FOR THE GENERATION OF FOOTBALL FANATICS FROM WHENCE I CAME, the summer of 2015 will be a poignant one. Time, it appears, has flown. Now our idols, those we were besotted by – each of them for very different reasons – are flying the coop.
Some of my generation’s earliest moments of self-expression came when imitating the lung-bursting runs, full-throttled tackles and overt emotional involvement of Steven Gerrard. While Liverpool’s captain and inspiration was by no means my favourite player, his style was emblematic of the Premier League era I grew up to appreciate on a subconscious level.
At the same time as English football taught me to understand that passion, commitment and hard work were not just buzzwords but minimum sporting requirements, Xavi Hernández and Andrea Pirlo were lulling the same generation of youths, albeit in Spain and Italy, to sleep with their right feet.
As football began to envelope my world and consume my soul I had little to no awareness of these pass-masters and their midfield play which at the time seemed so idiosyncratic. The Premier League suited a growing boy in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was like a video game: fast, frenetic, exhilarating. The spectacle was ensconcing.
Back then, Xavi and Pirlo were foreign, not just in the sense of being elsewhere on the continent but in the sense of being stylistically alien, entirely different to the fare I was used to. Their football played soothing dulcet tones that didn’t capture my attention in the same way Gerrard and the Premier League’s rough and tumble did. That would gradually change.
As I grew, they grew on me. At first they were guilty pleasures, but my enjoyment of them soon became a signifying pretension of someone who ‘knew’ of football from other lands. Before too long both the Catalan and the Lombard would occupy my computer’s desktop background, a statement of love I considered to be more powerful than any mere words that could be mustered. I wasn’t the only one to develop these feelings.
There have been definitive moments in which I vividly remember all around me coming to a collective realisation of the limitations of football as we understood it to be when placed directly at the mercy of these two players. They were moments in which we became aware that, while in the outside world Xavi and Pirlo are modest in both physical dimension and mannerism, they are goliaths as soon as they bestride green grass. These moments were borne of the two men putting on performances that led English football to genuinely question itself.
After a period of youthful exuberance for both I and the Premier League, when a superiority complex threatened to develop rightly or wrongly, Xavi and Pirlo shredded any burgeoning narcissism in a matter of touches, replacing it with doubt and bringing in a new era of English footballing self-criticism that, with the benefit of hindsight, was evidently a necessity.
First, Xavi led Manchester United astray. In late May 2009, Barcelona toppled Sir Alex Ferguson’s defending European champions, beating them 2-0 in the Champions League final. Xavi, along with fellow miniscule maestro Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets – the latest discovery from La Masia’s production line – trapped Manchester United’s midfield in a harrowing array of passes and movements so subtle as to be considered covert. The scary thing was that prior to that exhibition Ferguson had already cottoned on to the talents of Xavi and his team-mates.
After watching Barça blitz Real Madrid 6-2 in the Santiago Bernabéu a month before that Champions League final he astutely observed: “I don’t think Xavi and Iniesta have ever given the ball away in their lives. They get you on that carousel and they leave you dizzy.” Alas, such knowledge was to no avail. Weeks later Iniesta set up Barcelona’s opener before Xavi crossed beyond the reach of United’s defence for Lionel Messi to head home the clincher 20 minutes from time.
All of a sudden, Xavi, aided by his cohorts, had led English football to a seemingly obvious conclusion: that physique was a trait, though not necessarily a skill.
The second moment came when Pirlo transfixed an English midfield in the summer of 2012. His display for Italy in that evening’s European Championship quarter-final made the 0-0 end result a rather startling conclusion to a match in which he had flummoxed his markers, who themselves could have summoned up all the passion and commitment in the world yet for Pirlo to still not misplace a pass.
That night he played in a bubble all by himself. It was the closest thing I’d seen to a midfielder being immune to pressure. When he was given an inch, he found acres for his team-mates, acting as a human multiplier. Even though, remarkably, England took the game to penalties, Pirlo broke the last vestiges of defiance from the penalty spot, disrobing Joe Hart with a perfectly weighted, nonchalantly chipped Panenka, stroked with calm poise that belied the significant conditions.
Within a few hours of football, Pirlo became a national obsession, so much so that when England drew Italy again two years later in the 2014 World Cup group stages, people seemed to temporarily forget that football was a team sport; that Italy had other players. The focus rested solely on how to stifle Pirlo’s influence.
That 2012 summer was noteworthy for another reason: Xavi and Pirlo played against each other. Twice. This is not something that has happened often. Indeed, it is possible to count on two hands the number of times they have engaged each other in a war of cerebral exertion.
They narrowly avoided each other in the 2000 European Under-21 Championships. Italy won their group to proceed to the final, but Spain could only finish runners-up in theirs. Italy would go on to win the whole thing with Pirlo top scoring and picking up the tournament’s Golden Player award to boot.
In 2004 they met at Camp Nou and San Siro in the group stage of the Champions League. They would share wins in their respective homes but would eventually, perhaps ironically, come a cropper at English hands, with Xavi’s Barcelona losing out to Chelsea in the second round and Pirlo’s AC Milan contriving to throw away a three-goal lead in a thrilling final with Liverpool.
There were two further international meetings, though they were friendly in nature, before Spain and Italy drew each other in the quarter-finals of the 2008 European Championships. Unfortunately for Italy, and the whole of football, Pirlo was suspended. Spain progressed and won the whole competition, with Xavi being awarded the title of Player of the Tournament.
In the aforementioned summer of 2012, Pirlo’s Italy fired a warning across Spanish bows with a 1-1 draw at the group stage, but Xavi would have the last laugh. At the apex of tiki-taka, Spain rampaged through Italy in the final, winning 4-0. A year later Italy recovered face by holding Spain to a 0-0 draw in the Confederations Cup. Xavi and Pirlo both scored their penalties as Spain won.
It is a minor travesty that only on the rarest of occasions have these icons graced the same football pitch. There were brief flirtations with the prospect of the two playing together, of course; Pirlo was courted by Barcelona in 2010. The very thought of the Italian sitting behind Xavi and the combinations that could have brought about is enough to make the rest of Europe’s football elite wake up in a cold sweat. The fans, however, remain safely tucked up, embracing the image and allowing it to take them down a heavenly hypothetical trail. God only knows where it would lead and how it would end, but it’s a lucid dream from which few would be determined to wake.
The pair could meet in 2015’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus, though this may be the last time we witness such a grand event, as Xavi will leave for Qatar come the final whistle. Additionally, it is rumoured that Pirlo is set for Major League Soccer. This is the culmination of an era in which the overarching theme has been the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two forwards whose scoring feats seem to know no bounds. Xavi and Pirlo have been quieter, less noticeable, but just as crucial. They were the true causes of a football awakening.
On Saturday we may see them encroach upon the same turf once more. Once again, their minds will cut imaginary lines in the grass. There will be deceptive sways, all-encompassing looks and visionary passes. Enjoy it while it lasts, for we may never see them together again. Even so, at least we can dream.
By Blair Newman. Follow @TheBlairNewman