wrong with football then – the emphasis on power and physique, when aesthetics in football became about the physical. It was not who was the most cunning or the cleverest, but rather who could run fastest, jump highest, and tackle hardest.
That was never Xavi, and it never would be. When asked if he sees himself as a ‘defender of the faith’, his answer said it all – “It was that, or die”. Of course, it also took a drastic change of approach enforced by Luis Aragones’ stubborn belief in ideals to start bringing the world round to the idea that perhaps football was also for little men. Two years after he played unused substitute in a Champions League final, Xavi was named Golden Ball winner at Euro 2008, coming full-circle in the oh-so topsy turvy world that is football. In defeating Germany, Spain started with ‘little men’ – Iniesta, Silva, Xavi and Fabregas – finally consummating the belief in technique over force with a smooth dismantling of the German machine. Xavi, having run the game and indeed the tournament for Spain, provided the most acute of through balls for Torres to run onto and dink into the far corner. At the final whistle, while all remembered Torres, and indeed lauded his considerable talents, Xavi, the man of the tournament, remained conspicuously in the background. Winning, as they did – on their own terms – merely reinforced their belief in the style. Guardiola, appointed at the end of the 2008 club season, would arrive and restore the belief in the club ideals and tradition, cementing the faith and confidence of the players. From then on, Xavi came to symbolise, and form the heart of a footballing philosophy that has gone on to dominate world football over the last 5 years, resetting attitudes and changing the way the beautiful game is played the world over.
Before Barcelona faced Milan on Tuesday, doubt surrounded the participation of one man. Age is slowly, ever so slowly taking its toll on the ‘coach on the pitch’, Xavi, but his talents remain undiminished. The week before, having sat out Barcelona’s league defeat at Real Madrid with an injury, he watched, in the solitude of his home, as his team seemingly crumbled, both psychologically and physically, to their closest rivals. Not quite an ‘epiphany’ it is said hit him, but it was something close. From that perspective, with no pressures, he watched as he saw his side play football devoid of what stood them out in the first place – movement, speed of though, intensity, pressing. Jordi Roura needed the senior players to stand up and be counted, to lead, to coax and cajole, to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and Xavi, in almost inimitable fashion, duly obliged. His two assists, the second of which was a superb first time pass to David Villa, merely confirmed what we all know – this is a player as decisive as he is iconic. Nicknamed ‘La Maquina’ by teammates and those at the club, his consistency is almost mechanical, rarely dropping below world class, and often transcending that label. Once again, he had come full circle – from a player who stayed on the bench despite achieving full fitness to one whose fitness, although not assured, was sweated upon and who ultimately played despite those doubts – the gamble was evidently worth it. Painkillers did the trick.
Take a look at those seminal moments in Barcelona and Spain’s successes over the last 5 years, Xavi ubiquity, only rivalled by Iniesta, makes him stand out even though conventionally, he probably should not. In football, people always remember the goal, the provider often forgotten in the blur of delirious celebration. Of course, readily available statistical collations are changing this as people begin to appreciate the value of the work of the ‘man before THE man’, the one who provides in humble service for the goal-getter to claim the plaudits. Xavi’s involvement in those decisive goals over the years has become trademark. To dominate a game without goals on such a consistent basis illuminates his presence – it happens too often to be overlooked. If something happens too often, it stops being coincidence and people start to notice. Since his Tournament-deciding assist in 2008, perhaps only a list will be able to illustrate the volume of his continuous contribution. When Barcelona dismantled Real Madrid in 2009, 6-2, Xavi racked up a barely believable 4 assists. In a game of that magnitude, at the Bernabeu, it almost defied belief. Of course, everybody remembers Henry and Messi scoring two each but Xavi’s vision and intelligence were at the centre of that trouncing. In the 5-0 in 2010, widely lauded as the best football performance ever, he scored the first goal, setting Barcelona on their way.
At the World Cup in 2010, it was his deft flick to Villa which helped break down a stubborn Portugal side and it was his corner kick which was converted by Puyol for the winner in the semi-final against Germany.They were both 1-0 wins; decisive. Of course, in 2011, on their way to Champions League victory, Xavi once again got a crucial assist for Pedro to open the scoring at Wembley. At the Euro 2012 finals, despite being played out of position throughout, and struggling to influence the game as he liked, the mere fact that he was forced into the side merely illustrates his importance to the current Spanish side. So often spoken about in tandem with Iniesta (who was having an excellent tournament and would eventually succeed Xavi as Golden Ball winner), the younger man was receiving the accolades in an unusual context – there was no Xavi to share them with. Thus, as Spain geared up to face Italy, all the talk was about Iniesta and Pirlo, another who, so nearly suffered a similar fate to Xavi (discarded for free by Milan and allowed to join Juventus, he has since been described by Buffon as the “signing of the century”). On D-day, Xavi served up a Man of the Match performance in delivering two assists, guiding Spain to a record breaking 4-0 victory and quelling any talk of a premature demise.
Never has a player, perhaps apart from Johan Cruyff who is himself indelibly written into the history of Barcelona, symbolised a particular approach to the game as Xavi does. It is poignant that if not for Cruyff, perhaps we might not have been blessed with the talent that is Xavi Hernandez and in many ways, Cruyff points the way to the future for Xavi. As Pep Guardiola admired Johan Cruyff and became his ‘general’ on the pitch, Xavi became Guardiola’s tactical brain on the pitch. So close were they, particularly in football thinking, that it is often said that Xavi knew what action to take on the pitch without reference to the man on the touchline. A keen student of the game, pardon the cliché, there is no reason he cannot perhaps replicate the successes of his mentors and role models someday.
This writer wrote, prior to Euro 2012, that it might be the last major international tournament for Xavi. Injuries are indeed catching up with him, and he is 33 years old – no more a spring chicken even though his spiky haircut will perennially disagree. Nevertheless, his influence refuses to wane and at this rate, this writer concedes that not only was he wrong, but he is glad to be wrong.
He will be at the next world cup with Spain barring horrific injury, gunning for a 4th major international trophy on the bounce. They are already the first team to win back to back European Championships and a World Cup – in all those, Xavi remained constant. Come 2014, it would be a brave man to bet against the decisiveness of ‘La Maquina’.