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Illustration: Sammy Moody

In the late 1980s, when Barcelona were hunting their first European Cup and Spain’s last international trophy dated back to Euro 1964, a bunch of kids would gather to play football in Plaça del Progrés, in the city of Terrassa, some thirty kilometres northwest of Barcelona. It was a concrete square, with a fountain and some trees. One of the regulars was Xavier Hernández Creus, who lived on Carrer de Galileu, a neighbouring street. According to El País, he would come home from school hoping his mother had cooked macaroni, then get money from her to buy fresh bread in the square. More than once, kickabouts derailed his mission. “Many times, my mother would have to come down and say: ‘Xavi, it’s ten past two! You need to eat!’,” he told the paper, as translated by Con La Roja. “And I knew that she would then ask me about the bread. ‘And the bread?’ The bread? There wasn’t any left.”

Xavi’s mother was not unaccustomed to dealing with football obsessives. Maria Mercè had met her husband, Joaquim, in a bar run by her parents, where he would meet friends to play futbolín (table football). On Saturday nights, he practically had to be kicked out. Joaquim went on to play for Catalan side Sabadell, so Xavi grew up with football in his home. This fostered an early intuition. In the square, the kids would surge back and forth to attack or defend en masse. Except Xavi, who would accompany his goalkeeper. One day on the way home, his father asked him why. “Papá,” Xavi replied, “if no one’s there and we lose the ball, the goalkeeper will be alone!”

When Xavi did not play football, he followed it. Once, when he invited El País to his childhood home, a journalist pledged to uncover the secrets behind his persona. “Okay,” Xavi said. “But I warn you: my life is quite boring. After football, there’s only family and friends.” Colleagues and bosses would later describe him as studious and contemplative. Guiding the journalists through the living room, Xavi said: “This is the football couch. Here we must have watched thousands of games.” Óscar, his brother, said that Xavi knows footballers down to the third division. “We were watching L’Hospitalet and Xavi said: ‘This guy played in Sant Andreu last year, not on the wing, but behind the forward’,” he said. Joaquim once remarked that Xavi has “had a football field in his head ever since he began to walk”.

It is said that when Xavi was six, he was watched by Oriol Tort, Barça’s then director of youth football. Tort was charmed by his play, but concerned about his slight frame. Joaquim replied: “He is very small, but you will sign him.” Five years later, Xavi was handed a trial. In the car, Joaquim told him: “Open your eyes wide and learn. Not everyone gets this chance.” Xavi proceeded to score three goals in what he described as “the game of his life”. He told El País, as translated by Con La Roja: “It was incredible. I remember being really scared when I was trying out. I scored three goals. I don’t know what happened to me, but there was a penalty and I asked for the ball. I took it! I don’t know why it occurred to me to do that, but I scored it. I don’t think I took another one until the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Korea.”

His efforts proved pointless, however. Before he entered the pitch, Barça had already decided to sign him. His dad just hadn’t told him.

Nor would Xavi himself tell many of his friends later on. “I didn’t want to be looked at differently,” he told El País in a separate interview, as translated by Diana Kristinne. “I knew that I wasn’t going to change, but I was afraid that they would say: ‘Look at this guy, he signed for Barça and now thinks he’s special.’ I didn’t wear my Barça tracksuit on the street in order to avoid attention.”

Unlike other Barça youngsters, Xavi did not stay at La Masia. His mother would not let him. He would come home from training in time for dinner. Graham Hunter writes in Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World that when Xavi got his first wage, of four thousand pesetas (about twenty pounds), he bought his mother a toaster. As he entered adolescence, his parents shaped his values. “The worst time for a young footballer is between the ages of fifteen and eighteen,” he said, according to Hunter. “That’s when all your mates are going to clubs and dating girls, and you’re stuck at home. My dad played professionally in the second division and a little bit in the Primera, and that helped me. He was on top of me all the time—’Get home by ten! You’ve got a game tomorrow!’ Diet, timetable, attitude—he taught me about professionalism very early.”

