By Grant Wahl
October 03, 2012

BARCELONA, Spain -- Xavi Hernández Creus -- or, as most of us call him, Xavi -- is a lot of things: the creative hub of Barcelona's otherworldly passing attack; a self-described "football romantic" who's convinced Barça is fighting for the soul of the sport; and, not least, a serial champion, the winner of one World Cup and two European crowns with Spain to go along with three Champions League and six Spanish league titles with Barcelona.

But the 32-year-old Xavi is something else, too, which I learned during a lengthy sit-down conversation at Barcelona's training headquarters in Sant Joan Despí. He's one of the top five athlete interviews I've had in 16 years at Sports Illustrated. Maybe it's because Xavi is at a stage in his career when his accomplishments give him the security to be candid and speak his mind. Or maybe he just has the gift, rare among elite athletes, to find the right words to describe his artistry and the world around him.

Whatever the case, I could have listened to Xavi for hours, and for that reason he's a central figure in my nearly 6,000-word story on Barcelona in this week's SI magazine. In the days leading up to Sunday's Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry game (1:50 p.m. ET, beIN Sport), there will also be companion stories about Barça on this week in the first installment of a new SI series, Inside the SuperClubs, that will take an in-depth look at the world's top soccer clubs.

So engaging was Xavi that plenty of his gems didn't make the magazine story -- and now end up here, so that you can enjoy hearing him as much as I did.


"There are two types of football," says Xavi, sitting on a couch just outside the Barcelona locker room. "There's physical football and football talent. Luis Aragonés, the [former] coach of the Spanish national team, when he had three or four talented players, he lined them all up. In contrast, there are managers who having four talented players will only start two, but they'll line up all four workers. The ones who are going to make a difference in the game are the talented ones."

It's a common theme in Xavi's discourse on the game and how it should be played, which is to say with artistry and cleverness and without a reliance on strength, size and brute force. He feels strongly about this, so much so that he waves his hands and arms as he speaks, chopping the air for effect. His eyes, which are large anyway -- "chameleon eyes," Ray Hudson calls them on TV -- somehow widen even more. It's mesmerizing.

"I've been here since I was 10 years old," says Xavi of FC Barcelona. "I've spent 20 years here, and always with the same idea: Play keep-away, keep possession, don't lose the ball, head up, look before you receive. Those are all concepts that are taught in Barcelona's academy. Then the aim [on the senior team] is to win, but not at any cost. It's winning through this philosophy, starting with respect. We're watched by the whole world. Everybody is following Barcelona. That's why we have to set an example. That's what [Johan] Cruyff also taught us, the idea of a youth system, coaches, so many people behind all of this.

"It's not a coincidence," he continues. "It's not, 'Oh look, what a surprise, they've won [14 out of 20] trophies.' There's an idea, a foundation of many years."

The philosophy of Barça's short-passing game may have come from the Dutchman Cruyff, but it's also a perfect fit for Catalonian culture, says Sam Lardner, a Dartmouth alum who played on Barcelona's ice hockey team and has lived in the city since 1997. A professional musician, Lardner has also worked as an interpreter for the Spanish national team (at the 1994 World Cup and 1996 Olympics) and on the board of Cruyff's foundation. "Catalans are clever at obtaining knowledge and putting that to use," Lardner says. "It's a wonderful Catalan characteristic: They had to solve problems with their heads, not their fists. The classic Catalan players are midfielders like Xavi and [Pep] Guardiola, always in the middle, always making use of the other personalities out there."

A couple years ago, a guy who knows a thing or two about passing, Steve Nash, visited a Barcelona practice with his friend Thierry Henry. Nash met Xavi and Carles Puyol, the team's Catalonian leaders, and he was blown away by what he saw that day. "They were unbelievably classy guys, and you got a sense of the chemistry," Nash said. "It was amazing to watch them train. First of all, their sessions are incredible. Most of training is a game played on a small-sided field, 10 a side, and all the guys are within 15 yards of each other. It's so compact, and they're still able to function in such tight corners. It's amazing to see them do it on TV but even more incredible to see it in training."

