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Spanish Primera División

Nothing's a given for Xavi, Casillas

The ESPN FC guys discuss the impact Xavi Hernandez has had on the international game as he retires from Spain.

Given that it has been central to the collective greatness of Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernandez over the years that they will not admit defeat, that they are footballers who are born to "resist" adversity, I wonder how any of us imagine they might be well-equipped to call time on their own club and country careers? To face and accept the biggest "reverse" of any athlete's span -- that they are permanently on the wane?

With all due respect to Andres Iniesta who might eventually present an overwhelming opposition case, Spain's two all-time great players (and their clubs) face a dilemma right now. And their cases, while not identical, carry great similarities.

- Report: Xavi retires from Spain duty
- Ledwith: Xavi's decision is good news for Barca

The key question at the moment is: Would they and their clubs be "better off" if there was a parting of the ways?

Xavi has been the beating heart of this great Spain era; it was to him that Luis Aragones turned between 2004-06 and asked to take up the responsibility for an advanced, technical and highly intelligent brand of play. There will now follow a surge of tributes to the 34-year-old Catalan who has publicly called time on his international career.

But there will be time enough over the coming months -- when Spain are about to play an international match, for example -- when television companies can roll out long, lavish examinations of his abundant years with La Roja to luxuriate in just how important this man has been to football in his skill, his technique, his bravery, his philosophy and his personality.

Right now, he's got very little time to stop and reflect.

Footballing legends Xavi and Casillas now face the hardest season of their careers in 2014-15.
Footballing legends Xavi and Casillas now face the hardest season of their careers in 2014-15.

In reversing his June decision to leave FC Barcelona, he may not have taken the bravest step -- that of testing himself in a new environment, in a new culture, perhaps even in a totally new club like the one in New York City. However, there's a bravery in staying (once again) at a club where, theoretically, he has everything to lose.

This is where he's a legend, where he's won it all, where there's a new Luis Enrique-shaped broom sweeping through the Barcelona training ground and where it will be ignominy personified should he not be able to command a reasonably regular starting place.

Yes, the traditional thing in arts, sport -- hell, in relationships, in everything -- is to stay too long. Few know the right time to walk away ... although some know full well but fool themselves. But when Xavi talks about knowing that Enrique will make all his players "start from zero" and promising that he won't walk about in a sulk if he's not playing regularly, Xavi is publicly confronting the idea that this dream of a final, heroic swan song may glitter but won't necessarily turn out to be golden.

That's a healthy sign. Not definitive, but healthy.

Yet, as ever, we only have the protagonist's word for it that he's not fooling himself and everyone else. What depth of psychological metamorphosis must take place for a member of the Spanish pantheon, one through whom all the important football of the past 10 years has been required to flow, to suddenly accept becoming a "useful" impact or "occasional" player?

And can that metamorphosis truly happen over one traumatic summer when embarrassment, pain and self-doubt are the dominant emotions?

I don't think that's a "gimme."

Xavi was tired and peripheral at the 2014 World Cup, prompting his decision to step back.
Xavi was tired and peripheral at the 2014 World Cup, prompting his decision to step back.

On Tuesday, the Catalan midfielder admitted to us that being left out for Barcelona's final La Liga game last season, the one upon which the title hinged (he was only introduced for the last 14 minutes), and then being dropped during the World Cup following Spain's 5-1 defeat to Holland comprised two of the worst blows to his morale of his entire career. He felt useless, slighted, wounded and helpless.

When a crucial but borderline decision like this is to be made, I think that while instinct can be a factor, it needs to be largely actuarial. Risk, managed to the nth degree.

If Xavi, or any of us who feel romantically about the brilliance of his career, expect that he's somehow owed some kind of fairy-tale, "Boys' Own" heroic final season (or two) in which he somehow majestically rises above the forces of time and tide, then we are all fooling ourselves.

If, on the other hand, Xavi has looked at his remaining potential -- into which he must most certainly factor his remaining hunger, discipline and generosity of team spirit -- and decided that he'll give absolutely everything on and off the pitch irrespective of whether his role is reduced, then it's feasible that his decision to stay may, possibly, bear fruit.

On which subject, some thoughts.

1. He needs to have learned the lesson of Euro 2012.

Back then, he was a little downcast about not having been quite so pivotal in how often Spain "owned" the ball and what they did with it. Before starring in the final (a 4-0 win over Italy), he decided to retire, telling Vicente del Bosque just that. Del Bosque told him he was mad not to push on to Brazil; Xavi changed his decision and got precious little back in return. Just one more summer without a proper rest, disillusionment and a calamitous defeat against the Dutch in a tournament that Spain could, and should, have won.

In Kiev, Xavi took the right decision about moving on ... and then abandoned it. He needs to have learned lessons from that experience and applied them to this similar volte-face with Barcelona.

2. If he is to succeed, he needs a coach who knows precisely what Xavi should now be used for.

His relationship with Tata Martino wasn't fruitful, principally because they held radically different football philosophies, and by the end, the Argentine didn't think Xavi was useful enough to try to influence the crucial, title-deciding match. In no way could you say that Martino routinely built a team around what Xavi could still do well. In fact, when he did discover a way of addressing that by playing four or five men in midfield, he soon abandoned it.

Luis Enrique must work to fit Barca around Xavi or find a suitable role where Tata Martino failed.
Luis Enrique must work to fit Barca around Xavi or find a suitable role where Tata Martino failed.

At the international level during the World Cup, del Bosque avoided changing back to a 4-2-3-1 formation which would have allowed Xavi slightly more space and time to reorganise himself defensively, and which might have maximised his passing accuracy in the final third. Nor did del Bosque plan particularly well for the fact that key Dutch midfielders would look to run away from Xavi and that the two wing-backs, Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind, would arrive in the middle of the pitch to win numerical "superiority" there.

This should emphasise to Enrique that the talents Xavi retains -- vision, technique, great passing skills, experience, intelligence, free kick taking, bravery -- must be supplemented around him with the athleticism, pace, stamina and defensive organisation in which he no longer excels.

Andrea Pirlo is a case in point, as was Johan Cruyff at Feyenoord in his final season: ensure that the genius is enabled to do what he still does brilliantly and get worker ants to fulfill the tasks he cannot. Luis Enrique, the football actuary?

In deploying Xavi properly, Barca could learn from the way in which Andrea Pirlo has been used.
In deploying Xavi properly, Barca could learn from the way in which Andrea Pirlo has been used.

3. The transfer window isn't shut yet, and it wouldn't be an outright shock were he to receive another tempting offer to go try pastures new.

It certainly appears that Xavi's mind is set on staying in search of a glorious goodbye from the Camp Nou -- he also has two years left on his current contract. But when he says that his state of mind is "better" now, that he's dealt with the disappointment of the last few months and that he knows he's going to have to show the new coach what he's made of it, it had better be true.

If a superior offer arrives and he suddenly takes it, it will add to the sense that Barcelona are not able to cope with the breaking up of their great era: they misjudged Carles Puyol's injury record; they treated Eric Abidal badly; the way Samuel Eto'o departed was a joke; they failed to anticipate (or didn't care about) the way Victor Valdes' attitude was hardening; and they have badly mishandled the contentment of the greatest player this club has ever seen, Lionel Messi.

I'm reasonably sure that leaving in a hurry because a big new offer comes in isn't what this Barca fan and Camp Nou legend -- a man who has already turned down firm deals from Manchester United and Bayern Munich in his time -- wants to leave as his legacy.

Iker Casillas' situation differs from Xavi, but he too faces a serious fight to remain relevant.
Iker Casillas' situation differs from Xavi, but he too faces a serious fight to remain relevant.

As for Casillas, while he and Xavi have some big differences in their personalities, and while personally I think that their friendship has evolved into something a little different over the past four years, there's much we can learn about the Madrid captain from what the Barca legend expressed on Tuesday morning. For as much as their names will forever be associated with success, six Champions League wins between them, European and world champions with Spain etc etc, they have also met failure and stared it out.

Each of their club sides has had to cope with major disappointments during their lengthy careers; I've seen each man ragged with the hurt of losing a big final or being torn apart in a big match. They've both learned how to assimilate this pain and to make it strengthen them.

What makes both men feel a bit lost and potentially helpless is the moment when they, themselves, appear not to matter so much. It's not their invulnerability that is taken away -- both men have handled being kept out of a team via injury or when a coach thinks they need a jolt/rest. It's when their importance, their status as the emblematic leaders, their very self-worth comes under challenge that greats like Xavi and Iker can feel the floor crumbling beneath them.

If Xavi felt more devastated by not being needed in two defining matches (against Atletico and then with Spain against Chile) than ever before in his career, then how must Iker have felt for most of the last year and a half when dropped as Madrid's first-choice keeper in La Liga?

Casillas and Xavi can still be of use to Real and Barca, respectively, but it won't be a given.
Casillas and Xavi can still be of use to Real and Barca, respectively, but it won't be a given.

Casillas is something of a lone wolf, not necessarily an icon of consensus or social unity. Instead, he has always led by example -- in training and in matches by providing excellence and remorseless hunger. Take 90 percent of his opportunities to do that away from him, as both Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti have done, and it's a neutering experience.

- Jones: Casillas deserves a better ending
- Story: Keylor Navas joins Real Madrid
- Report: Fans back Navas as Real's No. 1

I firmly believe the fact that he was a fundamental part of Madrid winning both the cup competitions in which they played last season -- irrespective of his error for Diego Godin's goal in the Champions League final -- remains a remarkable achievement.

I've looked askance at all those in the Madrid media who have come out of the woodwork now to talk about Casillas' difficulties off the pitch, his relationship with other players, how he trains, his relationship with the mother of his young son. Most of this was well established while he was "San Iker," but few had anything to say about it.

How quickly people forget. Too quickly for my taste. His drop in confidence and his drop in form is evident. But is it permanent? No, I don't think so.

Casillas should be energized by Keylor Navas as a contender for the No. 1 spot.
Casillas should be energized by Keylor Navas as a contender for the No. 1 spot.

Could Iker Casillas thrive abroad and find, as Raul did with Schalke, that a change is as good as a rest? Yes -- if he chose well, he surely could. But I don't think it's time. I believe (I don't state it as a fact) that Casillas has the capacity to be challenged by Keylor Navas, will be stimulated by winning back his first-team place and that he retains some things that are innately important to the personality of this Real Madrid era.

It's not a given that it's the right thing for him to do to stay and fight, but just as Xavi is suddenly refusing to leave the Camp Nou with his tail between his legs after two huge trophy disappointments in the past few months, I'd like to believe that Iker Casillas is territorial, that his pride is stung, that he thinks he'll win another Champions League with this club and that he'll be damned if anyone is going to chase him out of the club he supports.

But it can't be wished into being. This isn't Hollywood. It's down to Iker -- equally to Xavi -- to prove to us all that the fame, the reverence, the trophies, the wealth, the ageing and the discovery of romantic satisfaction have not dulled their razor-sharp competitive edges and have not left them kidding themselves that excellence, once achieved, stays with you and will not rust if you leave it out in the rain.

Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter covers Spanish football and FC Barcelona for ESPN FC, Sky Sports and a number of newspapers and magazines across the world. He is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World."

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