The Spanish team that we have been blessed to enjoy over the past decade is littered with world class players. Iker Casillas, Carlos Puyol, Andrés Iniesta have all worn the red of La Roja but none define this generation of football as much as Xavi Hernández.
If you could draw up a blueprint of how Spain and Barça want to play the game, the values they hold dear and the style they aspire to, you would arrive at Xavi. His relenting obsession with keeping the ball through accurate passing and a great awareness of his close proximity has propelled him and his team to the top of world football.
Xavi joined Barcelona when he was just eleven years old, arriving at the fabled La Masia academy and he was quick to progress up the ranks of the Barcelona football tree. He became the key playmaker in Jordi Gonzalvo's promotion winning Barcelona B team in 1997 and a year later he made his debut with the first team.
Under Louis Van Gaal, Xavi became an important player in a team that went on to win the league. However, there was initial hesitation from the Barça fans. Xavi was seen as a replacement to Pep Guardiola and the Camp Nou faithful wasn't keen to see the latter lose his place having become a crucial cog in the Barça machine and well on his way to earning club legend status.
It seems crazy now that some Barça fans were slow to warm to Xavi but he truly earned the fans' respect during the start of the new millennium. Barça were experiencing a torrid time in their history and were facing bankruptcy. The club was facing the very real prospect of slipping away from football's elite and it would've been easy for Xavi to leave to pursue football elsewhere, but he stayed. He stayed and became a lynchpin of the team.
Promoted to vice-captain in 2004, he guided Barcelona to the league, becoming the most used player in the side and winning the La Liga Spanish Player of the Year award on the way. The trophies continued to flow both at a club level and internationally before he was reunited with his predecessor of the Barça midfield.
We all know the story of Guardiola's return and the team he ensemble with Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi at it's heart. The team was passed battling to be the best in the world and was now staking a genuine claim for being the best team of all time. Xavi throughout this period was exemplary. His goalscoring proficiency increased and it began to seem that wrestling a tiger was an easier task then dispossessing Barça's number six.
He consecutively finished in the top three of the Ballon d'Or and added to his illustrious trophy cabinet with Champions League wins, Copa del Rey wins, League wins, two European Championships and a World Cup. Thus solidifying his place as one of the greatest midfielders ever.
"Xavi has been a key man in the run we have had in Spanish football. It's hard to find a player coming through who can replace him. He is irreplaceable." - Vicente del Bosque
Xavi has become the icon of Spanish football and represents a turning point in the national team's history. Before Xavi, Spain was seen as a joke within the international hemisphere. A sleeping giant that was cursed with coming close but never able to finish the job. Xavi, with others, changed that. He has an immense desire to win and equal devotion to the La Masia style of football.
"Some teams can't or don't pass the ball. What are you playing for? What's the point? That's not football. Combine, pass, play. That's football." - Xavi in an interview for The Guardian's Sid Lowe
It's hard to remember another player who showed complete devotion to a philosophy of football. An idealistic way of football that win, lose or draw, must be honoured. This devotion has shaped and defined the Barça generation. It has been the blueprint to Barça's success and Xavi was the champion of it.
While this style has evolved and Barça now embrace the more physical side of the game, the core values remain the same. Puyol may have gone, Valdés too but whilst Xavi was there, Barcelona had a leader who believed in a way of playing football. Next season will be a strange one as the team of Pep Guardiola disperses a little more but there will be no other, aside from Messi, that leaves such a presence behind.
Whilst it's true his contributions on the pitch have lessened this season, it is Xavi's leadership off the field that convinced Luis Enrique he still needed the player when the manager took over last summer. When he did make appearances on the pitch, any suggestions that the 35 year old was past it were quickly put to bed. It doesn't matter what age you are when you play like Xavi, make the ball do the running and it becomes a matter of intelligence over athleticism.
As he now embarks on a new career in Qatar, the futures of both the player and the club he leaves behind will be intriguing. Barça will be playing without Xavi for the first time in 17 years and right now, it's hard to imagine another player wearing the number six shirt. The player himself, meanwhile, embarks on an adventure that will surely lead him back to the Catalan club one day. Whether he comes back and plays a Guardiola-esqe role at the club remains to be seen but for now, it is time to look back and marvel at the wonder that is Xavi Hernández.
In my book he's the best Spanish player of all time. - Sergio Busquets
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