Undoubtedly one of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, Xavi consistently combines intelligence, technique and composure to great effect for both Spain and Barcelona. Having first burst onto the global scene during La Roja’s victory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Nigeria 1999, Xavi was an integral part of Spanish triumphs at both UEFA EURO 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
FIFA.com brings you the second part of our exclusive interview with the Azulgrana playmaker, who touches on his club’s upcoming challenges, the goals which drive him on a daily basis and his role both at the Catalan giants and with La Selección.
FIFA.com: Xavi, as someone who’s won everything for club and country, how do you stay motivated?
Xavi: You get used to winning and you want more. That’s not a problem, it’s a virtue. For example, we were so frustrated after Spain’s defeat in the Confederations Cup (in 2009). Once you’ve savoured the taste of victory you never get tired of it: winning is addictive. I think that we (Barcelona) are on the right track now. Morale in the camp is good, we’ve got a calm atmosphere to work in. We’ve got everything we need to keep winning titles.
Is there any particular objective that really fires your imagination?
There are lots, such as overtaking whoever’s won La Liga the most, or won the most trophies with the club, and beating the four consecutive La Liga titles won by the Dream Team.
You always say that Barça aim to win every competition they’re involved in, but can they really win La Liga, La Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League this season?
We’re aiming for them all. Don't forget, we are the only team ever to win all six competitions in a calendar year. Inter [Milan] can no longer match that. That shows how difficult that achievement is. It can be matched but not beaten and is an extraordinary feat.
What’s your verdict on the current form of your ex-Barcelona team-mates Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
I’m really pleased for them. Samu is a close friend of mine and I wish him all the best. He defined an era at Barça. He’s one of the highest-scoring strikers in the club’s history and, what’s more, he was very popular in the dressing room. As far as Ibra is concerned, you’ll have to ask the gaffer. We (the players) didn’t have any problems with him. He said that he was handicapped by not being able to speak to the coach, but that wasn’t something we were aware of.
In any case, Barcelona have signed quite a replacement in David Villa…
David is a great signing. Ibra was too, he offered us something different. Villa brings other things to the team: he can make runs from deep, play on the flank, as a No9, on the right, on the left, shoot from anywhere, take penalties and score from free-kicks. He’s got goals on the brain! Ibrahimovic was more static due to his physique; he weighed nearly 100kg and is nearly two metres tall. He gave us more of a target to aim at but wasn’t as dynamic. When we were up against opponents who defended very deep, he’d give us an outlet up front and that was really useful. He was a different type of player to the ones we have now: neither better nor worse, just different.
What’s your verdict on Real Madrid’s season so far?
Madrid don’t seem to be in great form, but they keep getting results, they keep battling away. They’ve got nine points in the Champions League, they’re a point clear of us in La Liga. Even though they don’t play with the same footballing philosophy as us, they win games and will keep fighting right to the death. They’re obliged to do so.
Do you think that the departure of idols such as Guti and Raul could harm their chances?
I don’t think so. They’ve already got a ‘historic core’ to the team made up of [Iker] Casillas, [Alvaro] Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso. As people they’re quite different. Cristiano [Ronaldo], whatever is said about him, is a winner, as is [Gonzalo] Higuain, while the new signings will want to prove that they’re good for Madrid. What’s more, they’ve got a coach who’s competitive, a pure winner.
Turning back to Barça, do you feel like one of the club’s standard bearers?
As far as Barça’s play is concerned, there was a time when the players who made the difference were perhaps the ones signed from outside the club, but under Pep Guardiola things have changed. We’re fortunate enough to have home-grown players who can decide the course of games, such as Leo Messi, who we mustn’t forget came through the Barça youth academy, just like [Andres] Iniesta, [Carles] Puyol, [Gerard] Pique, Victor Valdes and I did. We make up a sizeable core of home-grown players and that’s priceless.
That’s what Johan Cruyff used to call a ‘historic core’ of players…
Exactly, we’re men who’ve been steeped in Barcelonismo since we were kids, we know the club’s philosophy and its environment. Pep has also given us a level of involvement and trust that makes us feel important. Now the people who join from elsewhere have to become part of that core, they have to fit in. That doesn’t mean that those players aren’t important, the quality of the likes of [Daniel] Alves, Villa, Adriano or [Javier] Mascherano, to name but a few, is testament to that.
Is Barcelona’s footballing philosophy really so different?
I sincerely believe that we must not lose our footballing ideals. Ever since Cruyff arrived and set out our playing style, it has been what makes us different and special. Barça are known for their Azulgrana shirt and, above all, their style of play. The fans wouldn’t understand if we played any other way. They want us to win and put on a show, they wouldn’t stand for anything else. That puts pressure on you because everything has to be excellent: each touch, each pass, and each dribble. Sometimes it makes life more difficult, but it’s our hallmark.
You often say that you have to treat the ball right. What do you mean by that?
It’s just one of the ways I use to express my respect for the game. Controlling the ball, keeping possession and the way we position ourselves to enable us to move the ball quickly around the pitch by playing it to feet are all crucial to our style. Our game is both simple and complicated at the same time. I remember Mark van Bommel used to say to me that the ball moved too fast over here. He was used to receiving the ball and then deciding what to do with it, but at Barça you need to receive it and play the ball first-time whenever possible.
Who was the biggest influence on you tactically speaking?
Frank Rijkaard was the one who really won me over. Radomir Antic had already pushed me slightly further forward, positionally speaking, and even Charly Rexach had tried me in that linking role in the odd game. When Rijkaard told me I was going to play there I thought I might struggle, but the truth is it’s my natural position.
How would you describe the Dutch supremo?
He was perhaps too nice a person for the coaching profession, but he’s a great coach. He had a strong character and didn’t mind showing it, but he went too far in terms of trying to understand people. Sometimes he would have been better drawing a line between him and the players and, in the end, that caught up with him. In terms of football and tactics he was very well-prepared and he taught me a lot.
Do you feel like you now have more of a leading role than in the past?
To tell you the truth, I’ve always been at the heart of things in the squad, be it with Barça or the national team. That’s the way I am, the way I play. I’ve started a lot of matches and I know my role to perfection, although I admit that perhaps in media terms I wasn’t as high-profile as I have been recently.
It must be great having Messi and Alves playing to the right of you?
It’s a real pleasure, I really enjoy myself. Messi is the best of the best. And Alves too, you turn around and suddenly he’s upfield, then he’s covering back, playing one-twos – he never stops! It’s like he's on a motorbike. Playing alongside him is a real luxury.
Does the same thing happen when you link up with Cesc Fabregas for La Selección?
I’m always saying this: Cesc has Barça in his genes, he’s grown up with our philosophy at La Masia (the club’s training facilities). It used to make me laugh when people said we couldn’t play together for the national team. It’s quite the opposite, we could combine together with our eyes closed. He’s a fantastic player and has proved that at Arsenal and with Spain.