Emperors & Empires: Barcelona’s Xavi discusses the modern game in exclusive interview

By Sanjit Atwal at 12:30 on November 11, 2014

The Catalonian city of Terrassa counts itself as one of the most historic areas of Spain, having been established in 69-79 AD by the sprawling Roman Empire. From ancient artefacts to sixth century cathedrals, the 200,000 residents of the city are proud of their heritage. The Roman Empire is long gone and now it is the more recent past that has given the city its greatest light.

It has been 16 years since Xavi Hernandez I Creus made his debut. To truly understand how fast the world has moved since then, one must consider this fact; One of the world’s biggest companies, Google now worth $370b, was founded a full three weeks after Xavi’s debut for Barcelona against Mallorca.

Since then Xavi has become the most decorated Spanish player of all-time with 25 trophies and five Ballon d’Or nominations. You would be hard pressed to find a fan outside of Madrid that did not, at the least, appreciate his skills. At the most, fans adore him like no other. Xavi is now 34 and, like the hills overlooking his hometown Terrassa, he has seen entire empires come and go and remained the only constant. Even the political state of Catalunia is shifting, Xavi himself being photographed voting in the recent independence poll.

Today, months after announcing his retirement from the international stage, the Barcelona midfielder is keen to talk about all that has changed in the game and where he will be working to influence football in the future.

The juxtaposition of old vs. new is a recurring theme when meditating on Xavi’s career. Change has been rife in the game over his 16 years in top-flight football and no example of change can be greater than when looking at the use of social media by footballers. Again and as a reminder, Facebook was nearly six years from its first user when Xavi first graced a field. At a time when players like QPR’s Rio Ferdinand are fined for inappropriate use of social media, is there an inherent danger for footballers on platforms such as Twitter?

“I believe that Facebook, Twitter‎ and all other social media platforms are very good tools to reach out to fans and be closer to them.

Xavi shrugs his shoulders, “I believe that Facebook, Twitter‎ and all other social media platforms are very good tools to reach out to fans and be closer to them. Me, personally, I do not like them that much because I think it lacks a bit of personality” he says with sincerity, “…but I believe that if used positively, it can be very helpful and important.”

A full smile is drawn from Xavi’s face when he is told stories of recent Premier League players being upset at their given statistics on video games such as FIFA 15.

“I do not have that problem because usually my stats are good,” he says laughing. “But it is just a video game, it is part of the business of football and players who do not have good stats should not care that much.”

This need for authenticity runs throughout Xavi’s life. He still enjoys spending his time in Terrassa with his family and they even have a property business together in the city centre. This streak of entrepreneurship is balanced by his desire to give back to the sport that has given him so much.

Campus Xavi – a summer football camp personally directed by Xavi himself, has for 15 years shown over 13,000 children the values of working hard and training like a professional. This includes carefully selected diets for the children as well as best practice hygiene.

Photo courtesy of Campus Xavi

It is a mark of the man that he sees the footballing world as one family. Just as he has brought together his own family at their shared business, he is also looking at using football as a way to bring together the wider footballing family.

“Well, for the near future, I would like to implement in Egypt the same human and sporting values that we have embraced during the past 15 years with Campus Xavi here in Spain. In this case, it is especially good for us because we will be able to learn more about Egypt and the Arabic culture.”

This last point highlights other talents that many fans may not be aware Xavi possessed – those rare traits of statesmanship and diplomacy. After all, when was the last time you heard a current Western European footballer talking passionately of the need to embrace and understand Arabic culture?

Culture is a term one often hears mentioned near Xavi’s name, especially when discussing his passing statistics. Probably the most influential passer of the ball for a generation, Xavi has displayed a definitive style over his career and, to most, embodies everything Barcelona as a club stands for. But does he look back at his own statistics after games?

Xavi shakes his head slowly, “I do not care too much about my stats. Usually when the ga‎me is over I always know whether I did well or not and that is the most important thing for me. I do not look at my stats, I like to feel that I am important for the team and make good passes.”

