Andy Mitten

Xavi still Spain’s pass master

Andy Mitten
Andy Mitten

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"I'm not strong, nor fast, nor skilful, I'm a player from the street," said Spain's Xavi Hernandez, football's most intelligent player and its best talker this weekend. "Without my team-mates, without space, I am nothing."

Xavi's said similar before, usually to deflect the praise which is lauded on him globally, but there was little false modesty on his part. He knows what he's good at: controlling the tempo of the match, passing the ball frequently with accuracy, ideally to team-mates in a more threatening position. He does it better than anyone, the master of teams which dominate, the product of a system which started with the Dutch Total Football system and was enshrined by Johann Cruyff at Barça.

"We all live in the present but Xavi actually lives in the future," purred Brazilian full-back Dani Alves when asked about his team-mate. "That's how he sees things the way he does. He shows that the little smart guys can play great."

Josep Guardiola was the finest exponent of Barça's Cruyffism until Xavi came along. "There's the man who will retire me," said Guardiola upon seeing a young Xavi. He was half right, but Xavi's role has changed from the famed number four position once occupied by Guardiola.

Xavi was a very good Barça player until 2005, the year he ruptured his cruciate ligament, but he didn't trouble the game's top individual honours. He'd made his European debut for Barca in 1998 at Old Trafford, but his profile didn't really rise in Britain until he ran the show in Spain's win over England at the Bernabéu in 2004. Afterwards, AS had claimed that "Xavi did things worthy of Maradona. What a work-rate, what dynamism, what vision, what leadership, what a midfield player!"

Still, when I offered an interview with him to one British magazine in 2005, the answer came back that he wasn't high profile enough. Their loss. There's no shortage of people wanting interviews with him now and it's no surprise because he's the most fascinating man in football, a fan with an anorak streak who became a player. I bet he could name 15 of the Premier League stadiums, bet he could name Everton or Fulham's usual starting XI. When he's finished at the Euros, he's spending his month off running his own football school.

Arthur Hopcroft's seminal 60s book 'The Football Man' could have been name after Xavi, though maybe the 'The Total Football Man' would have been more appropriate given the Dutch influence in his game.

Xavi's rise to being football's best passer since Platini came when he changed positions in 2007 under Frank Rijkaard. His coach suggested that he moved forward 20 metres in games and the difference was marked. It made better use of his creativity, vision and superb reflexes and with Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita or later Sergio Busquets  behind, Xavi scored 13 leagues goals in 07-08 and 08-09. In the previous two seasons he'd scored three in total.

"People who didn't really see my overall game before started to see me set goals up and even score some," Xavi said when I interviewed him at the end of 2009, a year in which Barça won all six trophies they entered. That interview was supposed to last 15 minutes. It went on for 45 minutes as he wanted to talk and talk about football, to ask questions about English football to fill his many gaps. It was where he said that he loved watching Matt Le Tissier play. Le Tissier was so flattered that he showed the magazine to all his mates and then had a t-shirt made saying: 'Xavi loves me'.

An increasing obsession with statistics in football to rival American sports showed his game in an even better light. He often makes more passes than any other player in the game. He wouldn't achieve such statistic playing outside the Barça or Spain team which plays to his strengths, but he's the perfect player for a system he's played in since he was 12.

For Spain against Ireland last week, Xavi and his perfect foil Iniesta made more passes (229) than the entire Irish team (217).

Passes don't win tournaments, but they help. Xavi's pass to Fernando Torres created the only goal in the Euro 2008 final, a tournament in which he was voted the best player.

Xavi has won the lot with club and country yet his appetite for football is undiminished. He's a straight talker who doesn't need PR, agents or advisors because his opinions don't need spinning or glossing. He's not outspoken, but if he has a point to make it he won't hold back. I've only seen him flustered twice, once when Almeria put two men on him in a league game, seemingly with instructions to hack at him — and whenever a journalist asked him if his international career is coming to a close at 32. If there's one player who can play for as long as he physically can then it's the player who still lives in his hometown of Terrassa, however unfashionable it may be. He owns and rents out hundreds of properties in Terrassa.

Xavi's played 112 times for Spain, more than any other outfield player in the country. This season, he surpassed legendary Barça defender Migueli to become the Catalans all-time appearance holder. He's played 690 times for Barca and given that his game relies more on quickness of mind rather than physical speed, he could do as he intends - play and play through 700 and 800 games, maybe more.

For now, Xavi's concentration is on helping Spain win Sunday's quarter-final clash against France, while the French hope to prevent the street footballer with a line in self-depreciation from dominating affairs as he so often does.

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