offpitch | 2016-02-12
Xavi: 'I know Barça, if they keep this level of collective play they can win every trophy again'
Xavi features in one amazing interview, showing his extensive football knowledge
Xavi Hernández was interviewed by Mundo Deportivo this week, you can read it in Spanish here, here, here and here. In this in-depth talk with the Catalan newspaper, the Barça legend discusses possible signings, trophies, his passion for Barcelona, Qatar and much more.
Do you miss Barça?
Of course, watching it on TV is not the same thing when you play for the best team in the world, the club of your life. But it was a well-thought decision, I reached the conclusion that it was time to end my cycle at Barça.
Barça tried to change that…
Yes, it’s true and I’m thankful for that. Barto, the president, insisted a lot that I stayed another year, Luis Enrique agreed… But I had to make that decision and I did. I left because I have my personal pride, it’s difficult to accept being a secondary player and I had to start preparing my future. And look, I left after 17 seasons with a treble, an ending that I hadn’t even dreamed of. Although I must confess that in January I was hoping that we’d at least win one trophy so that I could leave Barça with something positive. And I had the luck of winning a treble, incredible!
You even made your successor official when you invited Andrés Iniesta to lift the Copa del Rey trophy with you.
It’s the best legacy I could leave, Andrés, Busi, Messi, they’re homegrown. Iniesta was raised in La Masia, he’s the standard for it on and off the pitch. A reference as a footballer and as a person. He was the next one, then it will be Busi’s time. They’re the ones who have to be vocal and lead the way. Andrés is a great captain.
Why do you say that?
Because they see Barça as a thing that belongs to them, they’re an integral part of this club for years; they’re not just footballers but an important and vital part of Barça. We saw that since Puyi became the leader. After that Victor Váldes and I came along. And so on… I insist on the fact that the homegrown players are vital, they have to be the catalyst of everything that happens in the dressing room and on the pitch.
From a football perspective too?
Of course. They’re the clear example of this Barça, of a playing philosophy that everyone wants to copy. As socís and as fans we have to feel proud of having these players and this team. You have to leave to see what they really are and what they represent. At home, in Catalunya, we sometimes don’t know how to value everything we have.
And how are the ones that come from the outside?
We’ve had a lot of luck due to how well they integrated. Leo is an exception because he was in the academy here, but look at Alves, Mascherano, Keita and Abidal before. They’ve all brought their contribution, also the new arrivals like Rakitic, Bravo, Arda or Ter Stegen. You see them involved in the group. They feel they are ‘barcelonistas’ and that’s important. And don’t get me started about the three monsters up front…
You seem enchanted with this Barça.
Yes, without a doubt. There’s order now, Luis Enrique works very well, I knew that it was only a matter of time, that we had to trust him. I’m telling you that Barça will win at least two trophies this season. I’m sure.
Quite a big difference from a bit over a year ago, right?
Effectively so, I’m not going to lie. Those days I recall thinking that maybe we’d be lucky to win one trophy so that I could leave Barça well. We can’t hide that there were complicated moments and some tension. In that moment, we knew that we all had to pull together in the same direction, that the ones who didn’t follow Lucho’s indications was out. That the objective and the road to achieving it was possible only as a team, everyone together. It was necessary, Luis Enrique did the same thing as Pep Guardiola, it’s not that they imposed a military discipline, but they did impose a certain degree of order, common rules that benefit the group. And fortunately, things worked out. It was like an alignment of stars. Who would have told me that I could leave Barça with nothing less than a treble? My teammates and friends don’t know how grateful I am.
Speaking of which, did you ask Pep for advice before you came to Qatar?
Of course, even though the one I talked to the most was Raúl. Actually, the house where I live with my family is the one where he used to live. He told me not to have doubts, that if I wanted to play in a less intense competition, but be in a place where football is growing, where I can work on my future as a coach, Qatar is the ideal place. And the truth is that he didn’t lie. Another person who helped me decide was Fernando Solanas, from Adidas, who is a common friend with Fernando Hierro who also played here like Pep or Ronald de Boer.
So you’re already taking the first steps as a coach…
Yes, and I like it. I’m collaborating as much as I can in the work they do at this magnificent idea that is Aspire, also with my friend Félix Sánchez, who is in charge of Qatar’s U23 team. We almost qualified for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro which would have been a real feat for Qatari football.
Going back to Barça, do you see a lot of differences between this team and yours?
Globally no, even though it’s true that now the tone is set by the three up front who are the best forward line in history, the best I’ve seen in my life. Whether you want it or not, this makes Barça’s play a bit different and it improves it.
I think that arrivals like Rakitic, Aleix Vidal or Arda Turan make an incredible team even better and that Busquets has made the definitive step in his evolution.
You seem very excited about him…
And I have reasons for that. Sergio plays better every time. He figured out that he’s becoming more and more important, that he’s vital for the team’s play. He does more and more things and he does them better every time. Busi defends well, attacks well, applies pressure better, he interprets the game as no one else, he’s always in the place the team and his teammate need him to be… And above that, he dares to give passes that even though he could do before but didn’t. He plays vertically and that benefits the three ‘aliens’ in front a lot. And he’s not fast or very strong, even though he wins all the duels… For me, he is without a doubt, the best midfielder in the world. And with plenty of difference. It’s that clear. Seeing him play in every game is a spectacle.
