Every December in Paris, some glamour boy is awarded the “Golden Ball” for European footballer of the year. There should be a parallel ceremony in a backroom, where Europe’s most under-appreciated footballer is given a scuffed plastic sippy cup.
The award would long have been hogged by Claude Makelele, a ballwinner so unobtrusive that Real Madrid flogged him to Chelsea in 2003 rather than give him a pay rise. Real have not reached the semi-finals of the Champions League since. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley,” asked Makelele’s friend Zinedine Zidane after Real bought David Beckham that summer, “when you are losing the entire engine?”
Paul Scholes of Manchester United succeeded Makelele as Europe’s most under-appreciated footballer. However, he lost the sippy cup when every pundit on earth began pointing out how good he was. Now the sippy cup goes to Xavi Hernández Creus, who as central midfielder of Barcelona and Spain drives on both the world’s best football teams. More than that: as Chelsea will notice when they meet Barcelona in the forthcoming semi-finals of the Champions League, Xavi incarnates Barcelonan football.
This is only partly because he is a local boy, who still used to ride the metro to the stadium when he made his debut for Barcelona a decade ago. More significantly, Xavi was raised practically from birth to be Barcelona’s version of a quarterback – or, as they call it in the Nou Camp stadium, a “number four”.
The “four” buzzes around central midfield distributing passes like a quarterback. It is a role created by Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who updated 1970s “total football” for Barcelona. Soon after Cruyff began managing Barça in 1988, he spotted a reedy kid named “Pep” Guardiola toiling unnoticed in the youth teams, and anointed him a “four”. Guardiola became legendary in that role and today he manages Barcelona.
One day in the late 1990s a tiny “four” named Xavi, too timid to speak, showed up at training and began passing like Guardiola. Boudewijn Zenden, then playing for Barça, told me: “We said, ‘It’s the same kind of player!’ They had this education where you just open up a can of number fours. It’s hard to say, but Xavi’s a more complete player than Guardiola.” Guardiola himself agreed, telling Xavi: “You’re going to push me out the door.” Though Xavi is undeniably more mobile than Guardiola, and has eyes in the back of his head, these are not judgments he easily accepts. He recalls: “I’d watch older players and think, ‘With him there, I’m screwed.’ ”
Xavi did not seem to want to become a Catalan hero like Guardiola. He did not do the things that get footballers headlines, like squabbling or being transferred or scoring lots of goals. He never spoke much. At 5ft 7in tall, he was no superhero. All he did was hit passes, left to right, up and down, like someone filling in a crossword puzzle at top speed. Just as the legendary Chelsea defender Ron “Chopper” Harris incarnated the foul, Xavi incarnates the pass.
Cruyff had taught Barça a style straight out of a Graham Greene novel: everything hinged on finding the third man. Everyone had to be in motion so the man on the ball could always choose between two players to pass to. No wonder Barcelona kept producing “fours”. After Xavi came the even littler Andres Iniesta, and then Cesc Fabregas, currently in exile at Arsenal, who says with Xavian modesty, “Xavi is several classes better than me.”
At Euro 2008, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc were all on the field weaving triangles together. In the final, they made the Germans chase the ball as if in a training exercise. Spain are now unbeaten in 31 games. They had an undefeated run of 25 games before falling to Makelele’s France at the World Cup of 2006. They have been the best national team on earth for five years now. Moreover, Barcelona is the most glorious club on earth. If Xavi is not careful, people will soon notice him. Luckily for him, Barça’s forwards get most of the credit, and as he always tells everyone, he is not half as good as Iniesta anyway.