Xavi: The hunger is still there

Xavi Hernandez has long since cemented his place among the greatest footballers of all time. He has won that status by lifting every team trophy going and securing a number of FIFA Ballon d’Or nominations, accolades based on his metronomic ability to dictate the pace of play and his many other technical gifts, which have also earned him the lasting admiration of the fans.

Figuring large in the global elite once again, thanks to his place in the 2012 FIFA/FIFPro World XI, the cultured Barcelona and Spain linchpin granted an interview to FIFA.com, in which he showed he is every bit as astute and perceptive away from his midfield beat as he is when he is patrolling it.

FIFA.com: Xavi, how do you feel about taking part in the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala again?
Xavi Hernandez: I’m delighted to be in Zurich after another amazing year with Barcelona and the national team, the highlight of which was winning the European Championships. Though I’m not among the three candidates this time, I’m every bit as happy to be here.

You have also been named in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI by your fellow footballers.
It’s a tremendous honour. There are a lot of people in football, and I feel very proud that my professional colleagues from around the world have selected me as one of the best eleven players.

Spain retained their European title in 2012, having won the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in between. How do you explain that run of success?
We’ve got a very good team. There’s a huge amount of talent and a lot of desire too. When you start making a habit of winning, it’s very important that you put a little pressure on yourself and take some responsibility for the next challenge ahead. We’ve had a little bit of luck too, in the penalties against Portugal, for example. But then we went and played a great final against Italy and set the seal on all the hard work this generation has put in, a generation that is as good as it gets as far as I’m concerned.

You mentioned luck there. Do you think it’s that important in football?
Yes, it is. And there have been times when it’s been on our side. It’s what they call the luck of the champions. When it’s come to the crunch things have always gone our way: against Paraguay in the World Cup, Italy at EURO 2008, Portugal a few months ago and against Croatia in the same tournament too. We’ve had luck. Of course we have. But we’ve also got a competitive streak, and that’s helped us make the most of it.

How have you managed to prevent the club rivalry between the Real Madrid and Barcelona players from becoming a factor in the national side?
By putting it to one side. When we get together we all know that we want the same objective. I’m big friends with Iker Casillas, and they even gave the two of us an award (The Prince of Asturias Award for Sport). You can see that friendship when we play together.  As well as putting our rivalry to one side in the national team, we also forget about our friendship when we’re playing for our respective clubs, though we never lose our cool or our respect for each other.

I like to read the papers. I make my living from football and I like to know what’s going on.
Xavi, Barcelona midfielder.

It’s hard to escape that rivalry in Spain these days. Do you think it’s become even more intense lately?
It’s always been that way. I’ve spent my whole life at Barcelona and it’s a football war. Some people use it to sell things but it’s good for football, the league and the national team. To be honest it makes you proud that we’ve got such big teams here.  

The Spanish football press is closely linked to the two clubs. Do you read what it has to say?
I like to read the papers. I make my living from football and I like to know what’s going on. Obviously there are a lot of different opinions out there, but we live in a democracy and you have to respect every point of view, whether you agree with it or not.

Moving on to Barcelona, why did the team’s performance dip last season?
Well, we’ve just been talking about how things either go your way or they don’t, and in that case they didn’t, especially in the games against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and then the Camp Nou, where we had the tie in the bag, with them down to ten men, only to let it slip. The same happened in the league. This year we’ve been turning those kinds of things our way, making every game count. My feeling is we were just a bit below our usual standard last season and we ended up paying for it.

Pep Guardiola left the club at the end of the season, marking the end of an era. Do you feel that weighed you down?
I don’t see it that way because we have a very competitive team. Watch us train and you realise how much we want to win, even in the practice matches. The hunger is still there. We’ve got practically the same squad this season and the results have been just about perfect.

Do you feel you owe something to the fans?
No, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. We’ve already won a lot. We want to make Barcelona supporters happy and we get a kick out of that, as much as the fans do. I don’t feel we’re in debt to them because of one bad season. All it does is make us even more determined to start winning things again.

What is the difference between Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona and Pep Guardiola’s?
They’re very similar. We’ve had a bit more fortune this year but we’ve been working more or less the same way, which is what you’d expect. Tito was Pep’s assistant coach and they worked a lot together. They’re different characters but the training sessions are pretty much the same, the system is the same and our desire undiminished. It’s been a case of continuity, in every sense of the word.

The team has got back to its very best in recent months, though it did take you a little while to click into top gear at the start of the season.
My feeling at the start of the season was that we weren’t quite there in terms of fitness, and we found it hard, especially with teams knowing us so well. It was just a question of picking up the pace again and sticking to our style. In the last two or three months the team has got back into the groove we’ve been in over the last few years.

How does it feel having such a big lead over Real Madrid?
On a personal level I feel happy and satisfied. It’s a very long race and there are still a lot of games to go, but we’ve got a massive cushion and we’re moving closer to the league title, no doubt about it.

Turning to the UEFA Champions League now, what’s your view on your upcoming opponents Milan?
They’re a tough side. They keep it tight at the back and they’ve always made life very hard for us defensively. The San Siro is not an easy place to go to either because the fans are very passionate. And if you look back through history you’ll see that they’ve won more European Cups than us. They might not be at their best right now but they always have players who can make life hard for you.

One last question. Could this be another historic year for Barcelona?
The team is very competitive and we want to do well in every competition. We’d like to win the lot but we have to watch our step. The talent is there for sure, but we need luck to be on our side too.