club | 2015-06-07
The Legend of Xavi Hernández
FC Barcelona has just made history by becoming the first club in European history to win the treble twice. Campeones! Campeones! Half the Olympiastadion chanted in celebration. People back home in the Catalan capital were going nuts on the streets. But amidst these euphoric celebrations there was a harsh realization, a rude awakening. A painful reminder that with the passage of time, all good things must come to an end. A history-making night for Barcelona, also marked by the end of a legendary Barça career. A man, who stood testament to countless historic moments, has just made his final appearance for his boyhood club. It was time to say goodbye to the one and only, Xavi Hernández Creus.
Two weeks ago in his final league appearance, Xavi bid his farewell to Camp Nou, a place he used as his canvas to display his magisterial artwork. The fans saw it coming. Yet for weeks and months they lived in denial. After all, his departure in all technical and emotional terms will create a vacuum that cannot be filled. Hence, even the very fact that this legend is departing as a champion did little to stop the tears. Instead of fighting the losing battle against the flowing tears, the emotionally drenched Camp Nou stood up. With all the respect in the world, the Camp Nou stood up to acknowledge the career of their legend. And what a career it was!
The unique attributes of this maestro were evident from a tender age. He was born with something special; something that is only developed by seasoned professionals after years of experience. The first to have a glimpse of this mesmerizing talent was his father, Joaquim Hernández. In “Xavi 550,” a documentary commemorating Xavi’s 550th game for FC Barcelona, his father Joaquim had this to say: “While everyone was going after the ball, Xavi stayed behind. I asked, ‘Why are you staying back, you are the best?’ He answered, ‘If everyone is attacking, it’s easy for the other team to score, I’m staying back here.’ A 6-year-old saying that! That's when I knew.” Soon enough, the young genius would make his way into La Masia and set himself apart as one of the greatest homegrown talents ever to emerge from the academy.
Like many great things in life, it happened out of the blue. As an 18-year-old Xavi was returning from vacation, he received the most important phone call of his life – telling him he will be traveling with the first team to Mallorca for the Super Cup match. The young boy who was already super excited to begin with was thrilled to bits when his coach, Louis Van Gaal informed him that he was set to start. On August 18, 1998, the 18-year-old La Masia graduate would make his competitive debut for the first team. For those who knew this prodigy, it was hardly a surprise. But for Xavi it was a lifelong dream. In his own words, “This is the moment I’d been waiting for since I could breathe.” [Xavi 550]
Barça lost, but the unfazed debutant bagged a goal. Soon after, on October 3, 1998, Xavi made his first league appearance during a 3-1 victory over Valencia. By the end of the league-winning 1998/99 season, a young Xavi Hernández had already caught the attention of Louis Van Gaal as a player for the future.
Behind every successful man there is a woman, so the saying goes. For Xavi, that would be the one who gave birth to him: Maria Mercè Creus. In the year 1999, the Rossonero side of the San Siro set their sights on the youngster. “Xavi is a player with amazing qualities, which I admire,” said Milan CEO Galliani. The Milan side came up with an offer which was hard to refuse: accommodation, paid trips, €1 million each year for five years, even a job for his father. The presence of club legend, captain and fan favorite Pep Guardiola who restricted Xavi's chances of a regular first-team spot only helped Milan's cause. That prompted an emergency meeting in the Hernández family. “The whole family wanted him to accept the offer. But I said, if he leaves Barcelona, I will get a divorce,” his mother tells the story. Well, that sufficed. Any possibility of a Xavi departure was put to bed. “I was dealing with the father of the player at the time,” said Galliani years later to Gazzetto dello Sport, “but I did not realize I also had to deal with his mother.” Xavi ended 1999 as “La Liga's Breakthrough Player of the Year” and ended the 1999/2000 season as a regular and prominent playmaker for the first team, thanks to Pep Guardiola’s lengthy absence through injury.
Mothers are always right.
The following seasons were troublesome for FC Barcelona. The only silver lining: La Masia was getting ready to shower them with diamonds. Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández were among the firsts.
