The Inverted Sheepdog
The inside story of how Xavi emerged as the central hub of the world's greatest team
I'm standing just outside the Barcelona dressing-room door at Wembley, about an hour after Manchester United have been defeated 3-1 in the 2011 Champions League final. The dancing, singing and beer-drinking in the Catalan dressing-room have only just died down. I've been charged with interviewing two of the winning players, with the trophy, for the final Champions League Weekly television programme of the season and there is a desperate need for a player to emerge from the fiesta. Getting them agree to the damn request is another thing again.
Eric Abidal has stopped, surprising the life out of me by giving me a big bear hug, but said he'd prefer not to speak because he's too tired and emotional. He has played despite the operation to remove a liver tumour that was supposed to keep him out until August. What's more, he has been given the captain's armband and told to hoist the cup by his captain, Carles Puyol.
Thiago, once my sixth-floor neighbour in our Pedralbes apartment block, also pauses for a quick chat, beer in hand, but he's en route to the mandatory Uefa drugs test.
Barça's reliable, friendly and hard-working press staff have been inside the dressing-room trying to entice one of the victors out while the songs get louder and more raucous. Time drags on, deadlines are being stretched like United's back four and it's not looking good. Other players are whisked away by high-ranking backstage officials for television rights holders who have paid handsomely for access.
Gerard Piqué, tired and hefting a big cardboard box full of I don't know what (it wasn't the goal net which he cut down to keep as a souvenir, because I asked that one) does a nice piece to camera — enjoying being with the cup for a moment. We have been allocated a neighbouring dressing-room and it's a weird moment: the trophy, a Champions League winner I first met when he was still a kid in the cantera and an empty, clean, atmosphere-free changing-room. But his chat is good and his pleasure at winning radiates like a cloud of happiness. However, while he is filmed, all the other players skip past, leaving just one — Xavi Hernández.
"Five minutes Xavi, not a second more," is my pitch as the two ranks of television reporters about 50 feet away growl and will him to say, "No", so that they can get their last hit of a glorious night. He also knows that everyone else is on the team bus. Not only is a big party at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington waiting for him, but the last one on the coach, especially if the rest have been held up, will know all about it.
"OK. I know you're good to your word, let's do it." Joy.
We sprint down the corridor, relieve the Uefa official of the trophy he's removing in the quite legitimate belief that the second interview has as much chance of coming as a Christmas card from José Mourinho this year, knock off a quick piece and prepare to rush the great man to the sanctuary of the bus. For no better reason than residual excitement, I mention to him, as we trot out of the dressing-room, "I thought Messi's movement across your run was outstanding and it opened up Pedro's space for your assist pass." (Xavi's forward run had him poised like a quarterback on the move; Pedro had Nemanja Vidić tight on him, but as Messi went towards Xavi's run, Patrice Evra followed him, Pedro backed off into the vacated space, Xavi found the pass and his teammate finished, bottom corner). Which is enough to make him stop dead and say, "Man, I love the way you enjoy your football," and then walk me through how Barça's first goal happened.
It was magical, just a fractional glimpse of what we all miss out on — reporters, fans, officials, sponsors — when the winning players stop to dissect and enjoy what it is they have just done.
As for Xavi, it was typical that he was compelled to stop and talk about football. He's as good at analysing it as he is playing it, which is why so many believe he'll become Barça coach. It wouldn't be the first time he had followed in Pep Guardiola's footsteps.
That chat was one of the best moments of a long career in sports journalism and it could scarcely have been more different from the first time I tried to get an interview with Xavi. It was 2002 and I'd just moved to Barcelona. The press office had okayed an interview, but needed clearance from the player. In those days, the set-up was different. Sometimes you could see the request from the Barça staff taking place and, unbeknown to Xavi, I witnessed him listen to the press officer, Chemi Teres; I saw him mull it over for less time than it takes him to find a cute pass before saying, "Nah, never heard of him, don't fancy it."
Poor old Chemi had to come back to me with the reply, "Sorry, something's come up and the player's too busy. Let's try again another time." No harm done. Chemi is paid for that work, Xavi probably managed not to lose too much sleep over his side-step and I viewed it as an incentive to win his trust as soon as was feasible.
Wembley 2011 was different. Xavi and Barça were exhilarating. That first goal against Manchester United typified Xavi, Messi and Barça under Guardiola. When Iniesta slipped the ball to Xavi, he was between the lines (in a pocket of space between the opposition's midfield and defence in this case); nobody had picked him up.