And you’ve been talking about Messi for years…
Yes, I told you a long time ago that he was going to be the best. Now I can add that he’s the best player in football history without a doubt. And we still have plenty of time to enjoy him at Barça ahead of us.
Were you surprised by Luis Suárez’s performances?
Not at all. I knew him since he was at Ajax. Gabri had told me great things about him, about his class as a player and a goalscorer. Few players could read Messi and Neymar’s football as well as he does. Before they do something, Luis is already running into space or opening up space for them. He provokes fouls and expulsions… And besides all that I know for a fact that he wanted to come to Barça for years, that he thought of this like any other culé. He looks happy wearing blaugrana. He is a hard worked that has come here to add his contribution with humility, being the authentic star that he is, a killer in the box like few others.
He’s a real bomb. Today there’s no one in the world who has his potential in a 1v1, both in small spaces and in a run. He’s unstoppable.
What surprised you the most?
The friendship that the members of the trident formed in a totally natural way on and off the pitch. It’s incredible to see them beaming with happiness, to see how well they get along on and off the pitch. Barça benefits from that. I hope it lasts.
Do you think that Barça could do with a Puyol type of center back, a corrector type next to Piqué?
Truthfully, no. I see Mascherano performing that role well. He’s similar to Puyi because of his character, his commitment, for how he lives the games, for his leadership. He has known how to transform himself into a great centre back that supports Geri who is playing at an amazing level, as usual. They form a sensational duo. Then there’s also Vermaelen and Mathieu who fill their roles…
I feel bad for him because Marc is an excellent centre-back, but he has seen himself get overshadowed a bit by the performances of his peers. He’s a great friend, I’m sorry he’s going through this. I’d like to point out his patience. I also had to wait my turn for a couple of years. But Vicente del Bosque is taking him to the national team, because he knows that he’s a center back of a great level. But at Barça Luis Enrique is the one who makes decisions.
And Barça is conceding few goals again…
The secret is that they defend as a block. First with the ball possession, then pressing high up the pitch to recover it after the loss. That affects the rivals, it tires them physically and mentally. They only suffer, and less every time, in high balls and set pieces, but you can see an improvement in that area too, Claudio Bravo is sensational and Ter Stegen isn’t far behind. Barça has two great goalkeepers, the goal is safe for a long time.
You’re very optimistic…
It’s just that I know Barça, if they keep this level of collective play, leaving aside the individual quality of Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Iniesta or Busquets, they have a chance to once again win every trophy. Playing like this Barça is unstoppable.
What rivals do you see for Luis Enrique’s team in the Champions League and in La Liga?
I’d only single out Pep’s Bayern as being at the same level. I think Real Madrid, Juventus, City, PSG or Atléti are a step below. That doesn’t mean I don’t value their potential or think that they’re tough rivals. But leaving aside the individual quality of Barça’s players, which is already a lot, I don’t see the same intensity or quality of play from the other teams.
Who is the new Xavi?
It’s a natural process. Someone takes your place like it happened with Puyol after he left. In my case, I think it’s divided between Andrés and Busi. Andrés changed some things in his game to help the team in this aspect. But I wouldn’t want to leave out Rakitic, who sacrifices himself for the team but also shows his technical quality when he has to with his great passing range, assists and mid-distance shots.
And at the national team?
From my point of view, it’s Thiago Alcántara. And I know that Vicente del Bosque thinks the same way. It was a shame that he couldn’t go to the World Cup in 2014. He’s proving his worth at Bayern. Although Thiago, like his brother Rafinha (who I also don’t want to leave out because he’s going to be great at Barça), is better a bit higher up the pitch, playing between the midfield and the attack. They face you, they sidestep you, do a dribble and they’re in a shooting position. They’re two phenomenons.
Did Sergi Roberto surprise you?
No, and I’m being very serious. And I’m happy to see his evolution because, in part, me staying for another year at Barça somehow slowed his progression. Luis Enrique was important because he told him that he was counting on him, that he believed in his possibilities, that he should be patient. I wouldn’t be surprised if Del Bosque would take him to the Euros in France with the great season he’s having.
Do you think Arda Turan suffers playing as an interior?
Not at all, I think his competition will help everyone else. Arda can play here, even though he likes playing with his back to the goal more, a bit higher. He’s adapting well. He’s not some youngster, he’s 29 years old and he’s played in strong teams like Galatasaray and Atleti. No one has given him anything. I like him a lot, really.
And Aleix Vidal?
He’s a great signing, I’m thrilled with him being there. He’s a player that does well no matter where you play him. He’s an established player who has been to the national team, has played in Europe with Sevilla and you can see that.
Competition for Alves and Alba…
I’d say more of a complement to them because those two are incredible. Alves and Alba bring so much to Barça’s collective play with their constant runs into attack, with those little groups they form on their sides with Iniesta and Neymar in Jordi’s case and with Messi and the right side interior in Dani’s case. They’re sensational.