Xavi also adopted ideals on the pitch. “When you arrive at Barça, the first thing they teach you is: think. Think, think, think. Quickly,” he told Sid Lowe in the Guardian. “Lift your head up, move, see, think. Look before you get the ball. If you’re getting this pass, look to see if that guy is free. Pum. First time… In fact, Charly [Rexach] always used to say: a mig toc. Half a touch.” These principles had long been installed by Johan Cruyff, but, for Xavi, they came naturally anyway. “When you’re a kid playing, you enjoy having the ball, don’t you?” he told the Daily Mail. “All I ever want to do is have the ball at my feet, bossing the game. I’ve been brought up with that style, it’s my football education. I can’t see any other way to play.”

Before long, Xavi was categorised as a central playmaker. He had already started studying contemporary greats, beginning with Bernd Schuster—“I’d be transfixed”—before switching to Pep Guardiola: “The way he’d play one-touch passes, how he’d accelerate, the way he’d slow things down, how he shaped himself to receive the ball, looking around in every direction first.” He represented Spain’s youth teams, and was in the squad alongside Iker Casillas when La Roja finished third at the U-17 World Cup in Egypt in 1997. Later, he was promoted to Barça’s B team, where his playmaking underpinned a promotion to Segunda División. Few passes went to waste. “I have never forgotten the first thing they told me when I came to Barça as a little boy,” he later said, according to Guillem Balague’s Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning. “Here, you can never give the ball away.”

At this rate, Xavi would not wait long for his introduction to the first team. On 24 March 1998, he featured in the Copa Catalunya in a game against Lleida, for which Louis van Gaal fielded several reserves. In charge was Van Gaal’s assistant, José Mourinho. In May, Xavi made a substitute appearance in a friendly against Southampton. The official debut came at Mallorca in the Spanish Super Cup, on 18 August, as a result of injuries to Albert Celades and Guardiola. He scored Barça’s only goal in a 2-1 defeat, which turned into a 3-1 aggregate loss after the return leg at Camp Nou. The defeat heralded a disastrous season opening. By the time Barça travelled to Valladolid, in mid-December, they had lost four league games on the trot. In that game, Xavi secured a 1-0 win that would precede seven consecutive league victories. They ended up winning the title. Xavi was named La Liga breakthrough player of the year and earned the faith of Van Gaal. “He taught me a lot,” Xavi would tell El País, as translated by Kristinne. “He used to tell me: ‘You’re better than Zidane.’ And I answered: ‘Don’t go overboard, mister, thanks, but let’s not exaggerate’.”

The standing of Xavi would continue to rise. In 1999, he was part of the Spain team that won the U-20 World Cup in Nigeria. He played so well that when Seydou Keita was named player of the tournament, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) submitted a formal complaint. A year later, he participated at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where Spain met Cameroon in the final. He struck the opener inside two minutes, but Samuel Eto’o inspired a comeback that put the score at 2-2. It did not help Spain that Gabri was sent off after seventy minutes, nor that José Mari followed after ninety-one, and Les Lions Indomptables eventually won on penalties. (The decider was taken by Pierre Womé, the left-back, who in 2006 would miss a stoppage-time spot kick against Egypt in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers that cost Cameroon a place at the finals).

A few months later, on 15 November 2000, Xavi debuted for the Spanish senior team. So did Carles Puyol. The opponents were the Netherlands, their coach Van Gaal. (The spell would prove disastrous for Van Gaal; the Dutch failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, their only such omission to date since missing out on Mexico 1986.) Spain lost 2-1, Fernando Hierro scoring before seeing red.

By now Xavi had become a familiar face at Barça, and discussion started to centre on the similarities between him and Guardiola, seeing as they both played the pivote role. Xavi disliked the debate. “To be valued and respected for the way I play was a real battle, especially when Van Gaal used us in the same position and compared the two of us at press conferences,” Xavi said, according to Hunter. “It was hard having to compete against my idol. I worried about robbing him of his place, about whether we would get on or not. I idealised everything about Pep—how he talked, his leadership on the pitch.”

The period between 2000 and 2003 was gloomy for Barça and Xavi. A lack of trophies in 1999/2000 saw Van Gaal depart, but his replacements, Llorenç Serra Ferrer, then Rexach, did not fare much better. Barça finished fourth in 2000/01 and 2001/02. Van Gaal returned for the next season to restore his reputation, only to aggravate the damage and leave in January. Barça eventually came sixth. During these spells, neither Van Gaal nor his successors saw Xavi as anything but a defensive midfielder. Critics said he only moved the ball from side to side. Some labelled him ‘the windscreen wiper’. “When we won, people praised me,” Xavi told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “But when we lost, they doubted everything, and I was the first on that list.”

Neither at international level was his talent fully uncovered. At the 2002 World Cup, where Spain lost in the quarter-finals to co-hosts South Korea, he made two substitute appearances. At Euro 2004, Spain were eliminated from a group containing Greece, Russia and hosts Portugal. Xavi never entered the pitch.

One year earlier, in the summer of 2003, Barça had made drastic changes. Joan Laporta succeeded Joan Gaspart as president, and Frank Rijkaard was appointed coach. Signings included Rafa Márquez, Edgar Davids and Ronaldinho; Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés were promoted to the senior squad. Rijkaard installed Davids as the anchor and told Xavi to move forward. He envisaged him giving the final pass more often. “It didn’t feel right at first, and I never imagined that the best years of my career would be in central midfield,” Xavi told UEFA.com. “But that’s what happened.”

That season Barca finished second in La Liga behind Rafa Benítez’s Valencia. The next year, they went one better. Set out in a Dutch 4-3-3 system, they had Ronaldinho beguiling on the left, newcomer Ludovic Giuly working the right, Márquez patrolling the centre, and Xavi and Deco running the game just ahead. The style was possession-based, dominant and entertaining. Xavi, who was named the league’s Spanish player of the year, would later reflect on the identity loss that preceded Rijkaard. “Our only solution is to be ourselves,” he told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “If we don’t respect our style, nothing makes sense. It’s proven.” Another time, he told UEFA.com. “Barça fans would never understand if the team were not controlling or dominating a match. That’s the way it has to be.”

The next season, Xavi tore the ligaments in his left knee and spent five months on the sidelines. Although he returned in April, he was benched when Barça beat Arsenal 2-1 to conquer Europe for a first time since 1992. They also defended their La Liga title.

The ensuing summer signalled the start of a disappointing period. At the 2006 World Cup, a Spain side led by Luis Aragonés lost 3-1 to France in the round of 16. Back at Barça, the slump under Rijkaard began. Opponents discovered their style, while indiscipline eroded the principles that had yielded back-to-back titles. In 2006/07, they lost the La Liga crown to Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid on head-to-head. But Madrid had never played well either, and Capello was dismissed in favour of Schuster. The German retained the title, while an imploding Barça finishing third, behind Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal.

Madrid’s two titles—particularly the one under Capello—highlighted a theory that Xavi holds. “Barça need to be very superior to Madrid, otherwise we don’t win,” he told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “They close ranks: the press, the spirit of Juanito, the Cómo no te voy a querer (‘How could I not love you’)… We’re either good, or nothing. If we’re at the same level, they can build themselves up with things we don’t have here; here the dynamic is always negative, there it’s always positive.” Another time, according to Hunter, he said: “If we had more of Madrid’s basic philosophy, we’d have won the Champions League far more often. I don’t know what exactly that club has, or that badge has, but they have always shown an ability to win even when they don’t play well.”

In the summer of 2008, Aragonés took Spain to the Euros in Austria and Switzerland. He devised a 4-4-2 system in which Xavi and Marcos Senna ran midfield, David Silva and Iniesta cut inside from the flanks, and David Villa and Fernando Torres wreaked havoc up front. The side had style, fluency and balance. Advancing from their group, they beat Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals. “The penalty shoot-out against Italy could have changed history,” Xavi later told the Daily Mail. “Spain’s history had usually been pretty negative. But then, boom! Spain go through. Wow! It’s like lifting a millstone from around your neck. That’s when our winning mentality began.”

In the semi-finals, Spain met a high-octane Russian side led by Guus Hiddink and inspired by the mesmerising Andrey Arshavin. They won 3-0 and Xavi scored. In the final, against Germany, Xavi assisted the only goal, scored by Torres alone with Jens Lehmann.

In the aftermath, the debate centred on Spain’s style as much as their victory. They had passed teams into submission with patience and intelligence; a strategy validated by the skill of Xavi, Iniesta and Silva. Xavi was named player of the tournament. “We have chosen Xavi because he epitomises the Spanish style of play,” said Andy Roxburgh, head of UEFA’s technical committee. “He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played.”

This was a new kind of recognition for Xavi, though his game had remained unaltered. Speaking to the BBC in 2014, he was asked to describe himself at eleven. “I think I haven’t changed at all to what I am now,” he said. “I’ve been a passer since a young age. I liked passing with the rest of the players and my friends when we played football on the streets, in the main square, and at school. I think I was very similar to what people see in the stadium.” In an interview with the Guardian, he added: “People discovered me since Euro 2008, but I’ve been playing the same way for years. It is true, though, that I have grown in confidence and tranquillity. And that comes with success.”

Later, an engaged Xavi would elaborate to the same paper on how to break down compact defences, like Spain and Barça did so well. “Think quickly, look for spaces,” he said. “That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise 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.” Anything else would seem unthinkable. On a separate occasion, according to Hunter, he said: “If I don’t get the ball for two minutes, I’m like: ‘Hey! Guys! Look for me! I’m free!’ There would be no point playing otherwise. I’d be happier staying at home.”

Back in Catalonia, the clear-out was underway. Rijkaard made way for Guardiola, who had spent the previous season getting Barça B promoted to Segunda División B. Unfocused players such as Ronaldinho and Deco were replaced with Keita, Thierry Henry, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves, while Sergio Busquets emerged from the B side. Few could predict the fortunes of the project, and Xavi contemplated a transfer until Guardiola intervened. “I had an offer from Bayern Munich, and I was willing to leave, it’s true,” he told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “And he told me: ‘Xavi, I can’t imagine the team without you, it’s impossible.’ And I said: ‘Okay, I’m staying.’ An impressive coach. Maybe that’s also because we saw things the same way; we understand football in an identical way.”

It proved a good decision. After losing their first match, at Numancia, Barça clicked into gear; the trio of Henry, Eto’o and Lionel Messi were nearly unplayable; Iniesta took Deco’s role; Busquets started to replace Yaya Touré. The intensity and dominance were greater than under Rijkaard. In the league game at the Santiago Bernabéu, Barça won 6-2 and Xavi assisted four. In the Champions League final, they beat Manchester United 2-0, with Xavi’s cross setting up Messi’s header for the final goal. “I don’t think Xavi and Iniesta have ever given the ball away in their lives,” Sir Alex Ferguson said. “They get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy.”

That victory in Rome led Guardiola to the treble in his debut managerial season at elite level; an unprecedented achievement at Barça. During the next season, they would pick up the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup, and the Club World Cup. By the final whistle of the Club World Cup final, Barça had won six trophies in a calendar year. Guardiola reacted by breaking down in tears.

“I’ve never seen football like that one,” Xavi later told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “I watch games from that season and I think: It’s impossible to play better… Pep’s years are unrepeatable.”

It was just the beginning. Guardiola’s unrelenting and obsessive nature enabled nobody to let their level drop. In 2009/10, Barça retained the league title by collecting ninety-nine points, three more than Pellegrini’s Madrid. At the Bernabéu, Xavi assisted both goals in a 2-0 win.

In summer, Spain won their first World Cup, in South Africa, with Vicente del Bosque reimplementing the ideals of Guardiola and Cruyff. They were even more patient and possession-based than under Aragonés; if nobody could steal the ball, nobody could score. In the knock-out stages, they beat Portugal (1-0), Paraguay (1-0), Germany (1-0) and, in the final, the Netherlands (1-0).