During the dribble, he switched body position in case he had to pass in either direction, but there was a given point when Messi was static and Pedro was sandwiched between Evra and Vidić. No goal chance was obvious. But the very second Pedro decided to take a couple of steps backwards, Messi spotted it, darted three or four metres towards Xavi, dragging Evra with him and opening a channel for the pass. Vidić, thinking Evra was still behind him, didn't notice Pedro stealing a few yards on him and getting ready to give Edwin van der Sar 'the eyes' and bury the ball past him. It was poetry.
Football is full of little ironies and quirks of fate. Consider this: when Xavi was establishing himself in the Barcelona first team, the chance to join Manchester United came up. He thought long and hard about it, but decided to dig in and fight for his chance at the club he had always supported.
Xavi is now the venerated, brilliant, visionary, all-time great Spanish midfielder but, between 1998 and 2002, he was an under-rated, misused and unfairly judged young player. His first problem was Pep Guardiola. Xavi followed up his Barça debut against Southampton on the summer tour of 1998 with his competitive debut, under Louis van Gaal, in the Spanish Supercup that August. His chance came because Guardiola and Albert Celades were both injured. Xavi had been on holiday, lying on the beach, only to get an urgent call to take a flight back to Barcelona that afternoon. Destiny calling.
The Supercup first leg was a horrible defeat at Mallorca, but Xavi scored and received rave notices. Guardiola was one of the quickest to praise his "awareness" and "maturity" but vowed to make it hard for Xavi to take his place. He would deliver on that promise.
Van Gaal's team, meanwhile, stumbled on without a single victory, competitive or friendly, from April 19 the previous season until they defeated Rafa Benítez's Extremadura on September 13. Things weren't going well for Spain's champions. In mid-September, Xavi made his Champions League debut, at Old Trafford in a frenetic 3-3 draw against a United side that would go on to win the treble that season. His first La Liga start came in an imperious 3-1 win at Valencia the following month.
By that time, he seemed established as not only a canterano (youth team product) of major promise but a first-team regular. That season, he played every Champions League group game and made 27 appearances in all competitions — making him the tenth most-used footballer in Van Gaal's squad. However, Guardiola's return to full fitness from another calf injury, just before the halfway stage of la Liga, resulted in fewer appearances for Xavi.
It's no disaster for an 18 year old to be kept out of the side by Phillip Cocu, Luis Enrique, Rivaldo, Ronald de Boer, Pep Guardiola and Geovanni, particularly when you score a goal that is vital in the successful defence of the championship. Xavi's strike at Valladolid brought victory in a poor display and sparked a run of one defeat in the next 16 matches until the title was retained. His memory now is that, "of course, when I scored in Valladolid, I was really saving Van Gaal's bacon. He had so many detractors at the time, people wanting him kicked out of the club. That goal was the catalyst for us then going on to win the league."
Xavi had some important business of his own in the April of that first season as a Barça regular. He, Iker Casillas and Carlos Marchena became World Youth Champions in Nigeria, winning a tournament that featured several players who would play a part in his story at Barcelona: Ronaldinho, Seydou Keita, Gabriel Milito, Rafa Márquez, Ashley Cole and Julio César.
The following year, Xavi, with Marchena, Joan Capdevila and Carles Puyol, steered a wonderful Spain squad to the final of the football tournament at the Sydney Olympics; he scored in the final, a 2-2 draw against Cameroon and tucked away his penalty in the shoot-out, only to lose to opponents inspired by Samuel Eto'o. So, in those two breakthrough years, Xavi won the Spanish title, the Fifa Youth World Cup and picked up an Olympic silver medal; a Catalan, schooled in the Barça cantera, evidently gifted and a high achiever. Life should have been sweeter than Turkish Delight dipped in Nutella.
Yet the Camp Nou not only didn't take him to its heart immediately, he remembers hearing its disapproval if he came on as a substitute for Guardiola, reading fans' letters to papers, hearing them on radio phone-ins, objecting to the young pretender trying to 'oust' King Pep from territory that was rightfully his. The club's managing director, Javier Pérez Farguell, had briefed at least one agent that Barça were "open-minded" to the idea of selling Xavi — largely because he didn't have "great marketing cachet". Iniesta they liked. Iniesta was untouchable. But Xavi, well…
"People initially drew constant comparisons between me and Guardiola — I struggled to shake that off," Xavi admitted when he celebrated his tenth anniversary in the first team in 2008. "To be valued and respected for the way I play was a real battle, especially when Van Gaal used us in the same position and compared the two of us at press conferences. It was hard having to compete against my idol. I worried about robbing him of his place, about whether we would get on or not. I idealised everything about Pep — how he talked, his leadership on the pitch. So, psychologically, it wasn't a great beginning, despite the fact that in terms of my own football, I felt great. But either you're man enough to meet the challenge or you have no place in this club."
