Goal.com's Paul Macdonald assesses how the Barcelona maestro emerged from Raul's shadow to lead his nation to unprecedented success...September 6, 2006 represents a watershed moment in the history of Spanish football. As Luis Aragones' side trudged from the Windsor Park turf after a David Healy hat-trick had handed Northern Ireland a now-infamous 3-2 victory in sodden conditions, the result was far worse than the perennial underachievement that had proven symptomatic of the nation's performances. The scoreline represented nothing other than embarrassment.
International football's bridesmaids could scarcely have looked less like tournament winners. But something more significant than the result was undertaken that night; the changing of the guard, and the seismic shift from one era to the next.
Raul left the pitch wearing the colours of his country for the last time in Belfast, as Aragones set about revitalising a squad bursting with quality but lacking in direction. The Real Madrid legend became the most high-profile of omissions, and despite numerous dissenting voices, Aragones remained firm - the post-Raul Spain was created.
His decision was met with derision and condemnation; how dare he leave out the one player synonymous with all things Spanish? To which, Aragones famously decreed in 2007, within earshot of TV cameras: “Do you know how many World Cups Raul has been to? Three. How many European Championships? Two. And how many World Cups have we won with Raul? None.”
He had clearly made up his mind, and would be forced to live or die by his decision. As such, despite Raul's sterling service under a multitude of regimes, his departure allowed the current legacy to bear fruit.
Xavi will make his 100th appearance for La Furia Roja in Friday's Euro 2012 qualifier against the Czech Republic, making him only the fourth player ever to reach a century of caps for the Iberian nation, pushing him to within two of Raul's total. In what is a golden generation, none have done more to establish Spain's position among the most revered international sides ever than the 31-year-old master craftsman, and only as his career developed was his influence truly accepted, and established.
Valencia duo David Albelda and Ruben Baraja held supremacy over the midfield positions at that time, but Xavi was eventually able to displace the latter throughout the unbeaten qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup, in which Spain finished second to an impressive Serbia side. After recovering from a serious cruciate ligament injury in time for the tournament in Germany, Aragones, who had replaced Saez after their ignominious exit two years earlier, employed Xavi from the start against Ukraine and Tunisia. Spain looked impressive, but their reputation for failing to rise to the occasion once again preceded them, as a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France ruthlessly ended their hopes.
Soon after, Aragones needed inspiration, his team fractured and in desperate need of direction. The veteran tactician took the decision to make the Barcelona maestro the focal point of his team, just as his club coaches had insisted upon, but that his international predecessors had largely ignored. In that action, the baton between the greats was exchanged; from a player who many believe to be the greatest Spanish player who ever lived, to the man who, when the final reckoning is reached, will be defined among the greatest of all time.
To say the rest is history is to provide a disservice to the history that Xavi has created. From Windsor Park onwards, Spain didn't taste defeat again until facing USA in the Confederations Cup in the summer of 2009. Xavi was in charge now, and with his stable-mate Andres Iniesta emerging and seemingly cut from a similar cloth, Spain as a nation were realising achievements that had always appeared out of reach under the era of Raul.
After the success of Euro 2008 the team was transformed, a fact noted by the player himself: "Of course winning it gave us a mental boost to win the World Cup, too. Lifting that [Euro 2008] trophy did us the world of good.
“It changes you a lot and also you see the respect of your rivals and the way they look at you. It's a feeling that we can, that we are able to beat anybody.”
Raul was a record-breaking, era-defining striker – but Xavi's cultured genius took a team that knew they were meant for better, and drove them to achieve it. The Catalan figure, who was secretly revered, had become publicly accoladed.
In the past 12 months, World Cup euphoria has been and gone, Barcelona's all-time appearance record has been shattered, while assessors such as Goal.com's Carlo Garganese debate whether we can currently bestow Xavi the honour of the greatest midfielder that has ever graced the game.
He has certainly made an impression on protege Javi Martinez, a World Cup winner by definition, but a young talent who is unflinching in his praise of his colleague, and in his comparison to a modern great: "For people like me, he is the example to follow. It will be hard to find another player like him in years to come. I didn't play alongside Zidane, but Xavi is very much like him."
It can often be easy to overlook a player such as Xavi because he doesn't score 40 goals in a single season, nor is he the immediately enthralling player that Zidane could be. But on the occasion of his 100th appearance, few could doubt his role in the formation of the current Spanish side that is so overwhelmingly appreciated, and how his beckoning into the spotlight brought about the most affluent period in his nation's history.
For many Raul is, and always will be, the finest exponent of footballing prowess Spain will ever produce. But Xavi's outstanding contribution to the game should cement his place in infamy - and his is a legacy that continues to develop.
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