Speeding up the drills and cutting down the spaces becomes more important all the time. The ever-increasing challenge for Barça -- and Spain, for that matter -- is to deal with teams that pack all 11 men behind the ball, as Chelsea did in eliminating Barcelona in last year's Champions League semifinals. "There are a lot of teams that don't want to play, that only want to defend against Barcelona, and that makes it difficult," Xavi says. "We're always looking for the open space. A lot of times we'll face six defenders and four midfielders. So we try to move the ball quickly, from one end to the other, until a one-on-one player such as [Lionel] Messi, such as [Andrés] Iniesta, such as Pedro appears and takes on a defender so we can have numbers on our side. Sometimes we play with three in the back, or even two a lot of times, and everybody attacks."

With the departures of Cruyff (who rarely visits Barça anymore, on account of his differences with club president Sandro Rosell) and Guardiola (who's on a sabbatical year in New York City), the keeper of the Cruyff flame in Barcelona these days is Xavi more than anyone else, and it's likely to stay that way. "I think he will be a great coach someday," says teammate Gerard Piqué of Xavi, and Xavi himself doesn't hide his ambition to move into the Barça coaching ranks once his playing career is over.

"Yes," he says when I ask him about becoming a coach. "Cruyff told me: 'Once you're done as a player, you want to remain close to the field, and the closest is being a coach.' Of course, I thought, he's right, but right now I'm just focused on playing, and later we'll see. I would like to work for Barça. That's my dream. I've been passionate about Barça since I was a kid."

Indeed, this remarkable generation of Barcelona players may continue to have a major impact at the coaching level, Barça sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta tells me. "In this era of marketing, image and so many other things that take up space, we have a generation of players that like football, talk about football, and in a team that is very rich tactically," Zubizarreta says. "We've played with different systems, with a target man, without a target man. That creates a culture in the player. I think from our current group you could have several coaches due to that relationship they've had with the game. Everybody talks about Xavi because he played in a similar position as Guardiola, and because they both love football and are both Catalans, so Xavi can also be a coach. But you can also think the same thing about other players. I see [Javier] Mascherano and I think he has the profile of an excellent coach. I think we're going to see more than one or two. I have a feeling we'll see a bunch."

All of which brings up a classic nature-vs.-nurture question. How much of Barcelona's historic success in the past four years is due to its youth academy, La Masia? And how much is due to this staggeringly talented generation of players that has passed through it -- led by Messi, Iniesta and Xavi?

"Once this edition of Barcelona leaves us, I think that's probably when we'll all realize what a towering team this was," says Ray Hudson. "Because the trophy haul alone -- I remember telling someone I don't care if they don't win any trophies. That to me meant nothing. It was what they were putting forward, and yet they went on and plundered all the silverware! We're not just pretty boys. This is what our pretty football gets. And yet there are still legions of people who say they're not as good as people think, that they don't run with the greats, that Messi isn't the greatest player we've ever seen. And I think, 'These poor people.'

"I saw Ajax play when I was a kid and I appreciated it," Hudson continues. "And I saw the AC Milan with [Arrigo] Sacchi, the great Liverpool side, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, these phenomenal teams. But [Barcelona] is supernatural. I could talk until the moon turns to cheese about them, and I'd never stop. This is amoeba football. And it's an open secret: Everybody knows how they're going to play. This is part of the beguiling beauty. Everybody knows! They don't change! And nobody can figure it the f--- out! They cannot stop them!"

But here's the great thing about Xavi as a future Barça coach: He'd have a stake in proving that future generations can be as good as this one. "Barça will keep winning for sure," Xavi says, "because there's spectacular talent down in the youth system."

Yet Xavi is also acutely aware that he can measure the impact his teams are having by looking outward. Not everyone else is trying to pack in their defenses, after all. "I think Barcelona and the Spanish national team have been good for soccer," Xavi says, "because there are a lot of teams that come up playing from the back: with the goalie, the defense, moving up a defender to midfield, playing attacking soccer. I think fans want to see that. They want to see beautiful soccer, a spectacle, and Barcelona does that."

Yes, Xavi is a football romantic. Yes, he's a proud champion. And if you push him hard enough, he'll tell you what he hopes to achieve as this Barcelona team's legacy. "I'd like to be remembered," he says, "as a team that evolved the sport and that people enjoyed watching."

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