Playing in the Future: Meet the Heart of Spain's Football Dynasty
As a child, Spanish national team star Xavi Hernandez liked to hang back to keep the goalie company. Now, he is the key player in Spain's international football tournament domination. His telepathic passing, say teammates, is proof that he 'plays in the future.'
On the grassy slope below the Spanish team's hotel, the hosts of the Euro 2012 have set up several model bulls, the kind used to advertise a certain brand of brandy on roadsides in Spain.
The current world soccer champions are also made to feel at home at their training ground in the Polish village of Gniewino, some 70 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of the city of Gdansk. Before practice gets underway, a marching band plays a lively paso doble.
Once on the pitch, however, the squad gets down to the business of honing the sort of short-pass play made famous by FC Barcelona. Whenever no avenues are open and all passing lanes are blocked, a simple, fundamental truth holds: Xavi Hernandez is always open. It is with this attitude toward football that the Spaniards have come to this European Football Championship tournament.
Xavi Hernandez, 32, has been plagued by tendonitis and muscular problems of late. But he is back, and is once again the key string in trainer Vicente del Bosque's bow, managing the midfield and acting as the team's chief strategist, just as he was under del Bosque's predecessor, Luis Aragones.
Xavi embodies -- and has mastered -- the Spanish national team's style of play to a greater degree than any other. And to a far greater extent than at his beloved Barcelona, the diminutive Catalan is both the organizer and the decision-maker of La Furia Roja, the "red fury," as the troubled Iberian country's national squad is dubbed.
On the training ground, the man the website of the Spanish soccer federation reverentially calls "Lord of the Precision Passes" takes a few steps to the left as the ball is played forward from the defense. Readying himself for the pass, he turns his body toward the sideline, where he intends to pass the ball. As if on cue, full-back Jordi Alba starts sprinting down the line, while Xavi elegantly passes to exactly the position Alba finds himself in as the ball crosses his path.
Playing in the Future
Brazilian defender Dani Alves, who plays alongside Xavi at Barcelona, says of his teammate that he doesn't so much speed up the game by running quickly, but by forcing fellow players to run into specific areas. As a result, Alves concludes, Xavi "plays in the future."
Coach del Bosque agrees that the art of anticipation makes all the difference between mere technique and real talent -- and that requires intelligence. Depending on what is required, Xavi can be the Spanish team's engine, metronome or brain, triggering complex chain reactions with seemingly trivial movements. While remaining more-or-less in the shadows himself, he puts his side's spectacular dribblers and sprinters in the limelight, supplying the passes that enable them to shine.
Timing is everything. Xavi has a wonderful ability to make passes that sow confusion in opposing defenses, for the benefit of club teammate Lionel Messi at Barcelona or Andres Inesta and Fernando Torres in the national squad. His passes create space for them to sprint into. The spectators cheer these strikers as they go on to produce their brilliant individual moves. But Xavi doesn't envy them in the slightest. He thinks of himself as simply "a team player."
Xavi's former coach, Joan Vila, calls him the "genetic imprint" of Barcelona's style of soccer. And yet Hernandez's value wasn't really recognized by football audiences until four years ago, when he supplied the pass for the Torres goal that secured Spain's victory against Germany in the Euro 2008 final.
Daniele De Rossi, the AS Roma playmaker who has surprisingly been appointed to head the Italian defense this year, recently said he loved the way Xavi plays. Even against Italy in Spain's belabored first game of the Euro 2012, the modest Catalonian anti-star repeatedly spotted spaces long before they had actually opened up.
The world champions were shaky in that game, conceded a goal, and because the pitch was slow they couldn't string passes together. But then Xavi upped the tempo by passing quicker and harder, automatically invigorating his team. He won possession back for the Spaniards and helped set up the impressive equalizer when he sprinted into a badly-timed Italian pass, reaching the ball a split second before Andreo Pirlo. He then secured it with a lightning-fast back pass to Sergio Busquets, who returned the ball immediately, before Xavi cleverly pushed it forward to Iniesta. This led to a dream of a goal by Cesc Fabregas, shot from the center of the chaos Xavi had created in the Italian defense.
That's how Xavi plays. He defends the ball, immediately turning it into an attack. His father Joaquim, who used to run a soccer academy in the Catalonian city of Terrassa, once described it thus: "You can't take the ball off Xavi because he's already passed it again."
