Year of Xavi
by Sam Fayyaz · January 8, 2011
Nearly two years ago, the Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton published a piece under what should surely be considered one of the most dunderheaded headlines in recent football journalism: “The best players of the world (and Xavi): Ronaldo crowned king of football.” In the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ascension as the world player of the year in 2009, Lawton took the time to cheekily ridicule Xavi Hernández, a player whose patience, measure, and impeccable sense of the tempo in attack and defense has helped to make Barcelona the best club side in Europe (arguably) and Spain the best national side in the world (most certainly). If Paul Scholes—the closest thing England has produced to a Xavi—had equal success on the international stage, some of the British press would spend less time taking the piss and more raising a glass.
Xavi has been and is the fulcrum and paradigm of both his nation’s and club’s high pressing/quick passing philosophy, which has won his teams the European Championship, the World Cup, two La Liga titles, and the Champions League. And while there might have been flashier and more prominent displays from his teammates during those title runs (Marco Senna was arguably Spain’s best player in 2008, David Villa in 2010, and Lionel Messi for Barcelona) Xavi was both blueprint and architect for these achievements. If there was ever an occasion to award the Ballon d’Or for a career-long legacy then giving it to Xavi this year is surely it.
I was in Iran last May watching Barcelona beat Sevilla on their way to a second consecutive title, when my cousin remarked in Persian, “Xavi makes Barcelona rotate.” His choice of words struck me as simultaneously lyrical and coldly mathematical, but nonetheless appropriate with respect to Xavi’s influence. Something near the “carousel” Sir Alex Ferguson invoked when describing the demoralizing aspect of being passed to death by Xavi and Iniesta, or the Guardian’s James Richardson’s “Matrix” analogy after Spain made Germany’s talented group of youngsters look their age in the semifinal of the World Cup.
Where midfield play in the Premier League often seems gruelingly effortful, Xavi simply skates or spins into space and pushes the ball onto dangerous areas with minimal exertion. Indeed, while Xavi’s compatriot and possible future understudy Cesc Fàbregas is more direct and most definitely more goal-prolific, he so far lacks the ability to orchestrate the course of a match simply by keeping the ball. In the first leg of last years quarterfinal between Arsenal and Barcelona, Xavi completed 95 passes—62 more than Arsenal’s top passer that evening. In the return leg he completed 105, 59 more than Arsenal’s top passer. And where possession statistics are incidental to Arsenal’s intricate passing game and elaborate finishes, they are fundamental to Barcelona’s and Spain’s, and both squads exploit Xavi’s ability to keep the ball until the right moment for him or the group’s other playmakers to supply the final pass.
My favorite image of Xavi is a caricature. A downturned mouth that somehow evokes supreme calm rather than despair offsets saucer-sized eyes. The image bespeaks an almost comical ordinariness to his athletic prowess. Perhaps this makes him an easy target for detractors like Lawton, who are evidently besotted by the hyper-vigor and power of the Ronaldos and Drogbas and Gerrards. But this besottedness also smacks of boastful philistinism and disregard for the less blunt or less spectacular aspects of the game. And it is on the wrong side of history.
Sam Fayyaz is a PhD student at UMASS, Amherst where he studies political science when he’s not anoraking about soccer.
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