The big interview: Xavi – inside the mind of a football genius
Playing under Pep
The Barcelona romance had reignited, but it was in the summer of 2008 that it was definitively consummated as, following Euro 2008, Pep Guardiola returned to Xavi’s daily life, seven years after his Camp Nou exit as a player. Rijkaard’s final months had been defined by an increasingly unmotivated squad that had too many inflated egos. Not any more.
“Pep wrings you like an orange,” Xavi says, performing the action as he talks. “It’s fantastic when your coach does that. He was a master in every training session, meeting and team talk. He’s a total perfectionist and a born leader, who always takes you to the edge.”
I said to Pep: ‘Do you count on me for this season?’ He replied: ‘Xavi, I can’t imagine this team without you in it’. I didn’t need to hear anything else
It all began with a July chat between the former team-mates at the squad’s St Andrew’s training base in Scotland. Bayern Munich were sniffing around. The former Barcelona captain recalls: “I said to Pep: ‘Do you count on me for this season?’ He replied: ‘Xavi, I can’t imagine this team without you in it’. I didn’t need to hear anything else.
“I remember thinking after the first session in Scotland – always with the ball, great pressure, intensity from Pep – ‘things are going to go well for us’. I wouldn’t say I predicted that we’d go on to win six trophies in that first season, but he excited me. He transmits his ideas perfectly to you and has an incredible idea of how to play football – pretty much perfect.”
That 2008-09 season, Xavi scored nine goals and made 27 assists – the best figures of his career – as Barcelona swept all before them to an unprecedented sextuple of La Liga, Champions League, Copa del Rey, Supercopa, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup with a short, fast passing style that still endures.
“Nothing compares to that season and I don’t think anything ever will again,” says Xavi, this Doha hotel meeting room aglow with pride. “It’s the best football I’ve ever seen from a team. Incredible.
“We had practically 80 per cent of the ball in every game. We dominated matches from the first minute. We had 20-25 chances every game. We won everything. Six titles! We were almost unbeatable.
“Four years earlier, that was unthinkable – I’d been Barcelona’s problem, but now I was the key. Had my football changed? No chance – I was playing in the same way as when I was 11. The results had changed. That’s the effect.”
The trophies kept coming (title wins in 2010 and 2011 completed a Spanish league treble), with Xavi still the poster boy of the Guardiola revolution. In the 3-1 Champions League final win over Manchester United in 2011, he gave nothing short of a recital – later described by Alex Ferguson as “like being on a carousel” – in setting up the opening goal for Pedro.
“For me, the assist is more important than the goal,” begins Xavi. He would say that, of course, but the dizzying blur of hand signals that accompanies his mid-air sketch of that Wembley opener is proof of the difficulty of that pass.
“I saw the United players running to pressurise me. Pedro lost his marker brilliantly. He came inside, stopped, then reversed out between two defenders to receive the ball. I’d already seen him, but I had to wait, wait, wait… then PUM, with the outside of the foot.
“Those three or four seconds between making the pass and Pedro scoring gave me goosebumps – pure elation. That through-ball inside, to cut out an entire defensive line in a major final, is as good as it gets. It was thrilling under Pep.”
Luis was like an English ‘mister’ – actually, it was all about his mentality. He used to say: ‘You’re the best in the world’, poking us individually in the chest. ‘I’ve seen them all, and I don’t tell lies’
It’s to be expected that Xavi reserves such praise for Guardiola, his playing idol and the coach with whom he is most associated because of those four gluttonous seasons from 2008-09. But Guardiola benefited from having Xavi at the height of his considerable powers during that campaign. The reason was simple: Xavi’s other great coaching inspiration, Luis Aragones.
“Only under Pep and Luis have I ever come out of every team meeting or talk with the feeling of... I don’t know…” Xavi begins, before pausing to buy himself time to think, then breathing in heavily to puff out his chest and concluding: “...I suppose being so emotional and pumped up from what he said.
“I’ve learned a lot under the rest, but the sensation of taking something from every word they said? Just those two. Aragones changed everything for Spain.”
Aragones’ comments on Thierry Henry should never be airbrushed from history, but his four-year spell as Spain boss from 2004 laid the foundations for modern football’s greatest international side. Much like pre-Pep Barcelona, La Roja were struggling to turn a talented squad into consistent winners. Aragones made Xavi his conductor, frequently knocking on his door at 2am to tell him: “I want you to touch the ball more than anyone else”, and Spain won Euro 2008.
“Luis was like an English ‘mister’ – actually, it was all about his mentality,” Xavi recalls. “He used to say: ‘You’re the best in the world’, poking us individually in the chest. ‘I’ve seen them all, and I don’t tell lies’.”
Where are they now?
