The big interview: Xavi – inside the mind of a football genius

In the Middle East and out of sight, but definitely not off the radar, Xavi tells FourFourTwo of his love for the English game, his coaching masterplan and how he nearly left Barcelona at 19 (Issue: May 2016; Photography: Shamil Tanna)

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Xavi looks confused. It’s probably because he’s never seen a rattle before. “And people actually take these to games in England?” the perplexed playmaker asks. Then he screams, as a ratcheting cacophony fills the plush confines of the Torch Hotel in Doha, Qatar. “Bloody hell, that’s loud! It makes a much better noise than those damn vuvuzelas in South Africa.”

What you might be thinking, however, is why. Why the rattle? Why has FourFourTwo travelled more than 3,000 miles to the Middle East to interview a player who admits he’s in semi-retirement in Qatar? 

In leaving Camp Nou last May, albeit as a Champions League-winning captain, Xavi also left European football behind. So is he still relevant? Put simply, yes. Xavi is footballing royalty; the key to a team that has dominated club football for a decade (and continues to do so in his absence) with a philosophy and style he embodies like nobody else. And it isn’t just Barcelona: Spain’s triumphs at three successive international tournaments would be unthinkable, even impossible, without this modest metronome of 5ft 7in. 

Yet there’s more to Xavier Hernandez Creus than 17 seasons with Barcelona, 28 major honours that include four Champions League titles, two European Championships and a World Cup, and being the poster boy for tiki-taka. Perhaps more than any other player, he feels football. And we want to find out what makes football’s deepest thinker and part-time historian tick.

If you want to know what’s next for football’s most prodigious brain, and exactly what he’s thinking, read on – especially if you’re Adam Lallana. Or Danny Drinkwater. Or, er, Craig Gardner.

English admiration

Did you see that volleyed backheel from Riyad Mahrez last night? Pffft, outrageous. I flicked over from La Liga just to watch it

Playing football has always been part of Xavi’s life, and you get the impression that talking about it has been as well. To this erudite 36-year-old, giving an interview represents an opportunity to talk about football, rather than the ordeal it is to many of today’s more cosseted stars. The lines between an informal chat over coffee and actual magazine interview are blurred.

Greeting FFT in the hotel lobby with an almost embarrassed apology that an overrunning training session has delayed our meeting by less than half an hour, the first thing he does after enquiring about our journey (seat, comfy; chicken pasty, sweaty) is ask what England thinks about Leicester City’s title challenge. 

“Did you see that volleyed backheel from Riyad Mahrez last night?” he asks, cooing over the Algerian’s outrageous assist in the Foxes’ 2-2 home draw with West Bromwich Albion. “Pffft, outrageous. I flicked over from La Liga just to watch it. It was an awesome free-kick from Craig Gardner, too.

“Can you imagine if Leicester won the league? Let’s hope they don’t blow up and get ahead of themselves, because it’s easy for perceptions to change.

“The thing is, Leicester have a good team,” he continues, after being briefly mobbed by a Costa Rican youth team hunting autographs. “They’re very compact, Jamie Vardy is so quick on the break and Riyad Mahrez has great quality. N’Golo Kante is a phenomenon in midfield and Danny Drinkwater and Christian Fuchs, the left-back, are very solid, too. Robert Huth is huge at centre-back.”

This fixation on the sport was always inevitable, ever since his mother Maria Merce first met his father Joaquim over games of table football at her parents’ bar in the early 1970s. “Our house was fanatical about football,” recalls Xavi. “Me and my brothers used to collect stickers, especially around the World Cup. 

Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez, James Vardy and Danny Drinkwater talk after Vardy scores the opening goal during the English Premier League match between Arsenal

"Oi, sort it out lads. Xavi's watching"

“My first memory is being taken to Camp Nou for the first time. I must have been about five, probably younger. It was an evening kick-off and everything was lit up. It was perfect. I went out of my mind seeing the pitch – totally delirious.”

With older brothers Oscar and Alex as well as sister Ariadna, Xavi and the family soon settled into life on Carrer de Galileu, a long, straight residential street in Terrassa, some 45 minutes north of downtown Barcelona. Not a day went by without little Xavier going out to join his brothers for a kickabout.

