Who's the greatest? Guardiola v Xavi

The ex-Barcelona boss is measured up against his former team-mate and midfield heir in the fourth part of our series comparing current stars with their nation's legendary figures
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

A young Xavi Hernandez was weeping uncontrollably. It was May of 1992 and the 12-year-old from Terrassa had been told by his parents that he would not be allowed to travel to Wembley to watch his idol Pep Guardiola in the final of the European Cup for his beloved Barcelona.

Just over two decades on, Xavi was captain and Guardiola the coach as the Catalans claimed the trophy again; the two men stood together in London at that same stadium - they had come full circle. Guardiola had been Johan Cruyff's 'cerebral' midfielder in the Dream Team - an extension of the coach on the pitch. For Pep, that man was Xavi.

As a footballer, Guardiola was the pin-up player for the majority of the aspiring young prospects at La Masia. "Like most midfielders at Barcelona, my idol was Pep," Xavi has said. The two went on to become team-mates and are now great friends, but living in the club captain's then significant shadow made life very difficult indeed for a teenage Xavi and the constant comparisons with Guardiola almost forced the young man out of the Catalan club altogether.

"I had moved up to the first team at 17 or 18 and those comparisons made it a tough time," Xavi on Canal Plus. "I knew there was a person ahead of me [Guardiola], with whom I wouldn't be able to play too much."

In those early days, Xavi often came on to replace his idol and at times the two featured in the same side. At that point, however, the comparisons were unfavourable: Pep was in his prime, an established international and European Cup winner, the heartbeat and symbol of the Barcelona side. Xavi was a young man with undoubted potential, yet his media moniker - 'the next Guardiola' - only served to hinder his progress. And he almost left. 


 470 games / 26 goals TOTAL GAMES/GOALS
665 games / 79 goals
119 games /12 goals
 2 games / 1 goal WORLD CUP GAMES/GOALS  14 games / 0 goals
133 games / 10 goals
 1 Olympic Gold Medal
6 Spanish leagues
2 Copas del Rey
1 European Cup
1 Cup Winners' Cup
2 Uefa Super Cups
4 Spanish Supercopas
1 World Cup
2 European Championships
6 Spanish leagues
2 Copas del Rey
3 Champions Leagues
2 Uefa Super Cups
2 Club World Cups
5 Spanish Supercopas

Luckily for Barcelona, he did not - and he has now played more games for the Catalan club than anyone else in the team's entire history. So has he eclipsed Guardiola? According to Pep, he has. "There is no comparison," the 42-year-old said while still coach at Camp Nou. "He is much better than I ever was. My virtue was to leave before he retired me. He does a lot of things better than I did."

Xavi's reply? "Pep knows how to motivate me - he is a good coach. He has always been a point of reference for me and he still is today."

Guardiola, meanwhile, also once told a journalist he would have no place in the current team. "These players are better than I ever was," he said. "I wouldn't get in this team."

That was probably a mixture of modesty and motivation, yet it is interesting to note that Xavi did not turn into quite the carbon copy of Guardiola that many had foreseen. And although there are similarities in their technique, as well as their influence in controlling games and their sway in the dressing room, their roles definitely differ.

Like most of the midfielders at Barcelona, my idol was Pep Guardiola. He has always been a point of reference for me and he still is today.

- Xavi on Pep

Guardiola was the classic Barca No.4: a deep-lying, cerebral creator who would receive possession from his defensive colleagues and spread the ball around the pitch with clever short passes and, at times, glorious longer deliveries, to contemporaries such as Rivaldo, Luis Figo and Luis Enrique. His was a dual role combining both defensive and offensive duties - and he is perhaps still the finest exponent of that position the modern game has seen. In the Barca sides coached by Cruyff and later Louis van Gaal, the role of the pivot was just that - pivotal - and the Catalans came to depend heavily upon their charismatic captain.

Blessed with tremendous technique and a remarkable right foot, Guardiola's tactical reading of the game was also second to none. Even back then, it seemed clear a future in coaching would lay ahead.

Lacking in pace and less prolific than he should have been in front of goal, Guardiola was also prone to losing his temper and, along with Hristo Stoichkov, he is the player with the most red cards in the history of the Catalan club.

His real problem, however, was injuries. Pep was sidelined for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, limiting him to just two games at U.S.A '94, in which he scored a penalty against Bolivia. He also missed large chunks of several seasons with Barcelona and, later, Brescia, while a falling out with Spain coach Javier Clemente deprived him of more than his respectable 47 caps for la Roja.

There is no comparison. He is much better than I ever was. My virtue was to leave before he retired me. He does a lot of things better than I did.

- Pep on Xavi

That is not the case with Xavi. The midfielder has already appeared 119 times for Spain and has been blessed in that he has formed part of his club's greatest generation of players, as well as the nation's finest footballing side in history. However, he has been at the heart of it all, operating further forward than Guardiola used to but recycling possession and stamping his authority on games at the very highest level for a number of years now, setting the tone and the tempo for the teams' tiki-taka touch passing game.

Neither the quickest nor the tallest, Xavi's football is ingrained in the Barca philosophy and La Masia, from where Pep was one of the first to emerge. Which player is better may be a question of personal preference, but while Pep was something of a pioneer in his position, Xavi has taken both Barcelona and Spain to new levels, this reflected by his presence in the the three-man shortlists for the Ballon d'Or in recent years.

As a footballer, he has achieved much more than Pep and has probably become more of a complete footballer than his idol too, yet he has also benefited from playing in superior sides. And it's also worth remembering these three following facts: Firstly, without Guardiola, Xavi may never have followed the same footsteps to Barca's midfield via La Masia in the first place. Secondly, had Pep not left Camp Nou in 2001, the younger man may have been forced to move on and never have become the player he is today. And third, perhaps most importantly of all: Xavi's brilliant best has come in these last four years, playing under Pep.

So if Xavi leads Barca to another triumph at Wembley this May and cements his status as the finest midfielder in the Catalan club's history, he will surely spare a thought for Guardiola, his friend, former team-mate, coach and idol, a man who has helped him all along the way, ever since those tears in 1992.

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