“If my daughter grows up to like football, then obviously we’re going to support her at home.” So said a smiling Xavi Hernandez, proud father to a newborn baby girl, as he took in some of the action at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016.
The Barcelona and Spain legend, who now plays for Qatari club Al Sadd and is also working with Aspire Academy, knows what it means to play in an U-17 World Cup. After all, 13 years before he went on to win the world title with Spain in South Africa, he represented Spain at the U-17 finals in Egypt, finishing third in a team that included, among others, Iker Casillas.
Visiting Jordan as an ambassador of the Generation Amazing project, which is being promoted by Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Xavi visited the Al Baqa refugee camp, where he took a coaching session and played a match with some of the camp’s youngsters. Breaking off from his busy schedule, he spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about the progress women’s football has been making in the last few years.
FIFA.com: Is the fact that a FIFA World Cup™ winner is here watching an U-17 Women’s World Cup match a sign that women’s football is growing?
Xavi Hernandez: I like all kinds of football and I’ll watch any game, including women’s football of course. I followed the Olympic Games closely and now I’ll watch the U-17 World Cup, obviously because Spain are in it but also to see just how good the players are. It’s a pleasure to be here supporting the women’s game.
One of the aims of this tournament is to encourage girls around the world and in Jordan in particular to play football and to encourage their parents to support them in doing so. What message would you give them? Would you support your daughter if she decided she wanted to play the game?
I think football is the best tool for bringing countries, cultures and religions together. I said to the girls that if football really is their passion, then their parents have to understand that. Why shouldn’t girls play football, if it’s their passion? They should be allowed to pursue it. There are some countries where girls don’t even have the chance to play football, which I think is a big mistake. Girls need to enjoy themselves as much as boys do and they have to have the same opportunities. That goes without saying. If my daughter grows up to like football, then obviously we’re going to support her at home.
It’s always hard to tell how young players are going to turn out, but what are the kind of skills that might point to a youngster having a brilliant future in the professional game? Did the Xavi that played at the U-17 World Cup, for example, have the same attributes as the Xavi that won the World Cup and two UEFA EURO titles with Spain?
I keep a close eye on talent. I watch people who can play a pass, control the ball so it runs nicely for them, who can come up with a bit of individual skill or dribble well. I like to see talent, and girls have got it too. I had it when I was 17, only not as much experience, obviously.
Up until a few years ago women’s football had very little influence in Spain. Things are changing, however, with all the national teams, from youth to senior level, now competing at the very highest level. As with the men, Spain’s women play the same style of football at all age levels. Is that one of the reasons behind the change?
Yes. Women’s football is enjoying a boom in Spain. It’s really growing. I think there are some really strong generations of players coming through. They’ve been working very hard for years and I think it’s good for the girls.
You learned your trade at Barcelona, but in many places around the world, including Jordan, youngsters learn to play the game in the street. Do you think you’d have been the same player you are now if you’d spent your early years just playing in the street?
It’s different. When you play in the street you can really work on tricks and things, and then hone your game in the football academies. I’ve had both. I grew up in the street and then I went to what I think is the best academy in the world at Barça. I think it’s very important to mix the two: street football and the academy.
It took Barcelona and Spain years to create their style of play. Qatar is now trying to introduce a similar philosophy. Can you see the Qatari national team doing well when it hosts the World Cup in 2022?
To my mind, I think Qatar are doing a very good job, not just at Aspire but at the clubs too. They’re bringing in good teachers and coaches, and foreign players to play in the Qatari league. They’ve got time on their side. We’ve got six years to go before the World Cup, but I think Qatar will be competitive.