In Catalonia there used to be a half-hour programme every Monday where they’d show the best goals from the Premier League. Every week, Matt Le Tissier would be on the show. Every single week. I’m talking outrageous, sickening goals, too

One day, Joaquim went along to keep an eye on his five-year-old son. “He came up to me and said: ‘Why don’t you join in the attack? You’ll score’,” says Xavi, a smile enveloping his whole face. “Apparently, I responded: ‘But Dad, if I go up there, who’s left in defence to protect the keeper?’ I was already thinking tactically about football before I was at school!”

Not even Joaquim – himself a professional for Terrassa and Sabadell briefly, and later a coach – was spared the analytical treatment. “We used to sit in the crowd at his games, discussing what substitutions we’d make,” laughs Xavi. “Before each match, we’d analyse the team-sheets, saying: ‘Bloody hell, why’s he not playing?! He’s great and this guy’s average!’ It was our life.”

That passion extended to the front room’s designated ‘football couch’, from which the family “must have watched thousands of games”. It was here that Xavi’s love of English football developed, thanks to one man in particular. 

“In Catalonia there used to be a half-hour programme every Monday where they’d show the best goals from the Premier League,” Xavi recalls, delivering his memory like a bedtime story to a child. “Every week, Matt Le Tissier would be on the show. Every single week. I’m talking outrageous, sickening goals, too: PUM, straight into the top corner; PAM, left-foot flick and then right over a defender to score against Newcastle; PUM, incredible free-kick.

“We used to say: ‘This guy, Le Tissier, is outrageous and he never goes to a big team. He stays at Southampton. It’s incredible. He could play for anyone!’ Our whole house was obsessed with him.”

Matt Le Tissier scores against Coventry City

Xavi was amazed by Le Tiss's skills as a youngster

It wasn’t just Le Tissier, either, but English football in general. 

“I remember watching John Barnes at Liverpool – wow, what a player he was – and also the Manchester United teams with David Beckham, the Nevilles, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt. In the same way that this Barcelona team is a reference point for Europe, Alex Ferguson’s Man United were worldwide references for years. 

“Going further back, there was Bryan Robson, who I admired as a great fighter, and the legendary Eric Cantona. English football has always been in Spain’s retina. England breathes football in a way Spain doesn’t. In England, a footballer is like a god.

“The English game is an example of how to act, because you never cheat. You’re noble, even in defeat. Look at Bobby Robson as Barcelona coach: a true gentleman. No one has a bad word to say about him. You’re an example of the game’s traditions.”

The windscreen wiper

The deal to sign me was done before the trial, but my dad hadn’t told me anything. He just wanted me to play

Xavi’s parents worried about their young son’s petite physique, delaying his first Barcelona trial until July 1991, when he was 11. “I’ll never forget my dad driving me to the game,” Xavi recalls, smiling while tapping the side of his head. “He said: ‘Not many people get this opportunity, so just do your best. If it goes well, maybe they will sign you’. I was so nervous.

“I’d played most often just off a centre-forward. They played me as a pure No.9. We won a penalty and nobody else wanted it, and as I was the centre-forward I thought I should take it. I scored a hat-trick that day – the only one I’ve ever scored, I think. I was so happy.

“Then my dad told me the truth. The deal was already done for me to sign, but he hadn’t told me anything. He just wanted me to play.” 

On the other team that day was a midfielder who was transfixed by what he saw. “No one could get the ball off him,” that lad said years later, by which point he was a defender. “I just thought: ‘They’re never going to sign me if there are kids this good!’”

It feels incongruous to hear Xavi talk about the mere possibility of playing in another European team – yet it very nearly happened

For the record, Carles Puyol didn’t have a bad career, either. 

Commuting back to Terrassa every evening for dinner (his mum wouldn’t let him stay as a boarder at La Masia), Xavi would never wear his Barcelona tracksuit, so he could avoid the attention of his peers. While his friends would stay out late, he’d sit on the football couch with dad Joaquim or indulge his other passion of mushroom picking.  

His first purchase with a youth-team pay packet of 4,000 pesetas (about £20) was a toaster, bought on Las Ramblas for his mum. By 1997, he was a Barcelona B regular. A year later he made his official first-team debut under Louis van Gaal, against Mallorca in the Spanish Supercopa, and scored in a 3-1 aggregate defeat. 

Louis van Gaal, Barcelona manager

Louis van Gaal gave Xavi his Barça debut

Despite a disastrous start, losing four consecutive games in December, Barcelona won the league, and Xavi was voted Spain’s breakthrough player. In April 1999, he excelled as Spain won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Nigeria.

