In the season he suffered his first and only major injury, a 25-year-old version of Xavi Hernández wasn't handed back his place in Barcelona's team when he got healthy. He was an unused substitute in the 2006 Champions League final, seemingly not a great fit for a truly elite team in the modern game. Three years later, he was universally recognized as the best midfielder in the world and the heartbeat of arguably the greatest team in the history of club soccer.
On Saturday, he'll play his final game at Camp Nou. There are a lot of legends departing clubs after a decade-plus of service this summer, but he's the biggest of them all. He's leaving because he can't be a superstar for Barcelona anymore -- time is evil and started dismantling Xavi's body a few years ago while his biggest fans put their fingers in their ears, screaming "HE'LL NEVER GET OLD LALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" at anyone who brought this up. Obviously, they were wrong. Now, there's an idea floating around that Xavi's tiki-taka style has become obsolete. That's not true either. He's a legend who's too beat up to be the best version of himself, but who could still dominate if he had fresh legs.
Lionel Messi is the best player to ever play the sport and Xavi is currently on Barcelona's bench, so it might be difficult to recall a time when a very large contingent of the world's soccer fans thought that Xavi was the true key to his team's success, and that Messi would just be a great, but not transcendent player without him. This is complete nonsense, but Xavi was so incredible and so revered that this was both a widely defended and entirely defensible position for nearly five years.
Then Xavi slowed down a little bit and Messi scored 73 goals in a season, a feat so absurd that we can reasonably conclude that he'd be the best player on earth even if he was surrounded by 10 Magikarps. At the same time, teams stopped trying to find the English Xavi or Russian Xavi. Instead, they started trying to find ways to make him irrelevant like his idol, Pep Guardiola, who walked off into the sunset as a perfectly healthy 30-year-old.
Guardiola was a playmaker most comfortable as the deepest-sitting player in a three-man midfield, a position that was increasingly being reserved for more physical, defensive players. Xavi took up that place immediately after Pep's retirement, but his role was changed by Frank Rijkaard. While he was manager, Rijkaard regularly played two of Rafa Marquez, Edmilson, Mark van Bommel and Thiago Motta -- all defensive midfielders -- in the center for a team known the world over for their free-flowing play and pretty passing. The world of football changed drastically in the years following Pep's departure, and Barcelona changed along with it.
Like Pep at the end of his playing career, Xavi is useful and the club would have happily given him a new contract, but he's no longer an automatic first-choice selection. Once the best player on the planet in his position, Xavi is now just an excellent bench option and backup. He's become what his critics thought he was in 2006, except this time it's for real, and Barca are currently starting a slightly different kind of player in his spot.
But this is where the similarities between Xavi and Guardiola end, because the reasons that they stopped being stars for Barca are much different. The game moved away from players like Pep, but Xavi was always successful in spite of the fact that the sport isn't accommodating to players like him.
He has always been small and slow, but capable of masking all of his weaknesses. That is, until 2013, when his age started to catch up with him:
So. That time Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez blew Xavi to smithereens.
Xavi's career will be defined by the big matches where he starred, but they stick out less than the 2013 Champions League semifinal against Bayern for three reasons:
1. Xavi has too many downright spectacular performances to count. He was the best player on the pitch in the Euro 2008 final and the 2009 Champions League final. In the 2010 World Cup semifinal against Germany, he probably turned in the best game a deep-lying playmaker has ever played. He was impeccable in the 2011 Champions League final. He was the best player on the pitch in multiple Clásico wins. He does not have a defining game; he is too good to have a defining game.
2. The way Xavi screws up is usually so minor. He has bad games because he's (theoretically) human, but he's had so few downright awful performances. His bad games are usually about making too many sideways passes, or one awful turnover, or failing to track one runner. He never gets completely and utterly outclassed.
This game was different. For 180 minutes, a couple of gigantic superathlete midfielders ran over Barcelona and Xavi was powerless.
3. It marked a turning point for the Blaugrana, who had to start looking for ways to cover up Xavi's growing deficiencies. In his younger days, Xavi made up for his lack of size and athleticism not only with his unmatched ability to avoid turning the ball over, but with his energy to win the ball back when one of his more human teammates lost it. He used to cover tons of ground, tenaciously closing down anyone and everyone. Even if he didn't have the ability to muscle his opponent off the ball, he fought hard enough to slow them down for half a second, which was just good enough to allow his teammates to get back into position defensively. By the spring of 2013, he didn't have the same energy anymore. He still had the touch and positional sense, but he was no longer suited to chasing players down for 90 minutes.
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Since then, Barcelona have undergone two managerial changes and signed Ivan Rakitić, who runs a lot and has quickly established himself as one of the world's top midfielders. The Bayern thrashing was a sad time for Cules, but it was also the wake-up call they needed. It doesn't matter that Xavi is the greatest midfielder the world has ever seen -- he got old, then young guys beat the hell out of him. He cannot get un-old.
And not only is Xavi 35, but he's got a ton of miles on his body. It only seems like Steven Gerrard has been around longer than Xavi because he got to a place in his career where he was considered the best midfielder in the world at a younger age, and a few years before Xavi did. In reality, Xavi's played much more while breaking down much less dramatically. Gerrard has 706 Liverpool appearances under his belt and 820 total competitive pro games, including international caps. Xavi has 764 appearances for Barcelona's top squad and 958 competitive pro matches. There are only a tiny handful of guys who have played more matches than Xavi in this era -- the likes of Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard and Paolo Maldini.
Despite that, Xavi is still a fantastic fourth midfielder and two-position substitute for the best team in the world. He played 41 times this season and would play plenty next season if he stuck around -- just because he can't be the do-everything, midfield-dominating eighth wonder of the world doesn't mean he's not still a very useful role player. He doesn't have to go to Qatar, but when you're old and you've won everything there is to win, why not go play easier games and make a boatload of money?
It's not like the game has left players like Xavi behind. Paul Pogba is the best young central midfielder on earth and is quickly turning into a world-class monster of a footballer, but players like him are not necessarily the future. His athleticism is not what makes him; it is a compliment to his technical ability and intelligence. The world is not on its way toward being devoid of Xavis and filled with Pogbas. There are only so many spectacular athletes with the required skill, intelligence and tenacity to be top players, just as there are only so many tiny players with the same qualities. If Xavi was 18 years old today, he would still be the top prospect in La Masia, and he would still go on to have an amazing, trophy-filled career.
Xavi is not like Guardiola. The game made Guardiola obsolete; age has made Xavi a bit worse. There's no shame in that -- time is undefeated. But even if we have to acknowledge its unprecedented power, screw time. Nobody likes it, and I'll be damned if I've ever seen it pick out a perfect 60-yard through ball: