Radical. Fanatic. Ideologue. These are terms that aren’t often attributed to professional athletes, but they are the first ones that come to mind when looking to describe Xavi Hernández, the greatest Spanish player of all time and arguably the greatest midfielder to ever play the game.
When Xavi speaks in public, he defends an idea with the unwavering conviction of a cult leader, eschewing the platitudes and clichés that are commonplace in professional sports interviews. Here’s an example from a sit down with Sports Illustrated in 2012:
“I’ve spent 20 years [at Barca], and always with the same idea: Play keep-away, keep possession, don’t lose the ball, head up, look before you receive. Those are all concepts that are taught in Barcelona’s academy. Then the aim [on the senior team] is to win, but not at any cost. It’s winning through this philosophy, starting with respect. We’re watched by the whole world. Everybody is following Barcelona. That’s why we have to set an example. That’s what [Johan] Cruyff also taught us, the idea of a youth system, coaches, so many people behind all of this.”
Now that has Xavi announced that he is leaving Barcelona for Qatar, there will be hundreds of pieces heaping praise on the legend, and deservedly so. But praise for Xavi wasn’t always universal. At times, it’s been quite the opposite, and during those times, it was Xavi’s unwavering belief that his way was right that got him through.
Xavi first came to prominence when he led the Spanish side to victory at the 1999 Under-20 World Cup. He was dominant throughout the tournament, including an amazing assist in the final against Japan. The next year he would lead Spain to the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics, scoring a goal in the final against a Cameroon side that featured Samuel Eto’o and Carlos Kameni (Spain would lose on penalties after having two players sent off). Xavi was, in essence, the greatest Spanish talent of his generation.
He struggled, however, to translate his national team success to his club. As he admitted in his farewell press conference, the shadow of his predecessor in midfield, Pep Guardiola, loomed large.
“The fact that I was dubbed ‘Guardiola’s successor’ made things two or three times more difficult for me and it was hard to get past that”.
It is always difficult to see a radical’s point, at first. At Barça, it took roughly six years to begin the conversion to the cult of Xavi, but his conviction remained the same. It was Barça that had to see the light.
Watch this video of his debut in 1998 under Louis van Gaal. The 18-year-old Xavi is immediately recognizable. The way he looks behind him before receiving a pass; the way he scans the field from left to right when he has space on the ball; the way he passes on the first touch; the way his passes always seem to break through one or two of his opponents’ defensive lines (oh yeah, he even scored a good goal).
For many years, however, fans and the press were unconvinced by Xavi, who they saw as too small and slow, and not adept for the “modern game.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the in vogue midfielders were physical beasts like Patrick Vieira, Edgar Davids and Roy Keane. Barça, at the time, was going through a very dark period, with a string of trophy-less seasons under president Joan Gaspart. A lot of the team’s problems were blamed on Xavi.
Xavi has stated several times that he thought about leaving. When Barça signed Deco in the summer of 2004, many thought that he was coming in to replace Xavi. Frank Rijkaard, however, had the idea to build a side around quick passing, populating the middle of the field with players who had touch, vision, and accuracy. The Deco-Xavi axis (anchored by Rafa Márquez) became a dominant force. Barça overcame a six-year title drought to win two La Ligas and one Champions League in dominant fashion.
Xavi’s ideas were starting to win out. The club was finally starting to build a team that had other players who could understand his philosophy. The radical was starting to gain disciples.
The final turning point came in 2008, when Luis Aragones decided to blow up the Spanish national team he had been building for years and hand the reins to Xavi. Until then, Aragones had favored a more spartan team anchored in central midfield by Valencia’s enforcer David Albelda. In the final run up to Euro 2008, though, Aragones encouraged his side to play a possession-based style, with Xavi at the center of it all. Spain won that tournament in spectacular fashion, and Xavi was named Player of the Tournament.
That summer coincided with Guardiola, another fanatic, being appointed head coach at Barcelona. The man who haunted Xavi in his early years was now his manager, but this time, the story would be different. In Xavi, Guardiola had the perfect proselytizer on the field. Guardiola’s arrival at Barça was the final step in the club’s evolution to fit Xavi’s vision – the same one he had when he was debuting at 10 years before.
That team’s magnum opus came with a 5-0 victory in 2010 against Real Madrid, which was led by Barcelona’s ideological opponent, Jose Mourinho. Xavi opened the scoring that day, and never had a Real Madrid side looked so impotent against Barcelona. It was complete and total destruction. Faced with such utter superiority, the only reaction the Real Madrid players could muster was to lash out violently.
Xavi leaves Barça as the most decorated Spanish player of all time: eight La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey’s (with a chance for a third), three Champions Leagues (with a chance for a fourth), two European Championships and one World Cup. To him, the dozens of titles are secondary to an idea – his own radical, non-negotiable idea of how the game should be played.
The fact that he was able to impose his will is a testament to his greatness, on and off the field. They say ideas are bulletproof, and Xavi Hernández is a living testament to that.