“My ultimate objective is to coach Barça. I’m not hiding that.”
Xavi was still three years from the end of his playing career when FourFourTwo jetted out to interview him in Qatar in early 2016, but his ambition was already clear.
During 17 years in the first team at the Camp Nou, the World Cup winner bagged as many major trophies. Rightly, he’s regarded as one of their greatest ever players – and for some time, he’s been regarded as their future manager, too. The only question has been when, rather than if.
Upon realising he was no longer capable of performing regularly at the top level, Xavi was lured to Qatar in 2015 at the age of 35, to finish his playing days with Al-Sadd.
“Barça will continue to be great without me, I’m convinced,” he said after signing off with his fourth Champions League crown.
Fortunately, Xavi’s management has been better than his predictions so far. Initially, he moved into the same Doha house that Raul had lived in during a former spell at Al-Sadd.
The midfielder also became an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup and soon (somehow) won a national lottery, receiving a cheque of one million Qatari riyals (around £200,000) at a high-profile presentation ceremony.
Al-Sadd are perhaps the Liverpool of Qatar, in that they’ve won the most league titles – most of them in the 1970s and ’80s – and also clinched the Asian Champions League in 2011 before facing Barcelona in the Club World Cup. In Xavi’s first three seasons in the Qatar Stars League, they came third, second and second.
“Tactically it’s not that well developed, but it’s a professional league – you can’t just coast through games, because everyone is well prepared physically and the teams are evenly matched,” he told FFT.
Xavi had announced his intention to retire once he reached the end of the 2017-18 season, but changed his mind and signed a new deal after Al-Sadd qualified for the closing stages of the 2018 Asian Champions League. Joined at the club by ex-Atletico Madrid midfielder Gabi, Xavi captained them to the semi-finals, then won the 2018-19 Qatari domestic league before finally hanging up his boots at the age of 39.
Within weeks, Portuguese boss Jesualdo Ferreira had departed the club, and Xavi was appointed Al-Sadd’s new head honcho – having already gained coaching experience working with the under-23s at Qatar’s Aspire Academy. He always seemed perfectly suited to management: a leader on the pitch renowned for his stable temperament, with the vision and awareness to dictate matches on his own terms.
Working underneath Pep Guardiola for four years did him no harm.
“My philosophy as a coach reflects the style we developed for many years under the influence of Johan Cruyff and La Masia, and that has its greatest exponent in the way of playing football in Barcelona,” he explained. “I love seeing teams take the initiative on the field, attack and return to the essence of what we all loved from our childhood days – possession football.
“My idea is to prove myself in Qatar, where there’s not so much pressure. That will set me up to return to European football and, yes, hopefully Barcelona. But I’m not ready to take that sort of role. I can’t take a Ferrari – I have to start with a small car to try it and get experience.”
So far, so good: Xavi took Al-Sadd back to the Asian Champions League semi-finals in his first months, and also managed them at the Club World Cup in Doha – they had been invited to take part as representatives of the host country, defeating Hienghene Sport of New Caledonia before losing to Monterrey.
By January, he was approached about replacing Ernesto Valverde at Barcelona – because as it turned out, Xavi’s old club hadn’t continued to be great without him after all. But he sensed the timing wasn’t perfect – the mood around the Camp Nou was toxic, with unpopular president Josep Bartomeu still in situ.
“I’d like to return at the right moment,” he later revealed. “I made it clear to them that I saw myself in a project that started from zero, in which the decision-making was mine. I’d like to work with people in whom I have confidence.” Without explicitly saying it, he was ruling out taking the Barça job until Bartomeu had gone.
Al-Sadd finished third at the end of his first season in charge, before Santi Cazorla was recruited from Villarreal. In December, Xavi guided his club to victory in the Emir of Qatar Cup, while they’ve also motored towards the domestic title – well clear at the summit of a league which has also contained Laurent Blanc, Slavisa Jokanovic, ex-Iceland boss Heimir Hallgrimsson and former Nottingham Forest manager Sabri Lamouchi this term.
Meanwhile, Xavi has been watching and waiting on the result of Barça’s presidential election, interested to learn the identity of Bartomeu’s permanent replacement. Ever since his final appearance for the club, as a substitute in their Champions League final victory over Juventus in 2015, Barça have been in decline.
“One day Xavi and Barcelona will meet,” declared his old pal Andres Iniesta. “I don’t know when, but I have faith. It will happen.”
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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.
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