Xavi hadn't known that Martin Ferguson caught his debut, in his role as head of European scouting for Manchester United. Ferguson recommended that his club keep a very close eye on this Catalan midfield metronome. So when United were alerted to the fact that Barça were not only in the doldrums, but that Xavi was at a stage at which he had to decide whether to cut the strings and establish himself elsewhere or fight for a life at the Camp Nou, there was real interest.
When I raised the episode with Xavi just before Wembley in 2011, he explained, "There was a long time when I genuinely thought about accepting United's offer. I needed a change of scenery and things were not going well for me at Barcelona. I don't know, perhaps the club thought about selling me, too.
"I have always felt a real attachment to English football and Manchester United would be my club in England. For a long chunk of my career, when it looked like I was the successor to Pep in midfield, I was made to feel like an outsider — a bad guy for taking over from the legendary captain. We are not good at handling change here. The new guy is sometimes looked at like the bad guy. I hated all that debate about me and Guardiola and Van Gaal wasn't particularly tactful to put an 18-year-old kid through it."
The truth is that his father and both his brothers, Alex and Óscar, at various times shared their feelings that Xavi might have to go somewhere else just to be appreciated. "What eventually made the difference is that I'm as stubborn as a mule," he recalled. "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. We've always got on well, despite the fact that we had been set up as rivals. Pep gave me advice and tried to help the situation. Now I know exactly what he expects of me, because he's so good at explaining things. It's all worked out in his head and he communicates his ideas brilliantly.
"I'm a culé — this is my club. I'm in the third Champions League final of this Barcelona generation and I wouldn't swap anything that I missed for what I've had here."
Others took different decisions. Cesc Fàbregas left for Arsenal and his repatriation was a long and thorny process. Marc Crosas encountered similar obstacles. But there was also Mikel Arteta — a real La Masia product. Basque-born, talented, formed at Barcelona, but with quite a queue ahead of him. "I left Barça because Xavi had just been promoted to the first team and Pep was still there playing, too, so I didn't really see a way forward for me," said Arteta. "Luis Fernández called me to try life at PSG on loan and I went. He had played in my position, I learned massively from him and it seemed like a good decision."
Xavi's decision to stay has seen him become the most gifted, consistent and visionary player Spain has ever produced. The stats help make that argument: six league titles and three Champions Leagues with Barça, a world champion with Spain's Under-19s and with the senior team in 2010. He's also the club's all-time appearance holder and has more than 100 caps. It is his package of vision, style, steel, technique and will to win, though, that makes him stand alone in Spanish history.
Xavi's love affair with the ball began on the concrete-covered Plaza del Progreso in Terrassa, about an hour outside the city of Barcelona. It's where he still lives.
Smallest of the gang, Xavi nonetheless ran the show, never letting the ball run away from him on to Galileo Street which runs alongside that town square where a thousand games were won and lost during a golden childhood.
He was so good that Antoni Carmona, Barcelona's scout in the Valleys, not only spotted him when he was six, but pestered Barcelona remorselessly until they signed him five years later. It took that long because Xavi was particularly small, although according to his coach, Joan Vilá, he "already had that amazing ability never to give the ball away."
By the age of 11 he was in, initially driven to and from training (a two-hour round-trip) by his father, then taking the local train from Terrassa to the Camp Nou. His first pay packet, still aged only 11, was 4000 pesetas (around £20) — he took his mother down to the Rambla in Terrassa and bought her a toaster. Today, that same Plaza sports a sign which shows a red line through a soccer ball and reads: 'Fútbol Prohibido'.
"They've made it very nice, very modern, but they've screwed it up for the kids who are like I was — no chance of playing football there now," Xavi told Canal+ when they filmed a documentary. It all constitutes another little reminder that time never passes more quickly than during a golden age.
He turned 32 in January 2012; he had what Barça's medics had called a chronic Achilles tendon problem the previous season and still played nearly 60 times for club and country. He thinks there are four or five more good seasons left in him. This is the time to savour him.