The Heart of a Champion
Every young player needs an icon, someone they want to emulate, someone they could look up to. Today, Xavi would be that “someone” to many. But for a young Xavi, that “someone” was Pep Guardiola, the very person who complicated matters for him in his early years. And then there was a crazy gossip that started to gather momentum: “This kid wants to take Pep’s place.” It was anything but easy to handle for a young Xavi who was just starting to make his mark on the first team. “Unfortunately, I was put in a face-off with Pep and I felt like an intruder,” he said in the same documentary. He would play two seasons as backup for his icon. Even after Pep left for his adventures in Italy, the massive competition meant Xavi had to settle for a defensive role in midfield.
Due to regime and managerial changes, those were years of instability at the club. “There were days when the stadium wasn’t even half full in most matches. After the match, the stadium was empty in two seconds,” Xavi's word illustrate those troubled times. It was one of the lengthiest trophy droughts in recent history that led to constant and unfair criticism of a young Xavi. “Those times were like passing through the desert. Fans didn't believe in you, they whistled at you. It was hard to deal with,” he said. The kid, despite having the talent, had a lot to prove.
Xavi's fortune would take a turn in the right direction upon the arrival of Dutch Frank Rijkaard as manager in the beginning of 2003-04 season. An already regular first-team player, Xavi was given a much more creative role in midfield. And as a testament to his growing importance to the first team, Xavi was named deputy captain to Carles Puyol in 2004/05. The club finished the season with La Liga and the Super Cup, ending a trophyless six-year spell. Xavi ended 2005 as “La Liga's Spanish Player of the Year.” A fresh start for the 25-year-old!
The following season wasn't quite so generous to Xavi. A torn ligament in his left knee kept him out for four months. The club’s fortune though was quite different. Along with another league title, 2005/06 brought Barcelona their first Champions League title in 14 years. Xavi, who reappeared in April, could only warm the bench as his side became Champions of Europe by beating Arsenal in Paris.
Despite being a proud Catalan, Xavi holds the Spanish national team dear. In his own words, “At the end if it all, I’d just like to be remembered as someone who gave everything to FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team.” Spain has always produced mesmerizing football talents. But when it came to titles they were living in the shadows of European giants like Italy and Germany. All of that would change in the year 2008, with Xavi at the forefront. Spain won the 2008 European Championship in Austria and Switzerland and remained undefeated in the entire tournament.
Xavi played 368 minutes, scoring a goal and providing the assist for the only goal in the final. His influence to the side was beyond any statistical measurement. So much so that he was named player of the tournament. “We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,” said Andy Roxburgh, head of UEFA's technical committee. Following an uninspiring 2007/08 season, this success was, in every sense of the word, pivotal for Xavi. And his contributions to the Spanish national side didn’t end there.
Back home in Barcelona, consecutive trophyless seasons marked the end of the Rijkaard era, which resulted in Xavi being reunited with his boyhood hero, Pep Guardiola. The new manager arrived with clear ideas. “Everything starts with the ball and ends with the ball,” one of those ideas that suited no one better than Xavi Hernández. So it was Pep Guardiola, whose mere presence as a player tested the mettle of a young, up and coming Xavi, who would help him write the most successful chapter of an enviable career. With Xavi being the midfield mastermind along with the illusionist Iniesta and the superhuman Messi, Guardiola found the recipe to rule Europe.
The Midfield Mastermind
“Xavi is a player who has the Barcelona DNA, someone who has the taste for good football, someone who is humble and someone who has loyalty to this club. From the first moment I saw him play, I knew he would become the brain behind Barcelona for many years to come.”
- Pep Guardiola
From the moment he took charge, Guardiola was hell-bent on using this “brain behind Barcelona” to the best possible effect. Pep's obsession for possession became the perfect complement for the player that is Xavi Hernández. If ever there was a perfect manager for his style, Xavi had just found him. He became the team’s midfield orchestrator.
