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 Posted by Eduardo Alvarez
Jun 8, 2014

Xavi's last stand

FC's Steve Nicol questions Xavi's rank due to his rough season at Barcelona and how Xavi could see more of the bench than the pitch in Brazil.

When you look at Xavi Hernandez's career, there's a lot to consider: the 34-year-old has played more than 900 matches over 15 seasons with Barcelona, as well as three European Championships and three World Cups (soon to be four) with Spain. It's been a long ride. One is entirely entitled to think that this midfield maestro deserves a more relaxed lifestyle in a less demanding league or even a new profession closer to the managing side of the bench.

Father Time has indeed caught up. In the past 18 months, Xavi's ability to perform on a match-to-match basis has suffered noticeably both with club and country. He has openly recognized that the period his aching body now needs to recover between matches has become longer than the usual three-day rest most players at big clubs get during the season.

However, and very much like Dr. Seuss, Xavi probably wonders: How did it get so late so soon? The small number of lows and huge number of highs he's enjoyed since the late 1990s would make anyone feel as though time passed by like lightning. You could hardly consider Xavi a late bloomer, after all; he made Barcelona's first team when he was 18 under Louis van Gaal in 1998 and won FIFA's under-20 World Cup with Spain the following year.

But watching Xavi play with Barcelona in 2005 or 2006, either as he struggled to prove Frank Rijkaard wrong in his lack of faith in his physical abilities or as he fought to come back from injury while his teammates won the coveted Champions League, it would be hard to imagine that this tiny midfielder would become the most influential player in the best Spanish side of all time.

Xavi is Spain's bedrock in midfield, the one man for whom Vicente del Bosque has yet to find an adequate replacement.
Xavi is Spain's bedrock in midfield, the one man for whom Vicente del Bosque has yet to find an adequate replacement.

Amazingly enough, his ultimate leap of confidence came from an unlikely source: Luis Aragones. Determined to revamp Spain's national team after their disappointing elimination at the last 16 stage of the 2006 World Cup, the grumpy coach decided to hand the reins of the squad to Xavi and a collection of tiny midfielders whom only the Catalan knew how to organise on the pitch.

The results proved Aragones right: At Euro 2008, Spain claimed their first international title since 1964 -- Xavi won the award for the best player of the tournament -- as the metamorphosis of an amazing group of players into a hugely competitive team took place.

From that point on, things just seemed to click. Almost at the same time, Pep Guardiola replaced Rijkaard at Barcelona and chose the player who had been his backup in the late 1990s as the building block for the newest version of a style that Xavi knew by heart. In 2008-09, Barcelona won every single competition they played; the following year, Spain won the World Cup for the first time, inspired by the Catalan midfielder.

- No. 8: Xavi
- #WorldCupRank: See our full countdown

Just as Guardiola was while still playing for Barcelona, Xavi has been tipped to become a coach at various times during his career. Given his almost overwhelming interest in the tactical area of the game, his relationship with his managers has always been on the intense side of things, starting with van Gaal, who coined the ultimate quote about Xavi: "I can't remember the last time he misplaced a pass."

Times were tougher with Rijkaard given his preference for physical specimens, but in Aragones -- about whom Xavi wrote an emotional obituary after his death earlier this year -- and Guardiola, he found wise football men with whom he shared the passion for possession and the offensive approach to win matches and titles. He spent hours obsessively talking tactics before and after matches with both men and developed his own view about how football should be played, one that he defends passionately.

Things have not been as smooth with Vicente del Bosque. The affable coach has clear views on Spain's tactical disposition, and as his right hand, Toni Grande, explained a year ago, they collided with those of Xavi. The Catalan midfielder favours to play closer to the ball, next to a single defensive midfielder -- preferably Sergio Busquets and not Xabi Alonso -- the way he usually does for Barcelona. Del Bosque, meanwhile, feels that the side plays more solidly -- even if less spectacularly -- with two defensive midfielders and Xavi in front of them. After what happened in the Confederations Cup, when Spain were beaten 3-0 in the final by Brazil, most would agree with the manager.

Xavi has led Spain to unprecedented success on the international stage.
Xavi has led Spain to unprecedented success on the international stage.

Despite their tactical disagreements, though, del Bosque knows that Xavi is irreplaceable. With all due respect for the already retired Carles Puyol and the obviously aged David Villa, the portrait of an aging Spain is Xavi himself. While most current starters have plenty of replacements ready to take their jobs, both Barcelona and Spain have tested several substitutes, but none have quite managed to generate the balance and the tactical discipline that Xavi offers when he's fit. Those characteristics are instrumental for a team that uses the ball to defend first.

The end of the season brought several points of concern for Xavi, hardly the optimal atmosphere before a big tournament. On top of his evident physical decline, possibly his biggest worry has to do with his next season in club football.

When asked about the future of the team's captain, new Barcelona coach Luis Enrique answered enigmatically. "We'll talk when he's back from the World Cup," he said, even though Xavi's contract runs until 2016. A change of scenery and smaller club or league might be refreshing before his widely expected step into the coaching world, and it would again follow the steps of Guardiola, who played in Italy as well as Qatar and Mexico prior to his first coaching job.

But before that, Xavi has the rare chance to bid farewell to the World Cup in style. After more than 130 matches with the national team, he needs to show his uncanny competitiveness for only another seven to close an unforgettable spell by making history again with an unprecedented fourth consecutive football "major."

For better or worse, Spain will become a different team without their most cerebral player after this tournament. But no matter what happens in Brazil, and regardless of how successful the side becomes after he retires from national team football, most will remember this emblematic Spanish side as Xavi's team.

In a world obsessed with stats, numbers and records, such recognition is probably worth more than any title.