Xavier Hernandez i Creus was last to get in line to pick up his gold medal, of course. That’s where he belongs, behind the others, out of the picture.
Standing in the back, he didn’t crack a smile until the trophy was hoisted and the confetti rained down on the Spaniards for a third time in four years. He never did pick it up himself. He was off the podium when his teammates were still hooting and hollering and hopping.
Xavi, Spain’s self-effacing midfield string-puller, isn’t one for boisterousness or histrionics or basking. And in this soccer day and age, those without a knack for self-promotion or lacking such gaudy goal tallies as to be self-evident, risk falling out of the greatness discussion.
But in Kiev on Sunday, it was Xavi who set the tone in his team’s Euro-World Cup-Euro treble clincher. Orchestrating early attacks, he induced a wondrously open, positive and entertaining game, engaging the Italians in a fevered exchange of chances that would endure throughout the night.
It was Xavi who found spaces out wide against the narrow Italian midfield, who sat between the lines to warp the Azzurri’s shape. It was Xavi who enabled Andres Iniesta's 14th-minute through ball to pseudo-striker Cesc Fabregas to set up a cut-back onto David Silva’s head for the opening goal.
It was Xavi, both Spain’s composer and director, who started pinging the ball around, connecting the dots surrounding him and coaxing them forward, whenever Italy settled into a spell of possession in the first half, threatening to throw his choir off key.
It was Xavi who, in the 41st minute, sent yet another wondrous through ball to Jordi Alba, timing his delivery to the streaking left back to the very nanosecond and sending it into his path just so, making it 2-0.
It was Xavi who won the ball in the midfield in the 84th minute and, unbothered by the labor he had by that point invested, delivered a third pinpoint precise daisy-cutter to Fernando Torres, whose work in achieving the 3-0 was really already done for him.
And, finally, it seemed to be Xavi who took his foot off the gas first, after Sergio Busquets had fed Torres, who gifted Juan Mata the 4-0 in the 88th minute. It had been he who had done the honorable thing, slowing the play down to a crawl so as not to humiliate the broken and short-handed Italians – Little League-style. They’d already logged the biggest win in the final of a Euro or World Cup anyway. No point rubbing in what was plain to see: that they were the best.
As always, Xavi had been content to operate in the shadows, doing his work just before the highlight clip would start, having sent the pass that split open the defense but disavowing himself of anything so vulgar as actually finishing off the attack with a goal. He doesn’t score those - he makes them.
His distaste for acknowledging his own genius, as lesser athletes are so quick to, leaves it to others to anoint him the greatest. Even as the creator but not the finisher, the architect but not the ribbon-cutter, the campaign strategist but not the winning politician, he merits acknowledgement as one of the greatest players of all time.
So it’s up to us to genuflect to his brilliance if he himself won’t, to honor the little man with the immaculate spikes of jet-black hair offset against his pale forehead.
It goes, chronologically: Pelé, Cruyff, Maradona, Xavi.
A pair of others may soon follow.
But in the interim, a singular talent deserves to be paid homage to in his own time.