In the summer of 2008, Xavi was on the verge of joining Bayern Munich. The Catalan had just been named Player of the Tournament at the European Championship, where he had performed as the driving force in the midfield of a Spain team emphatically announcing themselves as the new international force to be reckoned with.
The year 2008 was also the beginning of the Pep Guardiola era at Barcelona, a period of time that would come to define a footballing generation and change the way the game was played for years to come. Xavi wasn’t to know that yet and Bayern, with their riches and storied history, presented an intriguing alternative to a Barça side experiencing a barren spell, largely thanks to Real Madrid flexing their considerable financial muscles and their galleon of Galácticos who reigned supreme over LaLiga.
Guardiola rang the changes in his first summer in charge. Sergio Busquets was promoted from Barcelona B and in came players like Seydou Keïta, Aliaksandr Hleb and Dani Alves. Surprisingly, out went the iconic pair of Deco and Ronaldinho – and Xavi thought he was next. “After Euro 2008, I got the feeling that Barcelona were ready to sell me. Real Madrid were winning things and we weren’t and I went to the national team knowing that the club would be open to selling me if a good offer came in. I spoke with my agent and he told me there was an offer from Bayern. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge wanted me.”
During his four seasons as Barcelona manager, Guardiola won an unprecedented 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles, two Club World Cups and two magical Champions League successes. He also furthered and, arguably, perfected Johan Cruyff’s philosophy, so integral to Barcelona and their Més que un Club identity, it has shaped how football is played in the modern-day.
But for all the mercurially talented players to feature for the Catalan side during this period, all this success may not have been possible save for what may have been one of Pep’s most significant actions: preventing Xavi from leaving the club he had joined as an 11-year-old. “Pep Guardiola became the new coach at Barcelona and I played a great Euro 2008. Pep told me that I was not going anywhere and explained how he could not imagine a Barcelona without me. I was captivated by what he said.”
One of, if not the, best midfield playmakers to ever play the game, it’s baffling to think Barcelona would ever consider selling him, considering how synonymous Xavi is to the Catalonian giants and Guardiola’s intrinsic way of playing. He is the very embodiment of their enduring ethos. Take the ball, pass the ball; take the ball, pass the ball.
In the documentary that chronicles Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona, Xavi himself talks about the style of play made famous by the Catalan side, quite literally using glasses and crisps to describe their instructions – wherein even watching him explain tactics is thrilling – and later explains that “first there is the style of play, then there is the players.”
Guardiola’s way of playing the beautiful game is all about overwhelming possession and overloading the opposition, before a quick change of tempo that creates attacking opportunities. That turn of pace comes from the midfield. There has always been something mechanical in nature to Pep’s teams – just look at how well-oiled his Manchester City are.
Jonathan Wilson, for the Guardian, theorised that Pep’s teams are so thoroughly drilled to the needs of the system, that there is no room for any individuality. All undeniably true but, despite Guardiola’s philosophy being all about possession and space, you still need a player who sees the game differently, a player that possesses a unique vision of play who knows where and most importantly, when, to make that killer pass. That player was Xavi.
Even in the age of Guardiola, the pass is a somewhat underrated aspect of football. As spectators watching the game, we have a bird’s eye view; we can see the spread of the game and the space (or lack thereof) that those on the pitch inhabit. But footballers don’t, at least not really. To be able to envision and execute a pass through a constantly moving mass of bodies is a singularly difficult skill and one that Xavi was able to execute with unerring accuracy, and at such a consistency that he has recorded 100 percent passing in more than one game during his career.
Dani Alves described Xavi as “playing in the future” and, if you watch enough of Xavi playing, you start to notice a pattern, a rule to his style of play. First, there’s a touch to control the ball and kill it dead, usually with his left foot. Then comes a second with the right, to move the ball the necessary distance in front of him so he can use a third touch to make the forensically precise pass. Often, these three touches would come out of nowhere and it’s that change of tempo that shows why he embodies the philosophy of tiki taka so ably. He is also, notably, a self-described ‘romantic’, utterly dedicated to Barça’s method, accepting of teams that play differently but so completely in love with football he will watch every minute of football he can.
Perhaps the game that displayed his talents and how pivotal they were to that Barcelona side came in a match Marca described as “Guardiola’s masterpiece.” It was the game that truly announced a new reign to the football world. Xavi was central to a Barcelona team that blew arch-rivals Real Madrid away on their own turf. The Bernabéu crowd watched on in horror as Xavi served up four assists in a game that is still the biggest margin of defeat in Clásico history, Barcelona ruthlessly and devastatingly annihilating Los Blancos by a scoreline of 6-2.
Real actually took the lead in the game, through a Gonzalo Higuaín header, before Thierry Henry equalised. Then it turned into the Xavi show. His first assist, an inch-perfect free-kick put onto the edge of the six-yard box for Carles Puyol to attack; to power in a header and create the enduring image of the skipper kissing the Catalan colours on his captain’s armband in front of the Bernabéu faithful.
For his second, Xavi pressed and harried Diarra. The ball broke to Messi, who did what Messi does best. The third: prime Xavi. First, the touch with the left, then he executed a dipping pass onto a sixpence for Henry to slide the ball past the onrushing Casillas. Four-two. Xavi’s fourth assist was the best of the lot. He picked up the ball from Messi, on the 18-yard box, dipped one way then pivoted back with a sublime 180-degree swivel, leaving two defenders for dead, before taking out a third with a slick pass back to Messi.
The Madrileño defence just stood there, dumbfounded, unable to process what exactly they had witnessed. Xavi had controlled the game and demonstrated on the biggest stage possible exactly why he was such an important component of two of the best teams of the decade: Barcelona and that Spain team, the one that conquered three major tournaments in a row between 2008 and 2012. This, of course, included the World Cup in 2010, where he was again, just as he was in 2008, named in the Team of the Tournament, registering a 91 percent passing success rate.
He was a player so influential, his former national manager Vicente Del Bosque penned a column in El Pais to mark Xavi’s retirement from football, “A team plays like its central midfielder and he was the representative of Spain,” Del Bosque opined. “He marked our style.” And Xavi understood his role perfectly. As he told El Periodico in 2009: “The one who has the ball, is the master of the game.”
Xavi is the herald of tiki-taka. In many ways, a far more important player to his club than Messi. Whereas Messi is the saviour, the little genius who can pull magic out of thin air, Xavi is emblematic of a philosophy. He the walking embodiment of Guardiola’s footballing vision, a player that oozes control. Whenever he was on the pitch, the game ran through him.
A World Cup winner, he finished his career with 133 caps for Spain and 505 appearances for his childhood club. No player has represented Barcelona more often. He has won eight LaLiga titles and a magnificent four Champions League crowns. One of the most important Spanish footballers of all time, his contribution to the Blaugrana is unrivalled and, yet, it all might not have happened at all had his proposed transfer to Bayern gone through. In some parallel universe, Guardiola may not have achieved what he did with Barça if he didn’t have the greatest passer of a ball the game has ever seen.
The final word on Xavi must go to the eloquent Thiago Alcântara: “Xavi is eternal. Even when he is not at his very best level physically, he plays a kind of football that gives oxygen to a team. It makes me sad to think that I won’t be able to watch Xavi for more time. He’ll always have that level. He is football. He is one of those players that has made Barcelona what it is today.”
By Matthew Gibbs @MatthewIeuan