Against Eibar last month, Xavi completed 96% of his passes.

However, this view on his personal statistics is in stark contrast to his feelings on how statistics in general should be used in the modern game to help educate both the industry and, importantly, fans.

“Nowadays we speak a lot about this in Spain. How many passes you have made, how many you have missed, the amount of kilometers that you have run… It is like you and your team are being fully examined and I believe that this is a positive thing.”

This openness is refreshing to hear from one still in the game, especially as it is still a recent phenomenon for fans to have access to deep levels of data, something that is rigorously licensed and in some cases stringently guarded by sporting federations.

“It is good for us that fans know what are the physical levels required to play at the highest level. We run 12, 13 kilometers per game. It is not easy at all and especially doing so with movements that we do not control. Each movement is different depending on the opponent and their style of play.”

“I think that data helps people understand more about the game”

The concept of data being open for fans to interrogate the game is one which especially appeals to Xavi and is in-line with his own philosophies of education in the game at all levels.

“I think that data helps people understand more about the game and I am sure that much more is still to come,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

The discussion moves on to the Premier League and, in particular, two of the brightest young talents England have to offer in Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling and Everton’s Ross Barkley.

Both young players have impressed over the last 12 months but some say too much pressure has been put on them, Sterling in particular. However Barcelona have a rich tradition of blooding youngsters early. Are Sterling and Barkley good enough to make the grade at Camp Nou?

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“Yes, why not? I think that they could,” he says enthusiastically. “They have incredible physical capabilities and they are good technically. In Spain, we prioritise players who are technically gifted but both things are very important in football.”

Given the ages of the two players in question it is not inconceivable that they would one day play at Barcelona – perhaps under a certain famous midfielder as manager? Surely at some point Xavi would want to be in the hotseat at his beloved Barcelona?

“I do not know,” he says looking at a far-off point. “I would like to continue working with football but I still do not know in what way ‎or in which role. Football is what I enjoy the most in life and I hope to be able to dedicate myself to it after I finish my career.”

It is at this point that we get onto the topics of managers and the differing styles he has seen in his time. Xavi’s list of managers is like a roll call of some of the biggest names of the last 20 years; Van Gaal, Antic, Rijkaard, Guardiola, Camacho, Aragones, Del Bosque and now his former teammate Luis Enrique.

“There are many coaches with different styles of play that I really like. Luis Enrique, Guardiola, Del Bosque…” He pauses for a second, “Those who really want to have the control of the game are the ones that I like the most.”

Xavi’s first manager at a senior level was current Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal where the title was won in both his first and second season when in charge of Barcelona. How does he remember the Dutch coach?

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“He had great impact on me. I really enjoyed having him as a coach at such young age. He would expect a lot from a player in training but at the same time he was very human.”

Van Gaal is still finding his feet in his new post at Manchester United and much has been made of his use of both new signings and young players such as Adnan Januzaj. Xavi states it is the faith bestowed by Van Gaal that can make the difference for a young player.

“I believe that Van Gaal is a great coach for any team.”

“He had a lot of confidence in me and I owe him for that. Sometimes I would even ask myself why. He trusted immensely in me and maybe that is why I always wanted to show him how good I was on the pitch. I believe that he is a great coach for any team.”

Given the turning of empires seen by Xavi, he is, perhaps, the best-placed person to judge how the game is changing for managers and players alike. With his own academy programme and guaranteed status as a true legend of his club, country and modern football, he is also potentially the best placed person to influence the game for the better – a figurehead for fans around the globe. Even if he isn’t on Twitter.

Read more: Squawka talk to Manchester United & England legend David Beckham about Louis van Gaal’s signings and stats in football.

Sanjit Atwal

By Sanjit Atwal

Sanjit is Co-Founder & CEO of Squawka. He loves Liverpool FC and tactics. His party trick is naming the entire 1996/97 Nottingham Forest team. No reason. He just can.

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