His undisputable talents have won Xavi three Champions' League and six Spanish league titles. An unparalleled overview of the playing field also enabled Xavi to initiate Spain's opening goal in their 4:0 drubbing of Ireland. Xavi made the first move, Torres finished off. In fact, Xavi's ball-handling is so deft that even his back-passes are aesthetically pleasing.
After the Spanish squad's final training session in Gdansk, Xavi embraced a couple of journalists in the stadium's catacombs. He knows they like him, and he enjoys their affection. "Bona feina!" he wishes them in Catalan: Have fun working.
Early on at Barcelona, Xavi was constantly being rated against Pep Guardiola, his predecessor in central midfield and later coach. For a while it looked as though Xavi would never emerge from his teammate's shadow. Fans mockingly called him "windshield wiper" because they said he only swept the ball to the left or right instead of undertaking risky passes forward. "Now the whole world respects me," he recently told La Vanguardia newspaper. But although that respect is a source of great pride for him, he won't miss the popularity when he finally hangs up his soccer cleats. "All my life my parents taught me to be modest," he says.
Xavi's admirers have set up a Facebook page named after his special trick, the "pelopina": For this he turns around with the ball at his feet, sometimes even in a full circle, leaving opposing players stabbing at empty air. In the game against Ireland, he even served up a variation on the theme: A half-turn to the left followed by half a turn to the right.
At Gdansk Stadium, the midfield strategist passionately defended the smooth style of play coach del Bosque demands of his lineup. While the Dutch debate whether Robin van Persie or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should lead their offense, and Germany can't decide between Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez in the attack, Spain sometimes dares to field no striker whatsoever. At the start against Italy and in the final phase against Ireland, Xavi had only three other midfielders in front of him; diminutive, nimble dribblers all of them. Their job was to slice up the opposing defense with fast movement rather than power or high passes. Xavi calls it "mental speed."
The beauty of this formation is that it enables Spain to change its game with a single substitution, bringing on a classic striker like Fernando Torres, for example, which immediately changes the pace and the entire approach.
Del Bosques' system most closely resembles that of Barcelona. Xavi says he is mainly "a student of the Barça school of soccer," no more, no less. He describes La Masia -- the team's training facilities -- as a school of life. It was there that he learned to think as a team player. "You have to get your ego under control," Xavi says. Asked to describe the ideal footballer, he uses terms like "passionate," "team-oriented," "altruistic" and "empathetic." The same words could just as easily be used to describe Xavi.
Former coach Vila, who played for Barcelona alongside the great Johan Cruyff in the 1970s, recalls that Xavi quickly proved to be the "fastest thinker" on the playing field. Youth coach Carles Rexach taught his charges from an early age how to pass the ball with just "half a touch," contact so fleeting that it is barely perceived as having occurred. They practiced this with a game of keep-away, which the Spaniards call "Rondo." Xavi thought it was humiliating running around in the center of the circle trying to intercept the ball as it was passed around. But that was precisely what motivated him.
Keeping the Keeper Company
"The more I work, the luckier I get," says former national coach Aragones. Xavi understands the sentiment.
Xavi's father took him to Barcelona's football academy when he was just six years old. The boy earned his first bonus at the club, the equivalent of 23.50, at the tender age of 11. He used the money to buy his mother a toaster.
The Barça trainers immediately noticed that Xavi was the only kid who didn't want to score goals, preferring instead to stay by the goalkeeper. When his dad asked him why, he replied, "if we lose the ball up front, the keeper will be left all on his own." Somehow, he says, he always thought about "the others."
Until he was 13, he shared a bunk-bed with his younger sister. But when his grandfather died, he moved into his grandmother's room so she wouldn't be alone. He recently told a reporter for El Pais newspaper that his grandmother had always taught him to be "a good person."
Nowadays Xavi trains young footballers himself, teaching them the art of the short pass, and the rules of fairness and decency. Together with his father and elder brother Oscar he runs a soccer camp in Catalonia. Campus Xavi is expanding this year, even adding courses in Florida for the first time.
But Xavi likely won't be able to make it to the summer camp this year. The week-long training session for six to 15-year-olds runs from June 24-30, the final week of Euro 2012. Xavi, though, has promised participants that they can meet him personally at a later date.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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