Do you think Barça needs improvements?
Personally, with the arrivals of Aleix and Arda, no. Maybe someone in attack to complement that trio, I don’t know… Luis Enrique must say this. Personally, I don’t see anyone better than him to sign, I’m saying that truthfully. This squad still has a long way to go. There’s a perfect balance between its components.
If you were Robert Fernández who would you sign?
But I’m not…
OK, who do you think has the level required to play for his Barça?
I’m enchanted with two players who I think have Barça DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala. They’re incredible and due to their quality and their way of playing they could easily be integrated into the ‘machine’. I see them as possibilities for Barça.
And Paul Pogba?
He’s a great player, I’ve suffered with him as an opponent. He’s going to be as amazing with the French national team as he is with Juve, but I think he has a different playing style than ours. But it’s not like I don’t value him, quite the contrary… If they’d give him to me I’d take him.
Did Pep’s decision to go to City surprise you?
No. Pep was here in Doha with Bayern during the winter break in the Bundesliga and he told me he was going to the Premier League, to City. That the needed new challenges in his career as a coach, that he’s been at Bayern for three years and that he needs a change, that he’s always wanted to coach in the Premier and in English football.
What do you think about how things are going for Van Gaal at United?
I feel bad for him. He’s an honest person and a great coach… who lacks a bit of empathy. On top of that, he doesn't get along with the press and that ends up tiring him. And if the results don’t go his way either then you end up in the United’s current situation. Sometimes, I talked to Luis Enrique about things that Van Gaal said or did when he was here and that seemed insane to us back then. But now we see that he was right, that he was ahead of his time.
And Mourinho vs Pep?
I think it would be good for football. As long as the normal relations are maintained it would be sensational for the Premier League just like it was for La Liga when they were at Barça and Madrid until things got out of hand and started involving things that didn’t belong in football. This next season it could be amazing to see the duel between Pep and Mou, if it’s confirmed that José will sign for United. It would be very attractive. I’m sure that City will do very well with Pep. It’s clear that I absolutely share his way of understanding football, his football philosophy. Mou is a winner, but with another way of seeing things that I don’t share on a football level.
Pep is the coach that influenced you the most?
Undoubtedly, yes. Pep, with Tito Vilanova and also Luis Aragonés. Pep and Luis are the ones that knew how to motivate their players the best, to convince them of the way they wanted the game to be played. Tito was an encyclopedia, thanks to him I gave an assist and Puyi scored those memorable goals in the semifinal of the World Cup against Germany and at the Bernabéu against Madrid. That was a strategy play made by Tito. I crossed, there were players who made blocks and Puyi flew to connect to the ball. Tito was great at set plays. And I wouldn’t want to leave out Van Gaal.
Real Madrid fired Benítez and appointed Zidane. What do you think about that move?
I’m going to tell you something. Last year I was at an Adidas function with Zidane and he told me that he thought that he’d do better working with the stars of the first team than with the youngsters at Castilla. I joked telling him that maybe next season (meaning this one) he’d be coaching the first team. And it happened. I’m convinced that his football idea will be interesting.
Have you talked to Iker since you both left Spain?
I talk to him regularly. We stay in touch and from what he says things are going well for him at Porto. He’s very calm. He doesn’t have the pressure he was subjected to at Madrid. I also spoke to Cristian Tello to wish him good luck at Fiorentina. In his last period at Porto, Julen Lopetegui didn’t play him a lot so he decided to move to Italy. It’s a better league and he’s going to be fine with Paulo Sousa.
What do you think of Spain’s chances at the Euros this summer?
Spain is one of my favorites to win the trophy. Vicente del Bosque has the team necessary to aspire to keep the title of Champions of Europe that we won in Ukraine in 2012. That final was one of the best games I’ve played with the national team, we played an excellent match against Italy. We played as a team and showed a notable level. The national team still has plenty of quality and they’ll prove that.
What was your worst moment at Barça?
Losing Tito, without a doubt. It was terrible, a strong blow for all of us. But I want to take a moment and note the responsibility that Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimira took that season because they weren’t judged right. They were able to handle everything with Tito far away in New York, sick. The ones that were inside know how to value what they did. We won that league with 100 points and could give Tito that joy. Barça owes Jordi and Aureli a lot. Having to talk to him, as a captain, knowing everything that was going on, was very hard.
What did you give to Barça after 17 years?
It may sound like I’m guilty of pedantry or arrogance, but I’m proud of being a reference point of the best Barça team in history, of having done my part so that Barça’s playing philosophy was something envied and copied all around the world. Seeing World Cup champion Germany trying to imitate you, playing like the Spain of Luis Aragonés or Vicente del Bosque fills you with pride. And there are examples in La Liga too. It’s a joy to watch teams like Paco Jémez’s Rayo or Rubi’s Levente wanting to have the ball all the time That should be applauded. Villarreal also plays very well. People don’t watch Barça just because of its great players, but because the playing style itself dazzles them, makes them addicted. That’s the best reward for anyone who has played there and for the ones who are still playing with Barça’s shirt.