This feature is part of Duology
Sometimes we aren’t gifted a logical ending to a story. Sometimes a tale is wrapped up in the most head-scratching of manners. Sometimes the final act needs explaining. This was the case with the last chapter of the Xavi and Andrés Iniesta story.
The two footballers, who for years passed the ball to each other back and forth and back and forth, as if some of the most important fixtures of this century were simply their own private table tennis match played merely to distract themselves, did not complete a single pass to one another the final time they found themselves together on a football pitch.
It was the 2014/15 Champions League semi-final first leg, as Barcelona took on Bayern Munich. With the Catalan club already 2-0 up on the scoreboard, Xavi was introduced in the 82nd tick of the clock, replacing Ivan Rakitić. Between that moment and Rafinha’s replacing of Iniesta five minutes later, not one pass went between the two midfield maestros, the two pass masters of modern football. The fitting ending would have been for there to be one last roll of the ball from one special foot to the other during their final appearance together. But there was not.
Instead, their last official pass, a nudge inside from Iniesta to his elder, came at the Estadio Sánchez Pizjuán, 84 minutes and 29 seconds into a 2-2 draw with Sevilla on 11 April 2015. The first had been made in Mallorca on 21 December 2002 in a 4-0 league victory, but these two players had already developed some chemistry on the training pitch by that point. As two small and technically gifted midfield footballing point guards, they had so much in common and they knew it from the very first moment.
It was at the 1999 Nike Cup that Xavi first heard about his one-day successor. This youth team tournament was held in Barcelona, with Barça’s final against Rosario Central played at the Camp Nou. Pere Guardiola, the brother of Pep, was very involved with Nike at the time and convinced his brother to attend the match and to hand out some prizes. Guardiola was stunned by just how well Iniesta, 15-years-old at the time, played in the match; the match in which the midfielder netted the winning goal in extra time.
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Guardiola told his future player after the match that he’d one day be up in the stands watching and cheering him on, but the current Manchester City coach also had a message for Xavi, his then-teammate. “You will replace me, but watch out for this young guy because one day he will retire us all,” he said.
Luckily for football fans across the globe, they got to play together – 486 times. Yet their first years together weren’t as special as the final ones would be. The local media were dismissive of the idea that these two little fragile midfielders could play together, labelling them as ‘juguetes’, meaning toys. The suggestion was that they were a luxury partnership, something fun but not especially productive.
Initially, there was actually some evidence to support that argument. Just two trophies were claimed over their first three years together in the first team, the 2004/05 LaLiga title and the subsequent Spanish Super Cup. The Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho era was fruitful enough to bring the 2005/06 Champions League trophy back to Catalonia, at a time when Iniesta was asked by the Dutchman to “give out the sweets on the pitch”, but he and Xavi only played together in two matches that European season and it wasn’t until Guardiola’s return as coach in 2008 that the philosophy of ‘pack the midfield with passers no matter how big or small they are’ was fully embraced.
It wasn’t until then that these two geniuses won title after title. “We were knocked out on the canvas when Guardiola arrived and we needed him to teach us how to do things properly again,” Iniesta later said of the Catalan coach’s promotion to the Camp Nou dugout. Barcelona needed a coach who would play both players together all of the time. “People used to ask ‘Xavi or Iniesta?’ and Pep would say ‘Xavi and Iniesta’,” Lorenzo Buenaventura, Guardiola’s assistant, explained in Iniesta’s biography The Artist. “Both of them. Not one or the other. Together always. People said they couldn’t play together, but that’s not true. They shouldn’t be played apart.”
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Guardiola started to play them together, usually with Xavi on the right and Iniesta on the left, although they also played alongside each other in more different formations than the opening sequence of The Simpsons. At that moment, Barcelona’s story and the course of modern football changed forever. This was the U-bend of possession-football history.
If Guardiola was in the business of promoting possession-based and free-flowing football, then Xavi and Iniesta were his two most trusted salesmen, the ones who could go door to door and convince even the most sceptical listener that keeping the ball was the best way to win football matches. Here, take our business card, they seemed to be saying. Come back and watch us again next week.
The peak came at Wembley, on the biggest stage and with the whole world watching. Run a poll asking football fans what the most complete performance they’ve ever witnessed was and Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Manchester United will probably come out on top. Run the same poll in a few decades, and winning margin will probably have increased with time.
