XAVI HERNANDEZ, the world’s finest midfielder, remembers the advice he received when, aged 10, he made a first tentative journey to La Masia, the 18th century farmhouse in the shadow of the Camp Nou where FC Barcelona school their kids.
“My coach said, ‘Watch how Pep Guardiola plays. He is perfect in his position — your position’. And he was right. If Pep was still playing he’d be in the side ahead of any of us.”
Xavi’s progress meant he eventually played alongside Guardiola, now the first La Masia graduate to coach the first team.
“For three years I played with Pep in the first team and I kept on learning,” he recalls. “In the game and after the game. He’s an obsessive — like me. We still talk about teams, players and tactics every day.”
Xavi, 31, is a former star pupil of Barça’s hugely successful youth system, which takes boys as young as seven and turns them into world-class footballers. Seven of them are expected to start against Manchester United in the Champions league final at Wembley on Saturday night.
“FC Barcelona is a school and I’ve been privileged to be a student,” Xavi explains. “It doesn’t just educate you to be a good footballer, but a good person too.”
Xavi was already at Barca when the Catalans won their first European Cup at Wembley in 1992.
“My parents would not let me go because I was too young,” he recalls. “My brother was allowed to go but not me. So you can see why it’s important for me to go this time.”
Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ of Laudrup, Stoichkov and Guardiola triumphed against Sampdoria ensuring the word ‘Wembley’ would be enshrined in Barça legend and the goalposts from the old stadium still have pride of place in the club’s museum.
Xavi credits Cruyff with setting the template for today’s success.
“Cruyff’s influence remains very important to this club,” he says. “He changed the idiosyncrasy of the club. His introduced the philosophy to keep the ball, to play in triangles, to attack. That philosophy remains true to this day. We’re all students of Cruyff and his school of thought.”
Barca now face Alex Ferguson’s United in a repeat of the 2009 final and they’re a team Xavi holds in the greatest regard.
“For me Manchester is the reference point — not just now but over many years,” he says. “
“Ferguson and Scholes and Giggs are references for everyone in football. They have been at the top for many years playing at an extraordinary level. They have won leagues year after year and they keep reaching Champions League finals and semi-finals. They have a spectacular level and everyone in Europe looks to them. They key is that they don’t just have talent but they work very hard for each other.”
The team ethos has always been paramount at Barca against the perceived individualism at Madrid and it’s another reason Xavi rates the English champions. “There is solidarity about them, they are working for each other and I suppose that comes from Ferguson. He is the reason they are what they are.”
Xavi’s respect borders on reverence and he smiles when he’s asked to name the Manchester United players who would get into Barça’s first XI.
“Rooney, Chicharito, Evra, Ferdinand,” he said to much surprise. “All I’m saying is that they would be good enough to play in any team in the world. If you are good enough for Manchester United then you are good enough for any team.”
One may wonder if Xavi is flattering to deceive. Alongside his imperious sidekick Andres Iniesta, he was a major reason why Barca dominated against United in the Rome final. “Iniesta and I have a similar mentality and we’re good friends, so that works. We’re slightly different too. He’s a little more creative and he can dribble. That’s hard for me to do.”
Nor is he fazed by pressure.
“The players in front of me always know that I love the responsibility,” he said. “I like pressure — give me more, more, more, more.’’
He remained at home in 1992 and his journey to Wembley has been a long one, but such a sublime talent deserves to be on the grandest stage.
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