Soccer

Jack: Treasuring the final years of the brilliant Xavi

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Kristian Jack
2/13/2014 11:00:32 PM
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There he was once again in space in the middle of the field.

He took one quick look to the left, before firmly fixing his wide eyes on to his team-mate with the ball. He didn't just want the ball, he demanded it and his team-mates knew it too. A look from him and they knew they should give him the ball. The ball rolled towards him incredibly slowly in his mind, so slowly he was able to take a quick look to his right before he felt the ball grace against his right boot. Immediately he took a touch forward, keeping his head up to see the run, although he already knew it was coming, and as he dribbled deep into the opponents territory he waited until the perfect moment to supply the pass through the defenders and on to the rushing teammate. 

The pace of the pass was so precise, Jordi Alba only had to touch it once to settle himself before slotting home. 2-0 Spain.

In the 41st minute that night in Kiev, Xavi Hernandez became the first player ever to assist in two different European Championship finals, but the pass that cemented that stat meant so much more than achieving a football first through an assist statistic.

Xavi knew what the world knew at that moment. Spain, who hadn't given up a single goal in any of their previous nine knockout games at the Euro's or World Cup, certainly were not going to concede twice to Italy that night. Xavi's magnificent pass had secured their victory and put them amongst the greatest national teams to ever play the game.

Spain would go on to win 4-0 with Xavi again providing a key assist for the third goal. Andres Iniesta, who is far more than a teammate to Xavi, rightly was handed man of the match to cap a marvellous tournament, but in terms of raising his game for the big occasion no one did it better than Xavi that night.

Xavi and Spain had spent most of the tournament in third gear but when the midfield maestro stepped it up, so did the team.

It has been the story of Xavi's career.

The previous summer in the Champions League final at Wembley, a theatre he loved because of how much be embraced the sport's history, Xavi had the keys to unlock the opposition. Once again he had found space, this time between the lines, but as he attacked Manchester United had his options covered. Still Xavi waited, ever the ball treasurer, the Spaniard let Lionel Messi make a run to drag Patrice Evra central, exposing a bit of space for Pedro to run into. Xavi saw the space first and placed another perfect ball that allowed the eventual goalscorer to take one simple touch before firing home. 

Another assist and another completely masterful performance on the game's biggest stage.

In the summer of 2010, Xavi made more passes and more accurate passes than any player at the World Cup (599/669), yet his most crucial one comes from a corner against Germany in the semi final, one that landed on the head of Carles Puyol, to help power Spain into their first ever World Cup final.

A few days later, Xavi lifted the World Cup after his footballing soul mate, Iniesta, scored the game's only goal. After that win in South Africa, UEFA President Michel Platini did not ask for Iniesta's winning shirt. He asked, and received, the shirt of Xavi.

The same Xavi who in the summer of 2009, again in the Champions League final, placed a magnificent ball on to the head of Lionel Messi who nodded it past Edwin van der Sar. Messi did not win man of the match that day, Xavi did. The same Xavi, a summer earlier, that got it all started for Spain, who changed their identity from perennial underachievers to winners, when he placed a wonderful ball through to Fernando Torres to score the game's only goal.

Xavi has been around long enough to know what it was like when both his teams struggled, yet he, more than any other player, helped them both reach the top of the sport's mountain. When the footballing genius eventually calls it a career his legacy will be reflected by the incredible impact and importance he had for his teams in big games.

Xavi is simply not just a player who won everything there is to win with club and country. He is a player that dictated their identity; an identity and style that helped both Barcelona and Spain dominate.

Two days prior to his Kiev display, the artist stood in front of the world's media and had to answer a question on whether that style was boring.

"If we are boring but we are winning, that is fantastic for us. We will keep playing our game, we are not bored."

How could he be? The victory in Kiev was Xavi's 17th winners medal in four years. In between the Euro 2008 and 2012 victories, he and Iniesta had won a World Cup, two Champions League titles, three Spanish league crowns, three Spanish Super Cups, two Spanish Cups, two European Super Cups and two World Club Cups.