The journey from Terrassa town square to Wembley 2011 was filled with learning, intelligence, great passes and good laughs. "In our house, when I was a boy, we lived and breathed Barça," he recalls.
Signing for the youth team meant he got into the matches free, but of course it also meant he wasn't assigned a particular seat. He and the other trainees would turn up 10 minutes before kick-off and find somewhere. "I'd be delighted with myself that I'd found an empty seat and then just before kick-off, some guy would turn up and say, 'That's my seat, kid,' so I'd have to go and find somewhere else. For the really big matches I often ended up sitting on the stairs."
Xavi's home life gave him valuable back-up. "The worst time for a young footballer is between the ages of 15 and 18. That's when all your mates are going to clubs and dating girls and you're stuck at home. My dad played professionally in the second division and a little bit in the Primera and that helped me. He was on top of me all the time — 'Get home by 10! You've got a game tomorrow!' Diet, timetable, attitude — he taught me about professionalism very early. You need to make sacrifices to succeed, but I've also had a lot of luck."
Which is not to ignore his misfortune. Louis van Gaal was his first important senior coach. The Dutchman had the courage to promote the saturnine, intense youngster. The dog days of Van Gaal's reign, though, were so flawed that Barcelona would enter a fallow period of five years without a trophy and with a badly-structured salary system and debilitating debts.
While Van Gaal possesses immense abilities in many areas of football training, he is also brash, stubborn and difficult to be around if he takes against you. He lived off what is called in Spain his libreta — that little notebook you could see him scribbling into during matches. Xavi reported that, "He used to mark us with stars and show us the book with what it said about us in it."
The two had a turbulent relationship, including a spell in which Xavi, having established himself as a first-team regular, was made to do hard time back in the Barça B team. He remembers that period as "some of the worst weeks of my career." But the absolute worst thing Van Gaal did to this talented, creative passer was to insist that he was, solely, a pivote.
Xavi was made to play the defensive role in front of the back four and, while his ability to pick up possession and restart the creative flow for Barça was of a high level, it was obvious that he had to play further forward in the 4-3-3 formation. Coach after coach missed this until Joan Laporta was elected president in 2003 and the classic Dutch, or Ajax, philosophy, was reinstated. "Until Frank Rijkaard arrived I was a pivote for six or seven years," Xavi said. "They asked me to try to get up and down and provide assists, but it's difficult from that position. Ten or fifteen metres further up the pitch, where I play now, makes it much easier for me. I am never afraid of receiving the ball in any situation, I have to get it and pass it 100 times a match. It's a need."
In retrospect, his move towards the danger-zone looks obvious. Xavi's predecessor was Guardiola — taller and much happier hitting longer-distance passes, but not as nippy across short distances. Since Xavi has been unleashed higher up the pitch, the pivote position has been the exclusive territory of tall, strong, tackling players like Edmilson, Rafa Márquez, Yaya Touré, Thiago Motta and Sergio Busquets. Spot the difference between them and the 5' 7" Xavi? Then why couldn't Van Gaal, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, Charly Rexach or Raddy Antić before Rijkaard took over?
Stranger still is that Xavi was so inculcated in his pivote designation that he even told Frank Rijkaard that he didn't really see himself moving further forward in the team. "I've learned a lot from every coach, but perhaps what will stay with me forever is him convincing me to change position, because he told me he envisaged me giving the final goal-pass much more often," Xavi said.
Xavi is the light and shade of the last 10 years. He is the same outstanding product of the Barcelona cantera which is now being lauded as football's great, cure-all production line. A product of the La Masia system? 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. I recall Rijkaard's master-stroke in bringing the Ajax-trained Edgar Davids to Barça in January 2004. He made his debut in a flaccid 1-1 home draw against Athletic, and shone despite being patently out of shape. The link-up play with Ronaldinho defied the Dutchman's reductive 'Pitbull' nickname. Davids and Ronaldinho were on the same level of understanding. I could see Xavi looking to one side each week and realising, "So that's what it takes for us to be a winning, hard-nosed team again. And that's exactly how I could be playing."
Rijkaard's team would have slipped to eighth that night if they'd been defeated; they were already 16 points behind the Liga leaders — Rafa Benítez's Valencia. They were a shambles. But after losing to a David Villa-inspired Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey, Xavi, Davids and Barça lost only once in their next 20 matches, 1-0 to Henrik Larsson's Celtic. That was enough to finish second and, if Rijkaard's team had won, rather than losing, two of their last three games they'd have been champions.
