Xavi’s Barça U-turn shows breaking up is hard to do despite tough times

<span>Xavi is embraced by <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Barcelona</a>’s president, Joan Laporta, who said: ‘I was always clear that I wanted him to continue.’</span><span>Photograph: Alejandro García/EPA</span>

Being the Barcelona manager is “cruel and unpleasant” Xavi Hernández said, but in the end it is all he ever wanted, all he has got. He is all they have got too. And so on Wednesday night, three days after any lingering hopes of winning the league were extinguished, eight days after being knocked out of Europe again, 88 after announcing he was leaving and calling it a “liberation”, he decided that he would continue after all. Ultimately, he just could not let go and nor could they.

“I have no problem changing my mind,” Xavi said on Thursday. When he had said he was leaving on 27 January, Barcelona had just conceded five at home for the first time in 60 years, a defeat he described as a portrait of their season: self-inflicted and absurd, a complete collapse. He had previously linked his continuity to trophies, the first law of coaching; beaten 5-3 by Villarreal, they were 10 points off the top. They had also lost to Real Madrid in the Super Cup final and to Athletic in the Copa del Rey quarters, conceding four in each. Besides, it went deeper than defeats.

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He told friends that being coach of Barcelona was no life, that there was no sense in continuing. He was going, but not just yet. He would see out the job to the end of the season and then walk away. Joan Laporta said it was a formula he accepted only because it is Xavi and Xavi is a legend. Which is not to say that the president might not bring it to an early end and there have been moments when that option has been contemplated, even close. The decision was irreversible, Xavi said. Even if they won the Champions League, he was going.

They did not win the Champions League; no one ever truly imagined they would. Impressive in Paris, Barcelona were defeated in the return leg by PSG. Five days later, they lost the clásico, leaving them 11 points behind Madrid. Seven goals in two games had definitively ended their season.

And yet on Wednesday, Xavi met the sporting director, Deco, at the club’s Sant Joan Despi training ground and they then headed to Laporta’s home. Xavi arrived at about 7.30pm, trying and failing to reverse his car into a tight parking spot just outside. Waiting for him were Laporta, the vice-president Rafa Yuste and Alejandro Echevarría, who has no position at the club but is Laporta’s closest confidant. So too were the city’s media, the whole thing played out in public again. Over the next hour or so, other directors arrived. By nine o’clock, they were ordering Japanese takeaway. Xavi was staying.

“After the Real Madrid game I spoke to Xavi and I was always clear that I wanted him to continue,” Laporta said. “Stability is very important for success.”

It was a shock, only it is not. It is a decision that leaves lingering doubts, the suspicion that things have not gone to plan – that there isn’t a plan – and there are parts of it that don’t entirely make sense, but it is not really a surprise, in spite of everything. It has been coming. Breaking up was too hard to do. Being together was not so bad.

Santi Cazorla tells the story of how Xavi apologised for leaving him alone at Al Sadd when he went back to Barcelona. “He said: ‘Santi, it’s my dream, something very personal I want to do.’” It was all he wanted to do, an inevitability about him returning, even if it didn’t exactly happen the way, or in the moment, he had expected.

Home though was not how he had hoped. He arrived in the midst of a crisis, took Barcelona to the Super Cup, hammering Madrid in the final, and won the league, a genuine achievement, but it was not enough. He was a puritan, an ideologue, the defender of a footballing faith, yet the way they played didn’t look very Xavian. In Europe, Barcelona suffered four eliminations in two seasons. Then this season it all unravelled. Above all, it was sad. There was also something curious: a Barcelona coach is supposed to know football and know the club; he of all people seemed surprised by the latter.

“[The job] wears you down terribly, in terms of health, of mental health, your mood, your emotional state,” he said. “I am a positive guy but the energy goes down, down, down, until the point at which you say: ‘It makes no sense.’”

He felt that he had done a good job and that it did not get recognised, that there was no appreciation for his work. He saw the limitations imposed by a financial crisis, and didn’t see the footballers he wanted turning up. He spent time trying to convince players to come who, deep down, the club knew never could be. He saw how those he thought would – should – defend him did not, inside Barcelona and outside. When they defeated Napoli last month, he asked pointedly: “What are we going to do with ‘Europe’s buffoon’ now?” The reference came from an article by one of Catalonia’s best journalists, who Xavi expected to be on his side. It also came from months earlier.

Saying he was going, leaving all that behind, gave Xavi a sense of peace, liberation, which turned out to be temporary. It also saw things shift a little; the environment above all. After every game, in every press conference, he trotted out the same line, as if trying to convince himself too, justifying the decision: the team is better since I said I was going. He never truly explained why – and if saying he was leaving was good for him, it is worth asking what saying he is staying will do now – but he kept repeating it, over and over. Results did improve. They went 13 unbeaten, winning 10.

Players responded. Even some of those who Xavi had not expected drew closer. Some even asked if he might change his mind, a hint of guilt perhaps, a realisation that a new man may be no guarantee. A new man, not incidentally, that Barcelona had not been able to secure.

Fans responded too. In some of those European games, Montjuïc, their temporary home and a terrible place to watch football, felt a little like a home. There was a warmth, support. Internally, he began to feel that too, something not always there before. Beating Napoli took them to the Champions League quarter-finals and felt genuinely significant, a step back. Then they won in Paris. If the fans stoned the Barcelona bus before the second leg, it was by mistake.

“It’s a cocktail of things that have led me to take this decision,” Xavi said on Thursday. “It wasn’t a question of money or ego. The fans played an important role, a good part of this decision is because of them. This project is not finished and they have shown me a lot of affection. The complicity and support of the players has been very important.”

You don’t know what you have got until (you say) it’s gone. He was actually enjoying this sometimes. With every press conference, the same question was asked. Are you sure you’re not staying? And in every press conference he would say nothing has changed. It got a bit silly, a pantomime played over and over. Soon Xavi was adding the line a dia de hoy to his answers: as of today. As of today, nothing has changed, which meant things, feelings, were changing and tomorrow is another day. That no was sounding a lot like a yes or at least a maybe. Perhaps this could work after all.

The message from the club shifted too. There was no ready replacement – a reality that cannot be overlooked – and the man who was still there had steadied things. Deco, Yuste, Laporta: all of them started to leave the door open, a little at first, then wider and wider. Eventually, they were saying it directly: we’ll try to convince Xavi to stay. There was no grand promise – Barcelona do not have the money to make big signings and the summer will be a difficult one – but there is an understanding. Just the fact they tried, that they wanted him, meant something.

So much that even a return to reality, two defeats in five days, didn’t finally end it. It had been their worst week, which was a little weird, and no one thinks this is perfect, but they had competed against PSG and Madrid, which was something. As of today, nothing has changed, but Wednesday was another day. One where they waited at Laporta’s home for the man who walked out three months earlier to walk back in again.