Since he has won another league title and a Spanish Super Cup all done in a style far from boring.

"We go out from the first moment looking for the ball and looking to put pressure on the opposition. If you are not going to pass the ball then why play the game. That is not football in my opinion," Xavi explaind.

‘For another coach — someone like (Javier) Clemente or (Fabio) Capello — they may have another idea of football but it is good that the Barcelona idea works. What were Holland looking for in the World Cup final? A Robben counter-attack? Penalties? We won a lot of games 1-0 but it was the opposition that were boring, not us."

Xavi turned 34 last month and played in his 700th game for Barcelona. He has played more games in the five-and-a-half seasons than anyone yet there are very few signs of weariness.

"I don't want to miss any games, but I see the need to dose my efforts a bit more," he said recently. "Maybe in Spain people get carried away when a player reaches 30, but this is the best I have felt in my career. More mature, physically better. It is because I have learned things." 

Xavi's football brain will carry him into his senior years and well beyond his playing days, likely into a job as Barcelona coach one day, but while he has his legs we still have opportunities to watch him play. It is these opportunities, as football lovers, that we must grab. We are the guardians of future history and when we are asked in years to come 'what was Xavi like?' it will be down to us to explain to the next generation what a magnificent, complete player he was.

Unfortunately, in Canada we are robbed of seeing him play every week on domestic television but next week the Champions League presents us all with another opportunity to watch him.

There, of course, is one other window of opportunity that could burst open for North American fans. 

"Rumours about moving to Qatar or New York this year? My wish is to stay here until the end of my contract. I'm not moving," said Xavi recently. That would take him to the summer of 2016, by which point he will be 36. Xavi is smart enough to know that will likely be too old to be a major player in such a technical style that both his club and country play.

However, a move to MLS when he is 36 would give him a great opportunity to compete for a couple more winners medals while playing into his late thirties.

Xavi's path to the United States could be boosted by what his friend and mentor, Pep Guardiola, decided to do when he took a sabbatical from coaching last season and came to New York. Xavi, who was kept out of the side by Guardiola when he was young and almost moved because he couldn't get in ahead of him, went on to be a very different player (occupied further forward to make those key assists) thanks to Frank Rijkaard's progressive thinking but has always had a special bond with his former teammate and coach.

Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain's primary job is to succeed with Manchester City, but the former Barcelona executives will play a crucial role in the success of new MLS team, New York City FC, as 80% of that club is owned by the Premier League club.

Xavi has every right to stay focused on the tasks at hand in his homeland right now. After all, in the next four months, he has a Champions League and a Spanish Cup to try and regain and a La Liga and World Cup to try to defend but when he is 36 he will have a decision to make and it is difficult to imagine him choosing retirement.

He would be magnificent in Major League Soccer. Of all the current players in the game today, not named Ronaldo or Messi, he would be the one I would want to watch play in North America. A recent twitter poll of this question saw just 2 of 100 answer Xavi (with Zlatan Ibrahimovic being the overwhelming popular answer) but then again the Spanish maestro is used to being in the shadows of the true superstars.

Less than 18 months ago I went to Barcelona to watch them play, excited to see Messi and my favourite, Iniesta, play. Not for the first time, Xavi crashed the party putting on a passing clinic in midfield.

Enjoy him while he is still playing at a high level, folks. Spain have created many wonderful footballers, but on January 25th, 1980, Xavi Hernandez i Creus, the greatest of them all, was born. He grew to be a footballing giant at 5ft 7 inches, who played a major role in the way the game was played. One can only hope the last chapter of this fabulous footballing life can one day be written in North America. Just think of the ways the league and its players could benefit. 

Xavi Hernandez (Photo: VI Images via Getty Images)

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(Photo: VI Images via Getty Images)
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