“Now, everyone in the world wants to play one-touch football,” Xavi told UEFA.com. “That’s the difference victory makes. If we had lost to Italy at Euro 2008, everything would be different now. People would have been saying that you can’t win playing quick passing football, that you need to be more physical. I think Luis was the turning point. He took a gamble on the little guys… Had we not won the Euro, we wouldn’t have won the World Cup.”

By now, the notion of Xavi embodying Spain’s all-conquering style was well established. Many have since described him as the most important Spanish player in history. “He helped us to build, or to see, a new player profile that ended up running through all levels of the national team,” Julen Lopetegui, the former Spain youth coach, told the Guardian. “He killed off the myth of physicality being above all else, and opened people’s eyes to the qualities of small, technical players, proving that you can attack and also defend with the ball. There are lots of players who win things, but few who lay down concepts, ideas, who change the way we think, and Xavi did that.”

Xavi’s individual merit was more controversial. From 2009 to 2011, he finished third for the Ballon d’Or, behind either Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or both. Even after Spain had won the World Cup, he was beaten by Messi and Iniesta. In January 2009, when he was listed for the FIFA World Player of the Year, the Daily Mail ran a picture of him, Messi, Cristiano, Torres and Kaká, topped by an infamous headline that read: ‘The best players of the world (and Xavi).’

What has counted against Xavi is the intangibility of his influence. Pass completion records are perceived to have less direct impact on a result than goals and assists. The core of this issue came into relief during a debate on Sky Sports between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, when a viewer asked the panel to rank Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard. Carragher put Gerrard first, Lampard second and Scholes third. He argued that Gerrard and Lampard could decide games on their own, particularly big matches and finals. Neville refused to agree. Naming Scholes as the best player he had played with, he said Scholes controlled the tempo of games in a manner neither Gerrard or Lampard did. This gave United the initiative, which itself was a valuable factor. The implication was that the value of Scholes had to be evaluated differently.

The same applies with Xavi. If he helps the side enjoy five percent more possession per game, what is that worth? It reduces the chance of conceding a goal. It enables the side to rest with the ball. It creates the psychological superiority of controlling the game. It brings others into play. In increases the number of opportunities for the attacking players. For Neville, the conclusion was that Scholes’s indirect contribution would help other players win the game. United often settled games in the final minutes, and Neville believed this was partly a consequence of their superior possession, which had knackered the opposition, which again was down to Scholes.

Therein lies the essence of Xavi. Statistics will never justify his contribution; one can only intuit how influential he has been, beyond observing the success of his club and national teams, or count his trophy collection, and conclude that little of it is likely to have owed much to chance.

One can also try to use words and analogies. Joseba Etxeberria told the Guardian that “if we analyse football as a collective sport, he is the most influential player I have ever seen. Others can move their team, but I have only ever seen one player, and that’s him, who can move all twenty-two players on the pitch as he wishes, to his rhythm”. Many have applied metaphors such as ‘maestro’ and ‘conductor’. Thiago Alcântara touched upon an apt comparison when stating that “he plays the kind of football that gives oxygen to a team”. This invites the view of Xavi as the heart of a larger organism. If possession is the lifeblood of Barça and Spain, Xavi is the muscle that distributes it to the various parts. Everything goes through him. The sound of his one-touch passes is like a beating pulse. Never too fast, never too slow, never stopping. The talent of Messi is wasted without the ball. Not even the most gifted musician’s hand can perform if starved of blood.

In November 2010, Barça beat Madrid 5-0 at Camp Nou en route to another league title. Some commentators adjudged it one of the finest team performances football had seen. “The feeling of superiority was incredible,” Xavi, who scored one, told the Guardian. “And against Real Madrid! They didn’t touch the ball. Madre mía, what a match! In the dressing room, we gave ourselves a standing ovation.”