Another of the strokes of luck which Xavi mentions is that Rijkaard fervently wanted his former Ajax teammate, Davids, to stay on a permanent deal, but was rebuffed because Inter offered better terms. Rijkaard held a grudge and when Davids then wanted to return, it was he who was turned down. Davids's departure allowed Xavi, albeit from the other side of midfield, to take up the attacking, creative link play with Ronaldinho and then Eto'o.
Tucked away in that 20-match run when only Alan Thompson's goal at Parkhead brought Barça defeat was a win at Madrid, in the April, which undoubtedly helped Xavi metamorphose into what he has become. Ghosts were exorcised at the Bernabéu, a marker was laid down and Xavi grew in confidence — putting one over a close, but competitive, amigo.
Los Galácticos — David Beckham, Zinédine Zidane, Luís Figo, Raúl and Roberto Carlos (Ronaldo was injured) — were joint top, seven points clear of Barça. A Real victory would have turned blowtorch heat on their co-leaders Valencia and would have cut Rijkaard's surging team adrift. Santi Solari put Los Blancos ahead, a very young and floppy-haired Victor Valdés played unbelievably and eventually Patrick Kluivert equalised.
The exorcised ghost was Figo, who had caused enormous haemorrhaging of self-respect and confidence at the Camp Nou by defecting to Madrid four years previously. A vindictive shin-high foul on Puyol saw the Portuguese sent off and, when Xavi played a delightful one-two with Ronaldinho, it allowed him to volley a lob over his buddy, Iker Casillas, for victory.
Barça went on to finish second and Madrid's golden Galáctico idea began to corrode irrevocably. Following that Xavi-inspired defeat, Madrid lost to Deportivo, Mallorca, Murcia and Sociedad. The result, but more importantly the absolute self-belief displayed that night, marked a shift in power, an augmentation of confidence which would be constantly repeated over the next seven years. "That win, that late goal having been one down, changed the winning mentality with which Madrid had dominated Barça for a few seasons," Xavi said.
Before losing 2-0 to Barcelona in April 2010, Iker Casillas admitted, "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 makes him their best player."
The relationship between Casillas and Xavi has been a defining point of Spain's growing football maturity and recent domination of international tournaments. Clearly, Spain's excellence is a product of many factors, but that Casillas, a die-hard Madridista who would be behind the goal with the Ultras on the Curva Sur if he wasn't a professional footballer, could be truly close friends with Xavi, a dedicated Barça man and symbol of their modern superiority, has helped mend relations and encouraged Catalans, particularly, to feel differently about the national side.
Xavi is first-generation Catalan, proud of his 'country' but not a radical (his father, Joaquín, is Andalucian. He happily wore a Spain flag while cavorting through the post-Euro 2008 celebrations in Madrid — knowing he'd be criticised for it in Catalonia and not giving a stuff.
The two youngsters first met in the build-up to the Under-17 World Cup in Egypt, in which Spain would finish third. During the three-day trial, Xavi played well; Casillas was only 14, but also just a year away from his first call-up to the Real Madrid first team, when he travelled as reserve goalkeeper for a Champions League match against Rosenborg in Norway. Two extreme talents, two polar opposites in terms of their football sentiments — there could easily have been friction. Instead, they shared a common enjoyment of pranks, card games (which Casillas always wins) and a hunger for excellence, even perfection.
Xavi's view is this: "In the youth ranks for Spain you talk more, your goals are identical, but you've done nothing, so I think that fear of not achieving and the drive to succeed makes you share more and thus brings you closer."
Their personalities are complementary, not identical. Casillas isn't quite as happy-go-lucky as Xavi, but slightly more intense, slightly more driven. I've often heard Xavi admitting that he can be a little lazy about his work initially, but can also be unstoppably determined when he gets his teeth into training, a match or, indeed, any other personal objective. Casillas, however, has a remorseless work ethic, a need to set an example, and he hates losing.
However, the Catalan explained to me that the Castilian's image can be deceptive: "Don't be fooled into thinking that Iker is super-serious, he's a joker and a prankster, but I've been privileged to have been his friend and teammate since we were 16. Iker's a complete Madridista and I defend Barça's colours to the death, but it does give off a good image to people that we are friends and teammates. Ordinary, humble, working-class people get behind the national team when they see our bond; we are just guys who don't know about business or politics, only how to play football well."