The 2008/09 season secured a permanent spot in the history books and in the hearts of every Barcelonista. The season was the most successful in the club’s history. By winning the treble, Barcelona achieved something that no Spanish team and only four European teams had achieved before them. Xavi was an indispensable member, or as Pep said, “the brain” of the history-making Barcelona side. For Barcelona, the season was the beginning of a lengthy domination of European football. For Xavi, the season kickstarted the most successful period of his Barça career.
One of the major highlights of Xavi's career will always be the 2008/09 Clásico at the Bernabeu. The midfielder all throughout his career made his presence felt in this “battle of archrivals” but never as prominently as that night. On May 2, 2009, in a virtual title decider, Xavi pulled off a performance worthy of the occasion. A packed Santiago Bernabéu watched in horror as Xavi became their chief tormentor. Barcelona demolished the capital side, scoring six and conceding two. Xavi became the only player in the history of this great fixture to bag four assists, a memorable performance on an unforgettable night.
Another such historic night came 25 days later. This time in another European capital, Rome. May 27, 2009, the Champions League final, where Barcelona would secure their first ever treble. Although the pinnacle of that night was the magical Messi header for the second goal, the brilliance of Xavi did not go unnoticed. In fact, Xavi was named player of the match by UEFA. His calming influence and the impeccable control in midfield meant that Manchester United, the opponent that night, never stood a chance. And to round it off, he delivered a pinpoint pass to Messi, who put the final nail in the coffin. By the end of the match Sir Alex Ferguson was full of praise for the midfield maestro and his midfield partner Andres Iniesta: “I don't think Xavi and Iniesta have ever given the ball away in their lives. They get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy.” Unfortunately for Sir Alex, this time it was his side that were left dizzy. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
Xavi was voted “UEFA Champions League’s Best Midfielder” for the 2008/09 season. He ended 2009 winning La Liga's best midfielder of the year award and, more importantly, with six trophies. “A year that can be equaled, but never bettered,” according to former president Joan Laporta.
Success kept on following Xavi. He won his fifth league title with Barcelona in the 2009/10 season, topping the assists chart and once again winning “La Liga's best midfielder of the year.” Following his domestic success, Xavi flew to South Africa to write his most memorable chapter with the Spanish national side. He was an invaluable member of Vicente Del Bosque's World Cup winning team in 2010. With a 91 percent success rate, Xavi attempted a staggering 602 passes during the match, highest by any player in a single tournament as far as data goes (1966). Spain finally emerged as world champions. Xavi was included in the FIFA Ballon d'Or shortlist for 2010, finishing third behind teammates Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta.
The following years were to bring further glory for Xavi with club and country alike. He became Spanish champion with Barcelona again in 2010/11, Barcelona’s third league triumph in as many years and Xavi’s sixth in his career. The highlight of that league season was the 5-0 annihilation of Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. Xavi along with his teammates pulled off a breathtaking performance, much to the delight of a packed stadium. Xavi scored the opener and his commanding presence in midfield ran the visiting side ragged. Barcelona was totally in charge of the match from the first to the last whistle. For Xavi, it was the greatest match he ever played. “That game was wonderful, the best I’ve played. The feeling of superiority was incredible – and against Real Madrid! They didn't touch the ball. Madre mía, what a match! In the dressing room, we gave ourselves a standing ovation,” he said a year later to Sid Lowe in an interview for the Guardian.
Another landmark in Xavi's career came months later: the Champions League final at Wembley against Manchester United. Sir Alex said his boys were left dizzy in Rome. Thanks to Xavi and company, the game was a déjà vu for the English team, this time in London. Xavi provided the assist for the first goal scored by Pedro. And his anchoring presence in midfield made sure Barcelona never lost control of the proceedings despite Rooney’s equalizer. Xavi completed as many as 148 passes during the match, with a success rate of 95.3 percent, a record in the history of Champions League finals. Barcelona won 3-1, with one of the most outstanding displays of team performances seen in the game. For Xavi, it was his third triumph in Europe’s elite club competition. He won La Liga’s best midfielder of the year for the third straight year and like in the previous year, finished third in the Ballon d’Or race in 2011.