Buoyed by a quarter-final shootout victory against Italy, Spain dispatched Russia in the last four, but the nerves returned for the final against Germany. Aragones (right) had one more plan up his sleeve.
“He had the ‘quality’ of forgetting people’s names,” Xavi smiles, trying and failing to stifle a laugh. “Just before going down the tunnel, he called us all around.
“He said: ‘Lads, I’ve got some news. Wallace hasn’t trained’. Er, who the hell’s Wallace, boss? ‘Wallace, the No.13, their playmaker’. You mean Ballack. ‘Pah, Wallace, Ballack – it’s all the same’. We all just fell about laughing and suddenly we were no longer nervous for the most important game in our careers.”
A relaxed Spain won 1-0, Xavi setting up Fernando Torres for the winner. It was at Euro 2008 that he became christened ‘Maki’, short for maquina, or ‘machine’.
“That tournament was the trampoline to me becoming a big name in European football – people woke up to me, I suppose,” says the pass master. “It’s understandable. I was 28 and I’d already played a lot of league and Champions League games, but the trophies hadn’t quite arrived. We weren’t references for the world game like we were about to become. Luis sent us on our orbit.”
I couldn’t sleep the night we lost to Switzerland in 2014, so I watched the whole game on repeat in my hotel room
The belief continued under Aragones’ successor, Vicente del Bosque, even after losing the first game of the World Cup two years later, 1-0 to Switzerland.
“I couldn’t sleep that night, so I watched the whole game on repeat in my hotel room,” recalls Xavi. “In the morning I went to see Del Bosque in his room. He looked at me and said: ‘Xavi, I’ve watched the game over and over and I don’t think we should change a thing’. I was so happy. ‘Boss’, I said, ‘it’s incredible we lost that game. It’s pure f**king chance they won. Just football. It’s an accident’. We carried on the same road, knowing we’d be criticised, but every game became a final.”
Honduras, Chile, Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and the Netherlands all succumbed en route to La Roja’s first World Cup, before Euro 2012 was won with embarrassing ease. By the 2014 World Cup, however, something had changed. All great teams’ spells atop football’s summit are cyclical, and by Brazil, Del Bosque’s side was on its last legs.
“Ultimately, we weren’t good enough,” admits Xavi, sounding resigned, perhaps accepting the hand dealt by fate. “It was tough having the Dutch first up, determined for revenge from the final four years earlier. We were poor and didn’t pressure the ball enough, but losing 5-1 was too much. That affected us.
“I’d never seen us play like that. We were making errors, both individually and as a team, that we hadn’t made in three tournaments together. We’d won practically every game to qualify, but against Chile in the next game it was different. Real pressure. They wanted revenge. And bang – 2-0, and that’s your World Cup.”
That premature exit weighed heavily on Xavi. He sensed the changing of the guard for both Spain (and promptly retired from international football) and Barcelona. Carles Puyol had hung up his boots, Victor Valdes had been discarded and, much like Guardiola as manager in 2012, Xavi felt tired.
He admits that in July 2014, “the deal to leave was practically signed”, before an old friend intervened in the name of dressing-room harmony.
“I’ll forever be in Luis Enrique’s debt because he convinced me to stay,” admits Xavi of the then-incoming Barcelona boss, a team-mate 17 years previously. “He said to me: ‘Xavi, stay one more season. You can really help us. We’re going to win everything, I know it’. Life smiled on me that day.”
In January 2015, however, the dream was going sour. Barcelona trailed Real Madrid in the league amid rumours of squad in-fighting. “I was worried,” Xavi admits, puffing out his cheeks. “I knew I’d be leaving at the end of the season. We were in a bad way, not playing well, with problems hanging around the club. I was thinking: ‘Please, just give us one trophy – just one, to say goodbye to the fans, lifting a trophy as captain’.”
With Xavi as elder statesman knitting the squad together, while picking up minutes as the perfect controlling substitute to turn leads into victories, Barcelona’s season slid through the gears and into history.
“The stars aligned for me in those last three or four months,” he smiles, drifting off slightly as if recalling each of the 12 victories in Barcelona’s last 14 league games that secured his eighth league title, or every match en route to the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals.
“I couldn’t believe the homage I got from Camp Nou in the last league match of the season against Deportivo La Coruna,” he recalls, his usually deep voice now crackling with emotion at the thought of the Catalan football cathedral’s mosaic that evening. “I got quite emotional.
“Then the Copa del Rey final was at home as well, and I lifted the trophy with my great friend Andres [Iniesta], the two of us in the presidential box.
“Best of all, though: your last act in a Barcelona shirt is to lift the Champions League trophy as captain? Pffft, there can be no better goodbye than that.”
What comes next? Allow the man himself to tell you...