Later that season, Barça’s 3-1 win over United in the Champions League final at Wembley was perhaps the pinnacle of any club side in European football. Rarely has a side been so outplayed in a European Cup final. Multiple factors had coincided in Barça’s favour. Many players were in their finest periods: Dani Alves was at his peak; Puyol was not too old, Piqué was not too young; Busquets had never been better; Iniesta was close to unplayable. Xavi was the oldest player, at thirty-one, his influence as great as ever. Messi was twenty-three and quick as lightning. Guardiola had matured as a coach. Shared by most were a Catalan identity, an unshakable belief in a certain way of playing, and interpersonal bonds strengthened over many years at La Masia. As Xavi later told El País, as translated by Kristinne: “All the stars were aligned during those years with Pep.”

The next season, Xavi scored ten league goals—a personal best—but the team lost the league title to Madrid, and were knocked out of Europe by Chelsea. In the summer, Spain defended their Euro crown. They beat Italy 4-0 in the final, in which Del Bosque’s false-nine line-up contained the following collection of playmakers: Xavi, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Xabi Alonso, Busquets and Silva. Xavi assisted two, becoming the first player to set up goals in separate Euro finals, and Spain become the first nation to win three consecutive international titles.

Back on the Iberian Peninsula, Barça encountered the start of a fatal tragedy. They reclaimed the La Liga crown, but Tito Vilanova’s illness, which would eventually take his life, affected the squad profoundly. The next season, under Gerardo Martino, Barça won nothing. Things did not get better for Xavi at the 2014 World Cup. Spain crashed out in the group stage, after which he announced his international retirement. “He was more important to us than even the manager,” Del Bosque saluted.

Xavi nearly left Barça that summer, but the arrival Luis Suárez contributed to give him a positive gut feeling. “I told my teammates on the chat: ‘Guys, I’m staying for another season, because this looks promising’,” he told El País, as translated by Kristinne. The project seemed to unravel in early January, but the squad unified and the trio of Suárez, Messi and Neymar started producing the finest football seen since Guardiola. They would eventually win the treble. Despite losing his starting place to Ivan Rakitić, Xavi made thirty-one league appearances, nineteen of which were starts. There was never a problem with Luis Enrique. “Some people might think I am upset at not playing so much, but it’s just the opposite,” he told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “I owe him one, as he was one of those who convinced me to stay. What a relief I did…”

A few weeks before the Champions League final against Juventus, Xavi announced he would leave the club in summer. For his last league game, a 2-2 draw with Deportivo La Coruña at the Camp Nou, supporters unfurled a large banner his honour, accompanied by a mosaic. On what was a glorious Sunday afternoon, he fought against the tears as he addressed an adoring crowd. Confetti filled the air as he embarked on a final lap of honour, waving and blowing kisses into the stands. “I was talking to Puyi the other day, he couldn’t even play or celebrate when he left,” Xavi told El País, as translated by Kristinne. “And look how I’ve said goodbye to the Camp Nou. It’s incredible. All the pieces of the puzzle have fallen in the right place. It’s a scandal. I could have never imagined such an end to my time here.”

The final season at Barça made Xavi the most decorated footballer in Spain’s history. At thirty-five, he has won eight La Liga titles, three Copa del Rey titles, six Spanish Super Cups, four Champions Leagues, two European Super Cups, two Club World Cups, one World Cup, and two Euros. Yet trophies were rarely a theme in the tributes of those who knew him best. “There wasn’t a single day that went by when I didn’t see him enjoy it,” Guardiola told the Guardian. “He is the most amateur player I know, and at the same time the most professional player too, such is his love for football… Training would be at eleven am and at ten forty he was already out there, kicking the ball around.”

The same notion was echoed by Xavi. In the final weeks, during which he was often overwhelmed by gratitude and nostalgia, he recalled not titles but the camaraderie, and the joys of expressing the style of play he had loved since childhood. When El País asked him to define football, he replied: “Football is a ball and some friends. And let’s go! A game, a rondo, passing the ball around, on the beach or in your backyard. While laughing. This is football. Kids passing the ball around in the schoolyard. That’s football.”