Earlier in 2011, Xavi became the most capped player in Barcelona history. On January 5, 2011, in his 550th match, Xavi surpassed Miguel Bernardo as the player with most appearances for the first team. And years later, on January 16, 2014 Xavi played his 700th match for Barcelona in all competitions. In 2011, Xavi won his second FIFA Club World Cup in as many years. His last title-winning contribution for Spain was the 2012 European Championship in Germany.
The kid from Terrassa, who was constantly disturbed by the lack of silverware, has completed an amazing journey to become the most decorated player in the history of Spanish football.
Barcelona has always been the ambassador of beautiful football. Technicality over physicality, precision over strength. None represented the Barca doctrine of football better than the great Xavi Hernández. Like he so rightly said “I am a flag bearer for this style and I feel very proud about that.” And the flag bearer was the reference point of the team that left the football world breathless over the last decade. It was mostly thanks to Xavi that every team who had the misfortune of facing this Barça had already given up on the possession battle even before the ball was rolled.
Pep insisted that every player on the ball must have at least three passing options. Xavi was almost always one of the three. And when he was on the ball, no Barcelona player ever had to shout “man on.” He always knew where they were and could find them with his eyes closed. It didn’t matter to him if he was closed down by two, three or four rivals. No space was narrow enough for him and time was always his ally. With him Barcelona's possession was safe. “He is our life insurance,” Puyol perfectly put it in “Xavi 550.” He wasn't the fastest, nor the tallest. But he was always the one pulling the strings. In the words of the great man himself, “I’d love to be faster. Physically I’m limited, but I have survived by using my head.” We can safely say, he did more than just surviving.
During its heyday, Barcelona was blessed with the majestic Iniesta, the awe-inspiring Messi and the born leader Puyol. Yet Xavi was the reference point and his value to the team was indescribable. He was omnipresent during the most nail-biting finals, during the most nerve-wracking Clásicos. Xavi is the player with the most appearances in Clásicos, a fixture that Xavi has relished and in which he would always show up. Lionel Messi may have the highest number of goals in the Clásico fixtures, but it was Xavi who so often made the Real Madrid's midfield irrelevant and almost non-existent. His displays during the 2-6 and 5-0 Clásicos will always be cherished by every Blaugrana heart.
Being a proud Catalan never got in the way of Xavi giving his absolute best for the national side. Like he said, “I am a football player and I say it loudly: One of my dreams was to play with Spain. What’s wrong with that?” His influence on the Spanish national team was more than most can comprehend. It was his football that made the Spanish team great. It was his growing influence on the pitch that resulted in the most successful period in their history. From being the traditional underachievers, Spain became world-beaters. It was no mere coincidence that, as age started to catch up with him, Spain's dominance began to fade. And by the time he retired, he was irreplaceable. Like Del Bosque said, “We will miss him both on and off the pitch. He was more important to the team than the manager.”
He was the implementor of Pep’s style, the realization of Cruyff's vision and during his last days, the guardian and the calming influence of Luis Enrique’s treble-winning Barça. His presence was so vital that when he decided to make 2014/15 season his Barca swansong, Enrique said: “If Xavi were 25, I would have renewed him for 25 years more.” Xavi would always make the right decisions on the pitch. Even off it. And the fans always agreed. But when he decided to leave, the fans couldn’t have disagreed more. It is because of this decision that we will not see Xavi and Iniesta together again. It is because of this decision that we will not see another Messi goal assisted by Xavi. Hence, weeks of 'Xavi quedate!' chants at Camp Nou. Hoping against hope that his mother, like 16 years ago, would once again intervene and keep the legend home. It wasn’t to be. One-third of the holy trinity of Iniesta-Xavi-Messi is gone and all we are left with is his legacy.
Camp Nou gave one of its greatest gladiators a farewell worthy of remembrance: the greatest of standing ovations and two domestic trophies. Camp Nou gave all that it could. The last three matches in his Barcelona career ended in him lifting three trophies – a fitting farewell to a masterpiece of a career. For now, we comfort ourselves with that. For now, we wait until he becomes homesick.
For now, we say adios, Maestro!
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