Death is a part of life.
This is also true of the mini-deaths that typify a legend leaving a club. When Xavi leaves FC Barcelona it will feel weird. Ray Hudson once termed him “The Inevitable Xavi.” He is a magnificent player who, even when many (including me, in full disclosure) were ready to put him out to pasture, current Barça coach Luis Enrique begged him to stay.
At the time people thought that it was something romantic, a charming nod to a great player in his swan song, a nice way for a new coach to get in good with a squad. But the Inevitable Xavi also turned out to be essential, and Enrique knew that. When he was voted captain by player accolade, succeeding our great Capita in Carles Puyol, it was a gesture symbolic of so many things.
This post comes before Thursday, before the scheduled presser in which rumor has it that Xavi is going to announce his departure from Barça. The timing is deliberate because this is an appreciation rather than a valedictory, words that would be as true whether Xavi decided to stay or go.
Xavi is the key to everything great that has happened for both Barça and Spain during the recent heydays of both teams. With his ascendancy as the best midfielder in the world and for me, the best that the game has ever seen, came magic. He doesn’t score goals, he doesn’t produce assists, yet he controls a game in a way that no other player, including Messi, does.
In a poetic fit I once referred to what Xavi does as “influence peddling,” but that is in fact what it is. He uses the ball, little feints and movements to influence a defense, to sell it on the idea that one thing is coming when another is. Dani Alves said that “Xavi plays to the future.” He seems to know, and he never forgets.
Barça had a “One On One” video series in which two players would square off to test each other’s knowledge of key facts and figures. Xavi was stupefying in his memory for detail of games long gone, passes made and goals scored. It makes sense, really, when you consider a player for whom nothing goes unnoticed. So many attribute it to magic, some strange alchemy that finds a great player somehow knowing what to do. But it’s hard work.
Xavi has always run more, passed more, touched more than any player on the pitch. His essential quality is such that Enrique recognized the absolute necessity of Xavi for what he was trying to build this season. It wasn’t a gesture. It was the life blood of the squad. A Capita isn’t just an armband. It’s a spirit, an intermediary, the ultimate grownup. The Capita intercedes with a referee in a heated match. He deals with new players in a way that indoctrinates them into the team. He deals with locker-room squabbles and other complexities. This season Xavi has had to do all of that, while accepting a diminished role that has nonetheless allowed him to be as essential as ever.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be brought up on the Barcelona ethos. Which has taught me the value of being part of a team. ‘Today for you, tomorrow for me.’ Those qualities are essential for life in general.”
El Pais came out with a story that Xavi got in Messi’s face in the wake of the Enrique altercation, calling him out in a way that sent a very clear message. “Stop f—— around” doesn’t get any clearer than that. The results are also clear, as is the role of a Capita. Xavi restores order. On and off the pitch, it’s what Xavi does. From the pam pam pam pam of an exquisite series of passes that seems to always have Xavi at its nexus, to the calm that descends over the home crowd when No. 6 steps to the touchline.
It seems impossible, almost unfathomable to believe that there was a time that Xavi was considering leaving the club because big, strong midfielders were in vogue.
Xavi started at La Masia at age 11, and has been Blaugrana ever since. His first-team debut was against Mallorca in 1998. Since then he has played more than 700 matches for his club, a stunning number. He has never bragged about his tenure, has never waved the astonishing number of trophies that he has been a part of as a player in anyone’s face because as the ultimate team player, he understands the value, the essential quality of a team. When he got on Messi, he allegedly mentioned the Ballon d’Or, using an individual rivalry and accolade to focus a player on the most important thing for Xavi: the team. It is always and forever about the team with Xavi, and it always will be.
He isn’t fast, he isn’t strong, he isn’t big. But with the ball at his feet, he becomes an unassailable force, this … thing that destroys all. The run dictates the pass, but in his heyday you almost got the sense that Xavi was playing mind tricks, sending thought waves to runners and defenders to perform certain actions, so abnormal was the unerring consistency of his performances.
The idea of a one-team player is an anachronism in this day and age of massive contracts and migratory superstars. If the rumor is true, that Xavi is leaving for a fat payday or three in Qatar, nobody should begrudge him that. Xavi has given so much, so completely of himself for Barça that he deserves to do whatever he wants. It will certainly feel odd seeing him in another shirt, and I won’t begin to question the motivations for his move because they aren’t my business. What I can say is that any, every and all culers, new and old, bandwagoners or tenured cranks, owe Xavi a debt of gratitude bigger than any of us can possibly repay.
And in the lustrous symmetry of football, Xavi retired from international football in the wake of failure. Spain was whisked from the competition like last week’s waste, as much an indictment of him and the beauty that he brings to the game as the team and the way that it played, the breaks of the game.
That makes it all the more beautiful now that Xavi could, potentially, leave his boyhood club and the only club that he has known, with the ultimate footballing prize, a Treble. I believe that the greats should leave on top, even as they never really know when the top is. Michael Jordan left the game of basketball (the first time) after having stuck the shot that gave his team the championship, the last shot of the game and the decisive one. Boys scribbling in notebooks or tapping away on touchscreens would throw up their hands in struggling to imagine a more perfect moment.
He ruined it by coming back. Sugar Ray Leonard retired a champion, then, seduced by the limelight, returned a shadow of himself. We see it all the time in sports. When Xavi chose to stay, many wondered why, what the value was. There was mostly the sentiment, a rootless thing that finds people wanting to cling to the familiar without really knowing what they were hanging onto. “Xavi is staying is all I know.”
Enrique reached some sort of an agreement with Xavi, that he would be comfortable with being his best less often, rather than less than his extraordinary self more frequently. Xavi was comfortable with that, and became the Closer. In baseball, there is a pitcher whose job it is to close out a win, to finish the job. He comes in, strikes out the last batters and the team goes home. The New York Yankees had a closer, the best the game has ever seen, in Mariano Rivera. Season after season, long past the point when he still should have been able to bamboozle younger, stronger, quicker, better trained hitters, Rivera was lining them up and putting them down.
The first time that Enrique brought Xavi on this season as a closer, as he restored order from seeming chaos, his role became clear. Even as people clamored for more Xavi, bellowed that he wasn’t past it, see, Xavi and Enrique knew what his role was. Xavi thrived in that diminished but essential role. The game is placed in the hands of the closer. It is a huge task. Fail, and the team suffers. Fail, and people will look at you.
“We gave you the ball. What happened?”
Xavi thrived in his role as the closer, outdone only by an errant Pique pass at Sevilla, almost flawless in shutting down a match and allowing Barça to pam! pam! its way to the final whistle. It is in this role that Xavi might have performed one of his greatest acts, demonstrating once and for all that he is the ultimate team player. He never clamored for more playing time, you never saw quotes in the press about him being ready for more. He just played. Spun and deked, faked and influenced, this season as always, the inevitable Xavi.
I don’t like when culers mention the Treble as if it is some birthright, something this team is owed. It is a magical thing, an accomplishment that requires luck as much as skill, an elaborate, year-long construct of domninoes falling perfectly, every time. It’s impossible when you really think about it.
But when you consider Xavi and how he embodies the spirit of the team, that selfless quality that makes him do everything from talking to teammates on the bench to instruct them before they enter, to tamping down aggrieved superstars to making yet another perfect pass, that ultimate team accolade would be a flawless way to send him off.