Xavi often says, "If we [Barça] had more of Madrid's basic philosophy we'd have won the Champions League far more often. I don't know what exactly that club has, or that badge has, but they have always shown an ability to win even when they don't play well." Or he'll say, "Real Madrid players always have loads of jeta [cockiness]". In Casillas he found the former attitude, but an absence of the latter. He liked it and learned from it.
The pair of them can also be stubborn when they want to be. I was invited to attend the Fifa refereeing supervisor's briefing of the Spain team in their 2010 World Cup training camp in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Horacio Elizondo, the Argentinian who sent Zinédine Zidane off in the final of Germany 2006, lectured and quizzed Vicente del Bosque's players for an hour while Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Piqué pinged people's ears, threw rolled up balls of paper at teammates and held true to the norm that the 'bad lads' sit at the back of the classroom.
At the end, he asked for feedback. Casillas, Spain's captain, ceded to Xavi, a vice captain, who gave it to the official, hot and strong. "We've sat here and listened to you for an hour telling us about how the rules are going to be interpreted, which is fine but you go back and you tell Sepp Blatter this," he said. "Tell him that because Fifa aren't watering the pitches anything like sufficiently and because they aren't cutting the playing surface short enough, they are handing a huge advantage to defensive football1. If he wants good football and he wants exciting games, tell him that; tell him to sort the pitches out." Elizondo took an involuntary half-step backwards as Xavi smouldered. It was a valid message, too.
Casillas and Xavi as shop stewards — the seeds were sown in Nigeria in 1999 when Spain became world youth champions. Despite a severe fever which cost him four kilos and saw him sleeping in a tracksuit in 39-degree heat because he was shivering with cold (Xavi hasn't had the best of luck in Africa: he suffered conjunctivitis in Egypt at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup and a horrible animal-hair allergy in Rustenburg in the Confederations Cup in 2009) the Barça midfielder had been stellar during Spain's tournament victory. Oscar Tabárez and Michel Platini visited the Spanish camp towards the end of the competition and, according to the Spaniards, gave them the explicit understanding that Xavi had won the vote for the Golden Ball (for best player) and that his teammate, Gabri, was second. However, at the Fifa gala, not only did Seydou Keita win the Golden Ball, neither Xavi nor Gabri made the podium and Pius Ikedia of Nigeria (who were hammered in the quarter-finals) won silver. The Spain team walked out of the gala and ate in a pizzeria.
Xavi's participation with Spain underlay his success at Barça topping up one of the few under-nourished parts of his game: self-belief. He was always determined, brilliantly talented, athletic, articulate, visionary — but by no means arrogant. Finishing third, first and second in his first three major international tournaments not only helped him develop and ride out the tough years at Barça, it showed him what he was capable of. "Winning the [Under-19] World Cup in 1999 was the catalyst for an entire generation of young Spaniards who saw that we could win the biggest prizes; it was a massively important achievement for all of us," he said.
Guardiola knew innately what it took to win big prizes. Xavi had the abilities from the outset and initially performed precociously, but suffered from not being coached by a genius, as Guardiola was by Cruyff. He needed to assimilate hard-nosed confidence before he could not only emulate Guardiola's achievements, but surpassing them.
Celebrating his 100th cap for Spain, Xavi explained, "As soon as I started playing for the youth international sides I could see and feel the difference. You are regarded differently within your own club, opposition coaches take more notice of you and it's more demanding to play against opponents. It's prestigious and it spurs you on — just ask anyone who's not an international but should be. You feel the difference."
Playing for Spain has moulded Xavi and it's only just and proper that he's given back so much happiness and pride to the country. Development at international level has radically enhanced what he's been able to do for his club.
Xavi had been outstanding during the title win in 2005 — Barça's first trophy for five years — but the severity of the knee damage he suffered in training early in December that year, when he ruptured cruciate ligaments, would restrict him to a place on the bench for the Champions League final against Arsenal in Paris. By the time the 2006 World Cup came around, he was still not at peak fitness.
There were those who were beginning to think that Xavi was a continuation of an old problem for club and country: talented but fragile. Instead, he was the solution; it was just that circumstances were conspiring to delay it. By the time Euro 2008 came along he was ready to dominate, irrespective of the decline of his club's domestic form.
