Xavi Hernandez-The Best Passer
Xavi Hernandez Creus, the midfield maestro decided to call it a day from international football arena on 5th August 2014 after 133 caps to his name. He was undoubtedly one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A key player in the history-making squad of FC Barcelona as well as Spain, he won virtually everything which was there to be won – the only blip could be the Confederations Cup which Spain lost to Brazil in the 2013 final. He does not have a big athletic body – he is short, he does not appear very strong, but he did have an eye for those delightful passes. And that was accompanied by tremendous consistency. In Barcelona, he used to run the show as the bandmaster in an orchestra. He was a very hard-working midfielder who always found space –almost effortlessly – to dictate the game.
Xavi Hernandez, one of the best midfielders of all time retired from International football earlier this week. While his achievements, both for the club and country are unprecedented, Xavi has had his critics. Saumyadip Das looks back at his playing days with Goalden Times.
Honestly, Xavi’s game was never very much eye-catching – it had no long-runs, no great dribbling, nothing much flashy like others greats of his generation. Some say that he could not even tackle. He was criticized on many occasions, mockedwith the nickname“Windshield Wiper” –that all he ever did was pass sideways. On 13thJanuary 2009, The Daily Mail even went ahead with an article on that year’s Ballon d’Or shortlists having the headline “The best players of the world (and Xavi).” Probably they forgot the fact that Xavi used to run more than anyone else on the field. He used to create more chances than anyone else on the field. He looked fitter and fresher than anyone else on the field. His game was predictable, but he was deadly efficient at that. Playing a miss-pass is considered the biggest sin in la masia, the FC Barcelona academy Xavi joined at the age of 11. His ex-team mate and ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has aptly described Xavi’s playing philosophy: “I get the ball, I give the ball, I get the ball, I give the ball”. So, it was quite evident that he would carry on making short pass after short pass and all of a sudden he would made a telling pass to kick start a move which would eventually finish at the back of the net. Xavi’s extraordinary vision, supreme technical skill to pass relentlessly with pinpointed accuracy and unbelievable ball control allowed him to keep possession of the ball for eternity and boss the gameplay. Perhaps, the best explanation of Xavi’s game came from the man himself, in a widelylauded interview with Sid Lowe, in The Guardian: “That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realize how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.”
Xavi has also been a very humble person, a role model for younger players. In an interview, when asked if Paul Scholes can be called as the English Xavi, he replied-“Paul Scholes! A role model. For me – and I really mean this – he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years. I’ve spoken to Xabi Alonso about him. He’s spectacular, he has it all: the last pass, goals, he’s strong, he doesn’t lose the ball, vision. Players love him”.
Xavi will be remembered as a dedicated and loyal footballer – a trait so rare in these days. He joined Barcelona senior team in 1998, and remained with them following the tough times after their La Liga win in 1999. Barcelona remained trophyless for next five seasons, they struggled during that era of Joan Gaspart and were on the verge of bankruptcy. Xavi could have easily left Camp Nou but he did not. He chose to remain at the club, brought the honours for the club making the deep lying playmaker role his own and went on to become the most capped player in the history of the club with more than 700 appearances (and still counting!!!). His record as a player is impeccable. With FC Barcelona, he won seven La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey, six Supercopa, three UEFA Champions League, two UEFA Super Cup and two FIFA Club World Cup honours. And with Spain, he won back to back UEFA EuropeanFootball Championships in 2008 & 2012, sandwiched by their only World Cup trophy in 2010, an Olympic Silver medal in 2000 and a U-20 World Cup in 1999.
But what he did in those matches? Did he just pass the ball sideways as the critics mentioned? The answer is an emphatic No. He was the “The Puppet Master”, as he is fondly known to the whole world. In his competitive debut on 18thAugust 1998 in the Super Cup final, he scored against RCD Mallorca. He then made his debut in La Liga against Valencia CF on 3rd October 1998 in a 3–1 win. Xavi continued to appear for both the reserve (Barcelona B) and the senior teams and opened his account for Barcelona FC in the 1–0 victory over Real Valladolid when Barcelona were placed 10th in the league standings.He kept on impressing and soon became a key member of Louis van Gaal’s title-winning team that year. Xavi finished his debut season with26 matches La Liga title and La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year award.
The journey continued and Xavi became an important part of a legendary Barcelona team where he chipped in with vital goals and assisted for more than 50 different teammates. He also played a crucial role in Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph under Luis Aragones. He scored the opener in the semi final against Russia and in the final he assisted Fernando Torres for the only goal to clinch the title for Spain aftera gap of 44 years. He was named the player of the tournament. “We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,” said Andy Roxburgh, head of UEFA’s technical committee.