“They’re the best in Europe, no question about that,” Sir Alex Ferguson declared afterwards. “In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. No one has given us a hiding like that.” The Scot was particularly full of praise for Iniesta and Xavi, as well, of course, for Messi. “At Barcelona they had these wonderful mites,” he later wrote in one of his autobiographies. “They were five foot six inches tall with the courage of lions, to take the ball all the time and never allow themselves to be bullied.”
During their time representing Spain, the peak came in South Africa. As much as Guardiola deserves praise for pairing the little guys together in his Barça side, Luis Aragonés must be applauded for changing the set-up of the Spanish national side ahead of Euro 2008. He was the visionary who realised that passing can beat power, which seems obvious now, but which didn’t a decade ago and which certainly wasn’t apparent in Spain, where the idea of La Furia Roja persisted; the idea of winning through superior fury and passion. Xavi and Iniesta were passionate about passing their way to goal, not about chasing shadows and later boasting to the public about how much they were sweating for the cause.
While Iniesta was the one to score the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, Xavi’s role at that tournament was just as important for Spain. He, at least, played more minutes and was the outfield captain. The Catalan also provided two assists in South Africa, directly taking part in as many goals as the two that Iniesta scored, against Chile and Holland.
What is certainly true is that the Iniesta and Xavi partnership was the driving force behind this tournament victory. They were even greater than the sum of their parts when they played in sync. In fact, besides the winning goal, the most important moment of the 2010 final was surely the John Heitinga red card in extra time and this was provoked by one of the great Xavi and Iniesta moments.
The ball is played into Iniesta on the edge of the area and he clips it beautifully through the air to Xavi, who lofts it back first time in Iniesta’s direction and towards goal, with all the gentleness of an underhand basketball shot. The precision is so perfect that Heitinga has to illegally pull the Blaugrana midfielder down, and he is given his marching orders. Spain, as well all know, would go on to crown themselves champions of the world.
The pair returned to Catalonia soon after and continued doing their thing, so much so that we as football fans began to take it for granted. But then, in 2015, Xavi prepared to depart his lifelong club. With the captain ageing, he was playing less and less and whenever he did take to the pitch it was usually to allow Iniesta a rest. They were both sharing minutes on the left side of midfield because Luis Enrique wanted Ivan Rakitić on the right, where he had the sufficient energy to cover for the foraging runs of Dani Alves.
Indeed, the reason that their final appearance together in that 2014/15 season was made as early as April had to do with the fact that Xavi’s final few Barça run-outs started with a high five to Iniesta beneath a fourth official’s board, which would present the number six in green and the number eight in red.
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Towards the end of Xavi’s final campaign, it became clear that Barcelona had a rare opportunity to win a treble and to send the legend out on the highest of highs. Even if Iniesta and Xavi no longer played together, they shared a common goal. First, they won the league, then the Copa del Rey, before journeying to Berlin to chase the Champions League.
Iniesta was sublime and within four minutes he’d created the opener for Rakitić, the man who was playing in Xavi’s stead. It was with a 2-1 lead that Iniesta made way for Xavi to make his last waltz, with 12 minutes to go. “Go finish the job boss”, he’d have thought one last time, as he was substituted off for his colleague. And that’s exactly what Barcelona did, going onto win 3-1.
For Iniesta, he’d helped his friend go out with a treble and Xavi appreciated Iniesta’s efforts so much that he invited the number eight to go up with him to collect the trophy together. Luis Enrique’s Barcelona may have been built around the MSN, but the club in the 21st century had been built around these two nimble midfield brainiacs and it was fitting that they toasted Xavi’s departure by collecting the European Cup together and by drinking champagne from it.
They said they couldn’t play together, but they proved that they had to play together. “We proved them wrong,” Xavi said when interviewed for Iniesta’s book. “In the end, the more talent you can bring together the better. We didn’t even need to say anything to each other. At most I might say ‘come a little closer’ or something like that. No more. Andrés isn’t the kind of player who likes to spend the whole game talking either and we understood each other perfectly, almost just with a look.” The world of football understood something too. We understood never to belittle the little guys.
By Euan McTear @emctear
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp