Often when we see a play, read a book or watch television – there is a plot. A series of events that must unfold for it to reach a dramatic ending. An ending that leaves the audiences in tears perhaps or one that makes them scream from the beauty of it all. There are plotlines in football too and the master of those has now hung up his boots for his country. A metronome of passing, a man with a vision four moves ahead, a person off whom taking the ball was as impossible as keeping Romeo and Juliet apart.
That man was Xavi Hernandez. A diminutive Spaniard, Xavi is not the picture of the modern footballer who in all senses of the word is an athlete. Today’s footballers are tall, strong, well-built and have only one weakness – tearing a muscle in that oh so perfect body. For all intents and purposes, the Terrassa-born Xavi was never any of that. He’s a short and lean fellow – but one who can do things with a ball that others can only dream of.
Xavi is one of a generation of players coached at Barcelona’s La Masia – the seeds of which were sown by Johann Cruyff. A generation that above all else made love to the ball. Caressed it on the blades of grass, kissed it with their feet and moved it on to another artiste who could do the same. Today we see the likes of Arturo Vidal, Nigel De Jong and even at Barcelona, Javier Mascherano – they are midfield destroyers. By using harrowing, flailing arms or a slide into the back to regain possession and then play a slipshod pass to a team mate, they are the modern footballer personified. Well-built, largely reliant on strength over guile. Xavi is nothing like that, nor was he ever meant to be.
From day one at Barca, when he almost quit football because of the pressures of succeeding Guardiola, to the day his mentor returned and lavished praise like ‘He’s more complete than I ever was’, Xavi has been through it all with Barcelona and Spain. In 2008, after the ignominy of the 2006 World Cup for La Furia Roja, Luis Aragones rebuilt Spain and tweaked their style and at its beating heart was Xavi. A man who could for all intents and purposes be a midfield metronome. See moves developing ahead of him and either make the ball move to create space or play it through to create a chance. Surrounded by the burgeoning talents of the ilk of Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Fernando Torres and David Villa, Xavi became the fulcrum of a Spain side that many argue is the greatest national squad to have ever played as a collective. There are days when getting the ball off Xavi, even in training, have proven to be a loathsome task as he holds onto it with the tenacity of someone much larger but with the ability to play a deft one-two and create acres of space.
For five years from 2008 onwards not a single midfielder came close to Xavi’s on the pitch influence. He completed almost 90 percent of all attempted passes, sometimes even completing every single pass he attempted. He fell back, gathered the ball from defence, played it into midfield and moved it onto attack. One short pass at a time. This ability was displayed perfectly in club colors for the Spaniard against Real Madrid. Xavi collected a pass from Pique on the edge of the Barca penalty area, played a series of passes and then found himself unmarked in the opposition area to smack a deft chip over a befuddled Iker Casillas who could only flap at it.
But it all changed in the last year for Xavi. The game turned the pace up a few notches and his thirty plus year old feet could no longer keep up. He still played more passes and completed more than perhaps any midfielder in Europe, but his influence waned as stronger, more mobile and quicker players took over. And with the game heading in that general direction, we are unlikely to see another Xavi ever again. The player touted to replace him for La Furia Roja is Koke of Atletico Madrid – an all-action central midfielder who is more hybrid of Iniesta and Vidal than a pass master in the ilk of Xavi or an Andrea Pirlo. And that is the real shame of modern football. It has become a sport dominated, not by technical and beautiful players, but those with the perfect physique and those capable of maintaining it for years on end. It would be a miracle for that statement to be proven wrong as even Barca go in for more physical presence in the center of the park this season with Xavi set to play a smaller role. He may have hung up his boots for Spain to prolong his club career but very soon, Xavi may stride into the sunset, ball attached to his feet as always and we may never see his like again.
To Xavi and to all the midfielders who made the game beautiful to watch, we thank and salute you. Here’s hoping for many more years of brilliance from the middle of the pitch to come in your memory.