“We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,”
In 2009 Copa del Rey final, against Athletic Bilbao, he scored with a free kick en route a 4-1 win. That season in La Liga, among many games, one of the most significant was the 6–2 El Clásico victory over Real Madrid on 2nd May, 2009 where he assisted for four of those goals. Xavithen helped Barcelona to win the 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United2–0 where he crossed for the second goal to Lionel Messi and was judged the Man of the match. Prior to the match, Manchester United’s then manager Sir Alex Ferguson had feared that it is very difficult to mark him and blank out his game – and Xavi proved him right. In the same season Xavi was the highest assisting player with 20 assists in La Liga. He was also had most assists in the UEFA Champions League with seven assists.
In the 2009–10 season,Xavi again topped the assists chart and provided both the assists in Barcelona’s 2–0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Barcelona won the league title with a record 99 points and Xavi was voted the second best player of the team. On 3rdJune, 2010, the Madrid based newspaper Marca announced Xavias the third best player in the league behind Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.in the annual Trofeo Alfredo di Stéfano award. On 29th November, 2009, he scored his third goal again against Real Madrid in a 5–0 victory at Camp Nou which is arguably the Best performance in the history of Football. On 18th December,2009, in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup Final in Yokohama, Japan, Barcelona won 4-0 against Santos where Xavi scored a goal and provided with an assist for Messi.
In 2010 FIFA World Cup, he ran over 80 kilometer, more than anyone else. To give it a more tangible perspective, he back heeled to David Villa for the only goal in the round of 16 match against Portugal. Xavi once again made an assist to Puyol via a corner for the only goal in the semi-final match against Germany. It was not a surprise to anyone when Xavi was selected in the 2010 World Cup All-star Team.
In 2011/12 season Xavi scored 10 goals in the league and two more in the title winning run of Copa Del Rey. Later that year, in 2012 Euro, he created record by having the most number of passes(136,127 were succesful) in a group match against Ireland, surpassing Ronald Koeman’s record of 117 passes in a single game.In the final against Italy, Xavi assisted twice – for Jordi Alba and Torres – and become the only player till date to have assists in two different Euro finals. Once again, he was part of the all-star team.
As far as individual honours are concerned, Xavi won the World Soccer Player of the Year award in 2010. Xavi has also received five Ballon d’Or nominations, and to his ill fortune missed out as he was up against two of the most lethal goal scorers of all time – Messi and Ronaldo. In fact, Messi has eclipsed Xavi for the top honours on the back of countless goals he has scored from Xavi’s direct contribution. It is no coincidence that he has been awarded the IFFHS World’s Best Playmaker award for four successive years from 2008 to 2011. He has been a part of UEFA Team of the Year for five consecutive years from 2008 to 2012), and FIFA World XI for six straight occasions from 2008 to 2013. Xavi is also the most successful player in the Spanish football history with more than 25 trophies. Among other awards and accolades, he has been decorated with Spanish Sportsman of the Year in 2009, Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit in 2010 and Prince of Asturias Award for Sports in 2010 and 2012).
Xavi formed a deadly partnership with his midfield partner – both at the club and national level – and close friend Andres Iniesta –Xaviesta. Once Rivelinho, member of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning squad said: “Xavi and Iniesta think fast and that gives their teams an advantage. They pass and pass and pass, and suddenly pick out spaces for the forwards with great precision. They’re always doing something different. The last player I saw play with that intelligence was Zidane. They know what they are going to do before the ball gets to their feet. And that’s like gold in football”. He assisted many of the goals scored by Lionel Messi in his route to become Best Player in the World.
No doubt, Xavi Hernandez is one of the greatest midfielders of all time and possibly the best central midfielder of his generation. He has been loyal to his childhood club and one can say he has Barca DNA. Recently he thought about leaving the club,but newly appointed manager Luis Enrique convinced him that the team needs his experience and handed him thecaptain’s armband. His national team coach Vincente Del Bosque always regarded him as a “unique” player and he will have a tough time finding a replacement for Xavi. Just like old wine, he became better and better as he was approaching the age of 30 and beyond. He never had a flamboyant personality which could be used for worldwide brand building. He did not have a strong frame or athletic features to boss the game either through muscle power or agility. And he was aware of that: “I’d love to be faster. Physically I’m limited, but I’ve survived by using my head”. With his exit from international football, we shall surely miss one of the best passers of all time. May be it will help him to extend his playing days and he would continue to mesmerize us at club level.