Pitchside

Is Xavi’s reign as Barcelona’s spiritual king coming to an end?

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“Let me explain,” says Xavi Hernandez. “FC Barcelona is a school and I’ve been privileged to be a student. It doesn’t just educate you to be a good footballer, but a good person too. It’s a good environment which also teaches respect, a working mentality and discretion. It’s different here to Madrid.

"I noticed (Sir Alex) Ferguson say that no matter how many players Madrid buy, they will never have the moral fibre of Barca. That’s true. Madrid have their system and there are some things I actually envy: their optimism, that cockiness they have that allows them to tell you with absolute conviction: ‘We. Are. Going. To. Beat. You.’

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"But they don’t! And there were no bigger victims of our treble (in 2009) than Madrid. Then we have our system. They have some great players, but I know which system I prefer, which is better for football.”

Xavi is one of the best talkers in football. The Barca midfield metronome spoke about Madrid with the confidence of someone who was never going to join them. Though his boss Luis Enrique played for both clubs, Xavi's a Catalan and wouldn't entertain the idea.

Xavi has gone on and on since making his Barca debut in 1998. He's played more games than any other player for the club and he has a contract until 2016. That raised eyebrows when it was signed, for Xavi will be 36 in two years, but as he said when I last interviewed him: “I’ll play until the legs tell me to stop, but my game does not depend on speed like others."

That's how he sees it and few question his speed of thought. “We all live in the present but Xavi actually lives in the future,” Brazilian full-back Dani Alves once purred when asked about Xavi. “That’s how he sees things the way he does. I’ve always believed that football is for the little smart guys like me and Pedro, Xavi and Iniesta.”

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Those little guys were good enough to become the best in the world, but Barca’s star has waned since Pep Guardiola departed in 2012. Xavi has remained a mainstay and achieved his one remaining ambition to surpass 70s and 80s star Migueli and become Barca's all time appearance holder.

Xavi's problem is that father time is slowly catching up with Spain's greatest ever footballer. He's playing fewer games, which is natural given that he's 34, the age Luis Enrique called it a day. Last season, Xavi was seen as a microcosm of what ailed an under-the-weather Barca: still a great, but with waning physical powers. With that, people have begun to talk about a future without a man who many see as a future Barcelona boss.

Look at Barca's midfield 'three' and it appears overstocked. There are four players in contention for Xavi's position alone: new signing Ivan Rakitic, Ibrahim Afellay, who is unlikely to have a future at the club, and Rafinha, the 21-year-old attacking midfielder who started 32 league games on loan at Celta Vigo last season with Luis Enrique as his boss. Enrique worked with him at Barca B and rates him highly. But highly enough for him to replace Xavi? Or, will Enrique practice what he preaches?

"A lot of players don’t realize that Iniesta and Xavi had lots of games on the bench," said Enrique a year ago. "Only Messi walked into the first team. Young players have to understand, adapt and learn. They have to learn little by little otherwise there is too much pressure on them."

Xavi and Enrique, both former team-mates under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Barcelona, met to talk about Xavi's future. A journalist very close to Xavi reported the conversation as Enrique saying: “You are welcome to be part of this, I see your importance, but if you stay then don’t complain to me if you’re not playing as much as you’d like to.”

Xavi himself was uncharacteristic in his silence throughout the summer. When he wasn't experiencing a poor World Cup (not that he needs to prove anything in that competition after his 2010 exploits) he spent much of the time considering his Barcelona future.

If he leaves, both he and the club could profit, for he'd take a cut of what he's been offered until 2016 and the club could save some of the €10 million (£7.9m) a year in wages they have agreed to pay him. Xavi and Iniesta are on the pay scale directly below Messi, with Xavi indulged in his contract by former president Sandro Rosell.

Xavi considered moving to Qatar and to the USA where he was courted by New York City, yet his statistics were still incredible last season. He completed more passes than any player in Europe's top five leagues. He's started back in training with Barca and told them that he'll stay, prompting Rakitic to say: "Xavi staying is great news. He's a symbol of this club. It's spectacular to play with him. I can only learn from him."

True, but if the Croatian takes his place in the side then don't expect Xavi to hang about. He has too many suitors and a highly inquisitive mind which wants to see the world as well as kick a football. Barcelona has always been his home, but he may fancy a little holiday before the end of his playing career and an undoubted spell as a coach.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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