There is a select group of athletes in every sport who, at their peak, make the game look effortless, entirely graceful and ultimately easy. In tennis there have been the likes of Steffi Graf and Roger Federer, gymnastics has seen Nadia Comaneci, Michael Jordan has done it in basketball, Tiger Woods in golf and in football one of those players is Xavi Hernandez.
Stringing together a seeming endless array of passes with ease, Xavi became the essence of Spain’s attacking brand of football and completed an astonishing pass completion rate of almost 90 per cent in the winning run to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ Winners’ Trophy in South Africa.
In an exclusive interview with www.sc.qa, the Al Sadd midfielder talks about his earliest memories of the FIFA World Cup, Diego Maradona, Spain’s memorable triumph in South Africa and the passion for football in the Arabic world.
What was your first ever memory of watching a World Cup?
I can remember, though I don’t know if the memories are from the actual time or later on, the mascot from the 1982 World Cup in Spain; Naranjito. Then I remember Diego Maradona, in the 1986 World Cup, I was six years old by that point, with the famous Hand of God. I remember that incredible goal he scored against England, which went down in history, the success of the Argentina national team and Maradona’s impact.
I’ve never seen a World Cup match in person. Not until I played in one. But I’ve watched the vast majority of them on TV, even the World Cup in the United States, which was shown at three or four in the morning in Spain. All of us would get up, my family, my brothers and sister, to watch the games. I followed every World Cup, all of them. Football is my life, my passion, and I love watching it.
The World Cup in South Africa was the first on the African continent and the first Spain won. You were an influential member of that team. How did you help your country to that historic success?
We didn’t start the World Cup well. We lost to Switzerland, which made us hesitate a little. We were nervous and more tense than usual. The team stuck to its guns, though, even if we didn't play well until maybe the Portugal game. We played well against Portugal in the last 16, and that’s when we started seeing Spain perform.
We really had to fight against Paraguay in the quarter-final, but then we played a great game in the semis and we played well against the Netherlands in the Final too. To some extent we built on the success we’d had in the European Championships. We had a winning mentality. We believed we could beat anyone and we felt important out on the pitch. I think we had a great World Cup, even if we didn’t start too well.
Now the first World Cup in the Middle East is just seven years away. You have had the chance to see the plans and progress that Qatar is making towards that tournament. How do you see the development here?
I’m excited about it all. About being involved in this project, about coming here with my family to work, because it’s a genuinely marvelous project for this country, for Qatar. I think it has the infrastructure to host a historic World Cup. Today we’ve been shown the future stadiums and they’re going to be wonderful.
Everything’s going to be very close together. That’s spectacular for the fans, because they’re going to be able to see a match and then, a couple of hours later, see another ten minutes away. That’s fantastic, that’s truly fantastic, being able to say “look, one game’s finished, another’s now starting”. Even more so when the best teams on the planet are involved. For players too it’s going to be interesting not having to travel, being able to stay in the same hotel throughout. There really are some very good advantages.
Having gone all the way to the title in the first edition on the African continent, do you think every region of the world should get a chance to host this event?
This is the first Arab country that’s going to host a World Cup. I think that football is universal, is global, and an Arab country has earned the right to host a World Cup. The passion felt for football here is incredible. People follow the Spanish league really closely, but they watch everything, everything. They’re football followers, they’re fanatical about it and they truly deserve to host it.
Qatar are off to a good start in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. How do you see the team and their chances for qualification?
Yes, I think that they can qualify, though it won’t be easy because in Asia there are major nations, big teams, but they should get through the group they’re in now. Let’s see what happens in the other group, who they’re drawn with next, but I think Qatar have the talent to be able to reach Russia.
It’s one of their goals and, somehow, I’m going to help them in every way I can to achieve that experience, that objective. Let’s see with those games coming up, how they approach them, but I think they’ve got a chance.
And finally, with that outstanding football mind which you possess, it must be a logical step that you would also become a coach…
I like the pitch, being close to the football, what happens in the game itself. I'm going to learn the trade – I've already started my education here at the Aspire Academy. I'm following Spanish football from over here while I'm still playing, and I'm really enjoying myself. After that, I don't know what the future will hold for me, but of course I'd love to return to Barça one day. That's my aim and the closer it is to the pitch, the better.