One interview I did with him at the time spoke volumes about his pride in putting the old 'never mind the quality, feel the width' maxim to the sword. It was the first time that the wee men were beginning to dominate under Luis Aragonés. As soon as I arrived at the tournament, one of the Spanish football federation staff told me, "Now that Guti and particularly Raúl are not here, the atmosphere is a million times better — something big could happen this summer.
Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc, Santi Cazorla, Xavi and even David Villa were the relatively diminutive talents who were lifting Spain to quite new levels of performance and reliability. Not one of them is above 5' 9", some considerably shorter.
In Spain's group were Russia, coached by Guus Hiddink. Andrey Arshavin had been banned for the first two matches because of a red card during qualification, but returned in the decisive group match against Sweden. The little Russian destroyed the Swedes, helping to make the first goal, hitting the post, scoring the second and claiming the man-of-the-match prize. In the quarter-final he surpassed that performance, again with an assist and a goal, as Holland were pulled apart. Before the Spain v Russia rematch in the semi-final, I sat down to film an interview with Xavi. He was buzzing.
"Another little guy who can rule the world!" he reminded me, half joking, half thrilled. "Do you know, I'd never even heard of Arshavin before this tournament and he's absolutely superb? He's just one more example of how football is for the smart guys, not the big guys who can run all day." Then Xavi ruined poor old Arshavin's day (not for the last time) with a goal and a star performance as Spain romped through the semi-final 3-0. Xavi's determining performances during the key matches of Barcelona and Spain have been historic. In the Euro 2008 final, in Vienna, he was by far the best player and gave a gorgeous assist for Fernando Torres to defeat Germany.
For the first Clásico of the 2008-09 season, it was Xavi's corner Puyol headed down for Eto'o to score. In the second Clásico, Barça went to the Bernabéu and won 6-2: Xavi walked away with four assists. "I've played Madrid many times and never felt so superior to them in any game," he said later.
In the 2009 Copa del Rey final, he ran the midfield and scored the fourth goal against Athletic. Against Manchester United later that same month, he was Uefa's man of the match in the Rome Champions League final, sending that delicious, curling cross over for Messi to head the ball past Edwin van der Sar for the second goal.
In the Spanish Supercup first leg in Bilbao, he made one for Pedro and scored one in a 2-1 win. Four months later, it was Xavi's chip into the box from which Piqué set Pedro up to score in the Club World Cup final with two minutes left, giving Barça their sixth trophy in a year. The Bernabéu Clásico that season was also a Xavi masterwork — 2-0 and both assists were his, one for Messi, one for Pedro.
At the World Cup, he was twice Spain's man of the match and produced a couple of assists, the most crucial of which was his corner for Puyol's match-winning header in the semi-final. He not only made the most passes in that tournament, 669, but also the most accurate passes, 599, for an 89% success rate.
So good was his tournament that Michel Platini, Uefa president, asked the Spanish federation president Miguel Ángel Villar to request Xavi's Spain No 8 shirt from the Soccer City final as a memento. "I couldn't say no!" Xavi said. "I'm delighted that he gifted it to me," Platini replied the day before Wembley 2011. "His football intelligence, his comportment on and off the pitch make him the ideal footballer. I love watching him play."
Perhaps his big-game mentality was a shade more hidden in 2010-11, but he still produced a goal in the 5-0 Clásico win, an assist in the Super Cup victory, two more in the Copa del Rey semi-final and that wonderful pass for Pedro's opener against United at Wembley in the Champions League final.
After that remarkable 5-0 Clásico victory at the Camp Nou on a rainy, freezing November night in 2010, the Casillas-Hernández alliance was still strong enough for their mothers to dissect the remarkable result live on Ona FM radio. Maria Mercè Hernández and Carmen Casillas competed to establish that the other woman's son was lovelier, more dignified or more humble than her own. Which is an indication of how sour things eventually became that season when, six months later, Casillas and Xavi were openly disrespecting one another on the pitch during the epic but poisonous four-match Clásico series.
They stopped chatting and texting and Casillas's version of a peace gesture was to tell the papers, "I shouldn't have gestured to him the way I did, but when we see each other I'll just call him a 'silly bugger' and that'll be it all forgotten."
Casillas is an impressive, straight-talking man — a sulker he is not. It's no coincidence that his promotion to Spain captain has coincided with a time when, irrespective of tournament victories, the squad is both harmonious and perpetually hungry to win the next match.