Yet despite being the world’s most promising 19-year-old, Xavi was worried – worried about the comparisons to his idol Pep Guardiola, and even taking his hero’s place. Impressed by what he’d seen in Nigeria, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani was prepared to pay Xavi’s release clause.

“Pep was 27 or 28 and in the best condition of his life,” Xavi recalls. “My dad said: ‘It’s better you go, because here they’ve got a ready-made team’. There didn’t seem to be a place in the team for me, while Milan said I’d play with Demetrio Albertini in midfield.”

It feels incongruous to hear Xavi talk about the mere possibility of playing in another European team – yet it very nearly happened. “My brothers said I should go, too,” he adds. “My mum was the only one who thought I should stay. Ultimately, it didn’t feel right. The legend goes that she stopped it, but the decision was mine.”

However, Xavi’s Camp Nou life would get worse before it got better. Van Gaal used him sparingly, and it took Guardiola’s departure for Brescia in 2001 for his diminutive successor to cement a first-team place. Yet Xavi was tacitly blamed for his idol saying goodbye. From that 1999 Liga title, Barcelona went six years without a trophy.

Pep Guardiola, Barcelona

Xavi was concerned about forcing his idol out of the team

“Barcelona weren’t even in the running for any titles in that spell,” says Xavi, wearing a disappointed expression for the only time during our conversation. “The press looked for a scapegoat, and I was the best target. I was slow. I was ‘out of date’. I should be put down. Barcelona couldn’t play at Europe’s top level with me in midfield and had to look for taller, stronger players. 

“We had a philosophy, but they wanted a change because of three or four years without a trophy. I understand criticism, but they were really strong. Some became personal, which affected my home life and hurt me a lot. It was like ‘Xavi has no merit’.”

There’s no comparison between the English football fan and the Spanish one: the respect in England is for the players, win or lose

The Spanish press had even dubbed Xavi Parabrisas, or ‘the windscreen wiper’, because supposedly all he ever did was pass the ball from side to side. 

“You have two roads with critics: you get depressed or you fight,” he says, heartache replaced by iron-willed conviction. “I’m stubborn and pig-headed and this hardened me to prove what I can do. Bit by bit, I reached the top of the game. I’m very proud of that.”

At one point, Barcelona even sounded out potential suitors for his sale. What helped keep Xavi sane were European trips to England. He made his European debut – before his Liga bow – coming off the bench at Old Trafford in September 1998, to spark a love of English fandom that persists to the present day. 

“There’s no comparison between the English football fan and the Spanish one: the respect there is for the players, win or lose,” says Xavi.

“I remember winning 3-1 at Anfield in November 2001, playing incredible football against Liverpool. The fans remained for the whole game and never stopped applauding their team. I mean, we couldn’t have played better, but in the 90th minute they were still applauding Liverpool. I couldn’t believe it. I was speechless.”

Warming to the theme, he skips forward to the present day. “I spoke to Juan Mata and David de Gea at the end of the season before last. Manchester United finished seventh, but after the final game at Old Trafford, the fans applauded the players off. That’s unthinkable in Spain. You’d have to flee to the dressing room as quickly as possible, because otherwise they’ll lynch you.

“It’s a family occasion. Son, father, grandfather, nephew – they all go together. It’s a spectacle you don’t get anywhere else; everyone has the shirt and feels part of the club. You’re the game’s inventors – the essence of football.”

Liverpool fans

Xavi holds huge admiration for English football fans

It took a change of manager for Xavi to feel part of Barcelona again. When Frank Rijkaard (left) arrived in 2003, along with new president Joan Laporta, Barcelona reconnected with the past. And the pass.

“It was like we’d returned to [Johan] Cruyff: a 4-3-3 with the focus on possession,” Xavi admits. “For four years, we’d bought players that were too young to make the difference in games. Then we signed Deco, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o – players who were already internationals. We got back our dream. Ilusion.”

League runners-up to Rafa Benitez’s Valencia in Rijkaard’s first season, Barcelona then won consecutive domestic titles and the 2006 Champions League with trademark attacking football. Though Xavi remained on the bench for the latter through an untimely injury, he had been freed from his role as the lone defensive pivote, which had limited his creativity. Alongside Deco, and backed up by Edmilson or Thiago Motta, Xavi had licence to attack. To assist. To make a difference.

Read on for playing under Pep, and more...