"I've had to adapt to today's more muscular game. It's a sign of the times - 15 years ago you could still be a soloist. That said, putting all the different interpretations to one side, football is still football."
These were the words of a 31-year-old Roberto Baggio in 1998 when, against all the odds, he earned a recall to the Italy squad in time for that summer’s World Cup in France. Baggio, one of the purest and greatest footballers of all time, has long been a critic about the direction that the modern game is moving, believing that skill and invention is disappearing, replaced by power, pace and athleticism.
"In the 1990s it was more than the 80s, now even more than the 90s," 'The Divine Ponytail' complained last year.
"It is the evolution of the sport and we have to follow it. However, one cannot criticize a player for trying a back-heel during a game. Are we crazy?"
Players today are - in most cases - athletes first, and footballers second. The desire to become faster, fitter and stronger has led to many coaches refusing to trust fantasistas and playmakers. Look back to the 1980s: almost every top continental team would build their team around a classic ‘No.10’ - a Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Zico or Baggio. Today, teams are often regarded as fragile unless they have two holding players in the middle of the park. To be a good centre midfielder is to be able to run, run and run some more, like a programmed robot.
How refreshing then that there is a player by the name of Xavi, who is a symbol of football purity, a throwback to the seventies and eighties, and an example of how the game really should be played. Last night, the 29-year-old was phenomenal during Barcelona’s emphatic 2-0 win over Manchester United in the Champions League final.
After a bright start from the English side, Xavi took charge of the centre of the pitch along with the equally brilliant Andres Iniesta, and dominated the play. Every single Barcelona move went through the pint-sized playmaker. He created Lionel Messi's goal, supplied the passes for Thierry Henry and Carles Puyol’s one-on-one chances, hit the post with a free-kick, and orchestrated the Spanish symphony.
Barcelona may have been without three of their first-choice defenders - employing Yaya Toure as an emergency centre-back - but it did not matter with Xavi pulling the strings. When the little man is playing for your team, you are almost guaranteed to boast a monopoly of possession. It was exactly the same situation in the semi-final against Chelsea, while on the international stage many will recall Xavi running the show and being named player of the tournament during Spain’s victorious Euro 2008 campaign.
Last night Man Utd just could not get the ball off Xavi and, while Sir Alex Ferguson undoubtedly got his tactics wrong, it was more the case of the Catalan simply being too good. "The simple reason we lost was possession," said Ferguson after the game. "You have to wait minutes to get it back off Barcelona. We recognised beforehand their strength was their central midfielders. It wasn't really Messi who was the problem, it was Iniesta and Xavi. They can keep the ball all night long."
Xavi is quite simply a genius - the best centre midfielder on the planet. During the 1990s, Barcelona and Spain possessed another world class playmaking midfielder by the name of Pep Guardiola. It is fair to say that Xavi has now surpassed the man who has coached the Blaugrana to a league, cup and European treble in his first season on the Catalonia bench.
The fact that Xavi, like Andrea Pirlo until he began to decline 18 months ago, has shone in an era more suited to physical players is testament to his outstanding ability. Had the 71-capped Spain hero been around 20 or 30 years ago, he would have been even more lauded.
Barcelona’s three best players – Messi, Xavi and Iniesta – are each no taller than 5ft 7in, proving that there is still a place for small, skilful players, providing that coaches give them a chance. As Baggio said back in 1998, "football is still football".
What are your views on this topic? Just how good is Xavi? Is he a genius? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think…
Carlo Garganese, Goal.com