However, Xavi's stance in the midst of the mayhem struck me much more forcibly. As Real Madrid and Barcelona exchanged insults and made claim and counter-claim, culminating in each club presenting written complaints to Uefa, he spoke out, firmly. He called Madrid's claims against Barcelona "lamentable" but he spoke clearly about "these complaints to Uefa", and said it was pathetic that "all these things were going on in the world of football". It seemed clear that he included the Barcelona board in his criticism. Their moaning to the governing body had not impressed him either. What's more, he had the nerve to say so.
During my working time in Spain, Xavi has been a generous, fascinating subject for a number of interviews; someone whose work on the pitch and attitude, or intelligence, off it makes writing and broadcasting about football an absolute joy. He is up there in the pantheon of all-time great European midfielders and probably, pound for pound, the greatest Spanish footballer.
However, he doesn't even consider himself to be the most talented Spaniard at the Camp Nou. He'll often say that Iniesta is "the most complete Spanish footballer I've played with", which is why Xavi was disappointed, but not bitterly so, to miss out on the Ballon D'Or in January 2011, when he and Barça's other two musketeers were shortlisted, with Messi winning the title.
Firstly, he thinks Messi is the greatest footballer in history. Secondly, not only does he stress that Iniesta possesses gifts he doesn't have, but 'Andrésito' scored the World Cup-winning goal in the time-frame of that award. Probably most importantly, the occupation of the podium by three La Masia products thrilled him.
"What makes me happiest is that players like Leo, Andrésito and I prove that talent remains more important than physical power in modern football.
"I'm a team player. Individually, I'm nothing. I play with the best and that makes me a better player. I depend on my teammates. If they don't find space, I don't find them with the ball and I become a lesser footballer. I don't think Leo is in a position to comment on this out of respect for those who have gone before, but I believe he's the best footballer ever. Leo was brought up here. He's Argentinian, but it's like he's from here. Barça is a football school, but it's also a school of life, where you get taught the values that I think are correct and Leo is an alumnus of that process. Here, the players are educated how to behave, to demonstrate respect and I'm very proud to belong to this school."
Xavi has earned a couple of nicknames. The late Andrés Montes, an eccentric radio and television commentator, called him 'Humphrey Bogart'. Some viewers thought it was because Bogart and Xavi shared saturnine looks but, really, it was for Bogart's misquoted "Play it again, Sam" line from Casablanca. Montes reckoned that, for Spain and Barça, it was always Xavi who would "play it again, and again and again" as that ball flew from boot to boot.
Most of the players call him 'Maki', which is short for maquina, the Spanish for machine. It's a prosaic, industrial nickname for such an inventive player, but there is a warmth and positivity attached to it. Xavi is always working, always smiling, and always having a playful verbal dig at someone. Perpetual motion. His passes come off an incessant production line. He's always prompting and prodding teammates into movement and into situations where they can damage the opposition.
Xavi's movement is a kind of reverse sheepdog trick — instead of penning a flock in to an enclosed space, his darting, nipping and barking is about spreading them around the field, into unexplored, unpredictable spaces. Why no-one came up with 'Shep' before I can't explain. "During a match, most of the other guys shout 'Maquina' or 'Maki' when they want me to pass them the ball, apart from Messi and Alves who just shout 'Xavi'," he said.
"If I don't get the ball for two minutes, I'm like, 'Hey! Guys! Look for me! I'm free!' There would be no point playing otherwise. I'd be happier staying at home. I must have at least 100 touches of the ball every match. If I had to go back to the dressing-room with only 50 I'd be ready to kill someone."
So, there you have Xavi — fun to watch, fun to be around. Sublime player, top man. A footballer who epitomises what has gone right at Barcelona over the last couple of decades.
"I've been a Barça fan since I can remember being alive," he reflected. "What's happening right now, how we are playing, it's just a permanent fiesta for anyone who supports this club.
"Over the years I've bought my mum watches, jewellery… all sorts. But she loves football, so probably the best thing I've ever bought her is her Barça membership and season ticket so that she can watch all this happening. I am a romantic about football and I agree with Johan Cruyff's argument that we are only fighting a battle for the soul of beautiful football. I have a lot of respect for José Mourinho, but the coaches who'll go down in the history books are Guardiola, Sacchi, Cruyff and Alex Ferguson. These are the guys who have gone that bit further and reinvented the game. They're the winners."
This is an edited extract from Graham Hunter's new book, Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World, published by BackPage Press.
This article appeared on Episode Thirteen of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.