He is neither the strongest nor fastest, neither the most bullish nor skilful, yet he is one of the best and most underrated midfielders in football today. Goal.com profiles Spain and Barcelona’s midfield maestro, Xavi.
The babyface midfielder joined Barcelona as an 11 year old, steadily rising through the ranks of the junior and youth teams. But even before he had his first taste of professional club football, he had already experienced a glimpse of success at the international stage. He was part of Spanish contingent for the 1997 FIFA U-17 World Championships in Egypt, a tournament where Spain finished in third place behind Ghana and champions, Brazil.
That same year, he earned his place in the Barcelona B team for the 97/98 campaign and under the tutelage of Jordi Gonzalvo, he helped the side win the Segunda División B title and promotion to the Segunda A. Thus began his early and instant exposure to success.
His maiden appearance for the first team came quicker than he expected. On August 1998, Louis van Gaal drafted him into the Barcelona senior side for the Spanish Super Cup against Mallorca. Despite failing to win the trophy itself, Xavi still managed to impress and he capped off his debut with a goal.
Party Like It’s 1999
After coming close to winning major titles on numerous occasions, little Xavi would not be disappointed in 1999. While in the middle of his very first La Liga campaign with the Blaugrana, he was whisked away by Spain’s youth coach Iñaki Sáez to Nigeria for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Given a chance to go one step better than in the U-17 edition just two year prior, he played an instrumental role in midfield alongside clubmate Gabri in helping his country become the World Youth champions after a stunning 4-0 win of Japan in the final.
Along with names such as Ronaldinho, Rafael Márquez and Seydou Keita – players that would soon become Xavi’s teammates at the Camp Nou – the Terassa-born playmaker was named as one of the rising young stars of the tournament. But there was more to come. Less than two months later, he would lift his second major trophy as Barcelona marched to their 16th La Liga title in the 1998/99 campaign.
That, however, would prove to be Xavi’s last piece of silverware for a while as Barça went through a torrid six year trophy drought. He did manage to complete a full set of medals at international level, though, picking up the silver this time at the 2000 Sydney Olympics after Spain lost on penalties to a Samuel Eto’o-inspired Cameroon in the gold medal game.
The New Pep
Despite the club’s lean years, Xavi still managed to cement his place in the first team and it was during this turbulent period that slowly established himself as one of the top midfielders in the game. His emergence, however, had a lot to do with the absence of his idol and role model Josep Guardiola due to a long-term injury during the 1999/2000 season. The fresh-faced youngster, still in his late teens, was the natural replacement and successor to fill that role and when the then-club captain departed for Serie A in 2001, Xavi all but confirmed his status as the new Pep Guardiola at the Camp Nou.
Sharing almost identical qualities on the pitch, the then-21 year old would not shy away from stepping into his hero’s boots. He continually developed his game in spite of the constant coaching changes at the club. Whether it was van Gaal, Carles Rexach or Radomir Antić who was in charge of the hot seat, Xavi would always remain their first choice and automatic selection at the heart of midfield.
The arrival of Frank Rijkaard in 2003 signalled the dawn of a new era for the club and for Xavi himself. Under the Dutchman, the playmaker elevated his game to another level. He took on an even more influential role and became more versatile, displaying his ability to slot in seamlessly anywhere across the middle of the park. And he had to be, with an invasion of fresh and young talent threatening to depose his reign in midfield. But whether it was Gaizka Mendieta, Juan Román Riquelme or Edgar Davids in the earlier part of the decade or the more recent names such as Deco, Andrés Iniesta and Yaya Touré, he remained the undisputed top dog, evident by his impressive tally of appearances, averaging 36 games per season in four of the last five campaigns.
Highs And Lows
With the help of an almost completely new line-up of teammates to the one he had the last time he hoisted a trophy, his résumé started to fill up again with a list of silverware. Xavi won his first major title of the new millennium in 2005 when Barcelona were crowned league champions and they successfully defended their throne the following year. He also added successive Spanish Supercups to his haul, but the big prize of club football that had been missing from his collection finally came in the summer of 2006 in Paris.
The Catalan heavyweights beat Arsenal 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League final and even though the midfield magician did not feature in the showpiece event – or for much of that year for that matter – it was no less than he deserved after a nightmarish campaign at a personal level.
The 2005/06 was indeed one of the most trying seasons in Xavi’s playing career so far. Despite achieving the “double”, he wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as the rest of the teammates. Tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during training in early December, he was ruled out of action for almost the entire second half of the term. And although he recovered in time to play out the final five weeks, there were serious doubts as to whether or not he would make the squad for Spain at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, or what condition he would be in even if Luis Aragonés included him in his plans.
But he immediately returned to full form and fitness, playing in all four of La Furia Roja’s matches in the tournament, before being knocked out by France in the second round.
Having won almost every title at club level, Xavi was now aiming to scale new heights: international recognition. He finally achieved that status this year in the recently concluded European Championships in Austria and Switzerland. La Selección ended their 44 year hoodoo by winning the tournament that they thoroughly dominated from start to finish and Xavi’s magisterial midfield display was one of the key factors behind Spain’s conquest.
Assuming the deep-lying playmaker position – a role that the Spanish have mastered so superbly down the years – the 28 year old became the soul and heartbeat of the team. He was the transit between defence and attack, the man who would always be present to help out his defensive midfield partner Marcos Senna clean up at the back and the man who would be in charge of orchestrating every assault up front.
He is not the kind of ferocious bull who runs all over the park for 90 minutes fighting for every ball, but you can always count on him to pull his fair share of defensive duties. He’s also not the fastest or the most skilful, but the way he passes the ball around with elegant ease is an art form all on its own. He has an incredibly deft first touch and superb vision, two key ingredients that make up his playing style of quick-release passing, and there was no better exhibition of this trait than when he set up Fernando Torres for the winning goal against Germany in the final of Euro 2008.
His lack of dribbling skills – or his infinite wisdom not to over abuse it – has actually become his greatest asset. It allows him to fly under the radar during matches, far away from opponents’ attention, enabling him to make those sneaky and subtle runs towards the opposing goal unnoticed.
But his best quality by far is his effortless ability to control a game, dictate the pace and rhythm, and take the pressure off his teammates on the pitch by being ever-present around the ball. It’s a combination of attributes that very few players possess but every manager would die to have and there’s hardly a better exponent of that discipline than Xavi.
Barcelona’s constant influx of superstar showmen from Ronaldinho to Deco to Lionel Messi to Bojan Krkic has shoved Xavi away from the spotlight over the last few years. He has become somewhat of an unsung hero of the team but still remains the local hero amongst the Camp Nou faithful and a key figure of every coach who walks through the door. And at 28 years of age, he is only just about to enter at the prime of his career.
TITLES AND HONOURS
2008 Castrol EURO 08 Player of the Tournament
2008 UEFA European Championship
2000 Sydney Olympic Games (Silver Medal)
1999 FIFA Under 20 World Championship
2006/07 Spanish Supercup
2005/06 UEFA Champions League
2005/06 Spanish Primera Liga
2005/06 Spanish Supercup
2004/05 Spanish Primera Liga
1998/99 Spanish Primera Liga