Madrid (AFP) – Xavi Hernandez left with Barcelona the envy of the world and returns to save them from mediocrity, the club’s legendary midfielder brought back as coach with the mammoth task of restoring his team to its former glory.
“When he is not playing football, he is watching football, he will become a coach I’m sure,” Pep Guardiola said in 2011, after Xavi had more than met the challenge of filling his boots at the heart of Barca’s midfield.
He begins work in the shadow of Guardiola again, the hope that his seismic contribution to Guardiola’s iconic side now makes him the perfect candidate to follow in his footsteps.
Sergio Ramos described Xavi as “football in its purest form”, his respect crossing the Clasico divide, not least because Xavi was as much an ideologue for Spain as he was for Barcelona.
Nicknamed the ‘Maquina’, the Machine, in Spain, Xavi was the midfield metronome that did more than anyone else to demonstrate a style that dominated the game for the best part of a decade and that by the end he came to define.
When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, Xavi completed more than 100 more passes than any other player. In La Liga, only Lionel Messi has more assists than Xavi’s 117 in 505 matches.
And yet his contribution could never be explained by numbers alone, overlooking Xavi’s ability to set pace and rhythm in games, to twist past and rotate around opponents, to use the outside of his right foot to glide away or slide through.
– ‘I’m a romantic’ –
His dedication to the possession style that became known as ‘Tiki-Taka’ was technical but also total, built on a conviction that this was the only way the game should be played.
“I’m a romantic,” Xavi said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011. “I like the fact talent and technical ability is valued above physical condition now. I’m glad that’s the priority; if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be the same spectacle.
“Football is played to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an imposter in football.”
As coach, he will need results as well. Xavi won four Champions League titles, eight in La Liga, the Copa del Rey three times, a World Cup and two European Championships.
Statistically, he is the most successful footballer in Spanish history.
If it were not for Messi, Xavi surely would have won the Ballon d’Or, an award he finished third in three times in a row, behind only Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta.
Without Messi, there might have been more adulation too but Xavi’s identity was always tied to Barcelona, the club he joined aged 11 when he enrolled in La Masia, 30 kilometres south-east of his home town of Terrassa.
Small and stocky, Xavi had to rely on his technical talents, on moving the ball quickly before drawing contact.
Seven years later, he was handed his first-team debut by Louis van Gaal, the first of 767 matches for Barca, in which he would win 25 trophies.
“He signifies our way of playing, the culture of La Masia, everything,” said Gerard Pique. “He is one of those iconic players who helped make Barcelona bigger.”
The expectation will be that Xavi as coach extols the same values as Xavi the player but the game has shifted, with pressing and counter-attack now the dominant modes of Europe’s elite.
By the time Xavi left for Qatar and Al Sadd in 2015, his role was being questioned too, especially after Spain’s early exit at the 2014 World Cup, with tactics already shifting.
Whether he can update, adjust and survive remains to be seen but after six years away, it was always meant to come to this, one of the club’s greatest ever coming home.
“My main objective, when I can do it, is Barca,” Xavi told Marca last year. “It’s my home, that’s the dream.”
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