This isn’t a time for ranting, or moral high horses.
Nor is it a time for unquestioning fealty.
This is a time to discuss, to understand the Xavi decision and his destination even as it is a discussion that should be prefaced with “It really isn’t any of our damned business.”
In many ways it is symmetrical that Xavi leaves, controversially for some, for a cush gig in Qatar. He is blaugrana to the core and just like the club made a deal for its shirt with an entity that many supporters would rather it not, so did Xavi. That statement can stand aside from the all of the avarice, rancor and mistrust connected to the board. And when an inquiring culer wonders why, the obvious answer might be that Xavi took one for the team.
The idea of “taking one for the team” is an odd thing and make no mistake about it, if there is a shard of truth to rumors, Xavi took one for the only team more important to him than Barça: his family and its future. As the ultimate team player, this makes sense. We will never know if Barça made the deal with Qatar because that entity had the most money and the club had needs. We will never know if the board held its nose and dove in, or something else. We can’t know, even as we can castigate for that decision. It isn’t a stain on the shirt because it is Qatar. It’s a stain on the shirt because it is selling a chunk of the club’s soul. Does it nibble at the illusion that it isn’t all for money in ways that other prostitutes justify their decisions in mirrors an hour or day later? You bet. It was the stuff of romance, the “unsullied” shirt front. Even when there was no “Qatar Foundation,” there was the Nike swoosh.
But only the most gullible would suggest that there are not complexities with Qatar these days, related to its World Cup bid. Xavi going to play for Al Sadd isn’t the thing that makes eyebrows rise. Being the World Cup ambassador is something different. The aspects of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid — the human rights abuses which have been well documented amid allegations of bribery and a corrupted process, make you wonder about that part of Xavi’s deal. No, sports and politics shouldn’t mix. But the 2022 WC problems aren’t politics. These are the occurrences of documented things that shouldn’t be going on, and Xavi is an athlete choosing to align himself with those things, directly or indirectly, for money.
I don’t know how and what Xavi thought about that process, whether there were heartfelt conversations around a table at the family home where the greater good was considered to outweigh any sorts of moral complications. The romantic in me wants to believe that, wants to believe that Xavi understands how complex this is, even if you don’t think politics belongs in sport. Because people are dying to create a World Cup in Qatar. Actually dying. One organization estimates that more than 4000 migrant workers will die by the time the first match kicks off in Qatar. A very recent Amnesty International report finds that despite the lip service being paid to improving migrant worker conditions, precious little is being done.
One website ran an intemperate screed that excoriated Xavi for his decision, using hyperbolic words such as “besmirching,” etc. But it just isn’t that easy, the decisions that people make. As an athlete, with the futures of the people you love at stake, what do you do? Athlete and idol, genius on and off the pitch with unwavering views on everything, Xavi is his own man. He is also the greatest footballer I have ever seen. And we need to put that into perspective for the people who scream “Fool! How can you watch Messi and say that! Stupid!”
Messi is a goalscorer who is growing into a great footballer. Xavi swears that Iniesta is a better footballer than he is, because Xavi understands. A footballer doesn’t just play in a game … he owns it, controls it even when he isn’t doing something to directly manage it. Messi at times drops in like a divine being, sprinkles stardust then jets off to wherever he goes when he’s being Taxicab Messi.
When Xavi plays football, he becomes football — the living, breathing embodiment of full involvement. The goal that he scored in the legendary manita is a goal that few players could have scored. The vision, the touch, the control and presence of mind were all otherworldly. He made it look so easy, but it really is one of the best goals you will ever have the pleasure of witnessing.
When an athlete … a genius athlete, makes a decision that causes us to wonder, it’s only natural to consider not only the decision but our own reaction. What would we do in that person’s shoes is one of the crucial questions. Holding the moral high ground in some situations is easy because it’s theoretical. “I would NEVER do such a thing. That’s disgusting.” It’s easy to answer questions that we will never be asked. That reality shades every last aspect of any move an athlete makes that might be questioned on non-sporting grounds. A player gets in a bar fight because some eejit prodded, pressed and goaded. “He should have shown restraint.” Easy to say.
This means that those of us who are bothered by the Xavi decision have precious little more than a theoretical leg to stand on. The hyperbolic ranting is over the top, and doesn’t treat the question, the situation, with the nuance that it deserves. Athletes are not role models. We don’t pay them to be role models, even as they are idolized and reap the benefits of that idolatry. Perhaps the broader question is whether being in the public eye in that way should be accompanied by an attendant awareness that “Hey, people look up to me.” Maybe.
Or maybe as private citizens, what athletes do is their business and theirs alone. Does it really matter to anyone who Tiger Woods messes around with, or how often? And if he was still hitting golf balls like he used to, would any of his peccadilloes really matter? Xavi is a Barça legend, a club icon who deserves the right to decide his future. But the question is the question: How do we come to grips with the decisions that our heroes make? To not discuss them is as incorrect as stomping around and hurling brickbats from staked-out high ground.
Xavi choosing to become an ambassador to the Qatar World Cup doesn’t mean that he endorses the appalling working conditions and tragic deaths any more than Guardiola did with his Qatar WC work, any more than buying an iPhone means that anyone is okay with the deaths that occurred at Chinese factories. But what does it mean? Maybe the ultimate value of asking the questions is that the process helps us come to grips with our own realities in crucial ways. You can’t say “I wouldn’t do what Xavi did.” You aren’t Xavi. This doesn’t mean you can’t be bothered by his decision, wonder what you might do in his place and hope that thinking about that will guide you in the next quandary that you might need to resolve.