Xavi's Eastern Songline

As Xavi effectively retires to Qatar, those who held him up as a symbol are disappointed with the note upon which he's ending his career.
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Around 2008, I had what was at first a realization, but swiftly turned into a religious belief: the ball belonged to Xavi. It was the beginning of Barcelona’s Guardiola Era and Spain’s Golden Age, and the 5-foot-7 Catalan was the marshal of both operations. And the ball belonged to him. Entire matches would pass where he wouldn’t give it away to anyone but a teammate.

I decided Xavi and the ball were twinned, on a metaphysical level. Or at least that’s what my sectarian eyes told me. I made Xavi into a deity in my head, which is a dangerous thing to do. I was aware that, at times, people see what they want to see, according to their beliefs. So I’d watch other teams in an attempt to recalibrate my footballing mind, in search of the sort of truth Xavi provided me. The others—all of them—disappointed me, forfeiting the ball willessly. Then, I’d look back at Xavi, and he’d have it under his spell. Over time, I learned my eyes weren’t lying: Xavi could control the ball like no other.

Xavi hoisted his eighth and final La Liga trophy on Saturday, just two days after announcing that he’d be leaving Barcelona at the season’s end for a new expedition abroad in Qatar. The matchday scenes at Camp Nou were dreamlike: colossal honorary tifos, grateful teammates and co-workers, a wet-eyed Xavi overcome with joy. It was poignant and beautiful. Over the span of his 17-year professional career, Barca are the only club the 35-year-old Terrassa native has ever played for.

But it’s the nature of his new expedition that has many gravely bewildered. After many months of speculation, it turns out that Xavi’s “tentative” plans to move east have been realer than real. He’s agreed to a three-year deal with Qatari club Al Sadd. Furthermore, he’ll also serve as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar upon the end of his playing contract. It’s not the end anyone expected. His career path seemed stoneclad as any one-club mainstay: Run until your legs won’t allow you to anymore, then retire a legend. Like Carles Puyol. After all, you’ve only ever donned the Blaugrana, and even when you had the chance to leave—like when you nearly signed for Milan before your heroine mother got in the middle of it—your heart drew you back in.

That kind of person doesn’t leave, right? He doesn’t, unless the right offer comes along. Remember, that person is still very much a person.

***

I remember watching an English rap battle not too long ago in which one MC exclaimed to the crowd that his opponent “looks like a midfielder.” This was obviously a diss—it was a rap battle. He was saying his opponent lacked any surface intrigue. You’re ugly. The groupies don’t wait for you after the show. They only wait for goalscorers. And you’re not a goalscorer. You’re a background player. As much as I’d like to reject the assumption, it’s a widely held one. I probably hold it myself.

Yet I revere midfielders. I could even go as far as to say that I revere them exclusively. Centre-of-the-parkers like Xavi’s partners-in-crime Andres Iniesta (to whom Xavi’s career will always be married) and Sergio Busquets, Paul Scholes, Zinedine Zidane, and Andrea Pirlo. They’re who I tune in for and the main reason I naturally repel the Mesozoic route-one football championed by the game’s pragmatists. How can I endorse a philosophy that regularly bypasses the midfield? If I don’t get to watch the true ball-players do their work, my interest in watching significantly lessens. In this way, Pep Guardiola was a godsend for my own draw to the sport. All of a sudden, by dint of the Catalan’s vision and the talent at his disposal, elite football shifted from long and drudging to short and quick, from strength and athleticism to technicality and thoughtfulness. And Xavi was the most technical and thoughtful of the lot. Behind his lead, what once was a chariot track became a chess board.

With Xavi in the pit, Barca won everything. Three Champions Leagues, eight La Ligas, two Copa del Reys, two European Super Cups, six Spanish Supercopas, and two Club World Cups. That’s 23 club trophies, a number that could grow by two if Barca win both of the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals they have in the coming weeks (which would also mark Xavi’s second European and domestic treble with Barcelona). In 2013, Xavi surpassed Paco Gente as Spanish football’s most decorated club footballer of all-time.

With the Spanish national side, Xavi was equally vital. As a youth player, he won the FIFA World Youth Championships in 1999, although it was his later years where he’d elevate. A European Championship in 2008, followed by a World Cup in 2010 and another Euro title in 2012 was an unprecedented run of dominance that international soccer might never see again. You could argue that Luis Aragones’ decision to build that Euro 2008 Spain team around Xavi was the ultimate turning point of the diminutive maestro’s career. Capturing both the trophy and the Player of the Tournament award, it was that summer in Austria-Switzerland when the Era of Xavi really began. Upon Aragones’ death last year, Xavi published a letter in Spanish paper El Pais in which he described his mentor as “football in human form.”

Xavi’s La Roja avatar transfigured in the Euro 2012 Final against Italy. Opposite Pirlo (possibly his greatest and most like-minded contemporary), Xavi had what felt—and still feels—like a limitless experience on a football pitch. From the referee’s first whistle, the Italians could only watch him play. Though they had hung tough with Spain in the group stage, it wasn’t up to them anymore. Even when they did win the ball, within seconds it was back at Xavi’s feet. He’s never been traditionally speedy, yet nobody could touch him. His perfectly weighted through ball into Jordi Alba’s stride to make it 2-0 put the nail into the Azzurri’s coffin; another assist to Fernando Torres initialed the coffin with “XH8.” Amidst that wonderful Italian team, there wasn’t a soul that wouldn’t have sold itself for a mere sniff of Xavi’s precious. It was rightly his last international trophy; as if he finally came face-to-face with God in Kiev that day, who must’ve told him, “Well, this is kinda the top of the mountain. Sorry, Xavier.” Xavi retired from international play last year.

Based on his playing history and style, it should come as little surprise that Xavi is a self-described romantic. In this candid interview he did with GQ, he scoffs at ex-Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho's manner of winning, whilst repeatedly insisting that Barca have become the world’s “reference in football.” He’s not wrong, either. Around that time—and mostly ever since—Barcelona flew the flag for how football should look. It’s an ostentatious and cliched claim, but one that anybody who ever saw them in full bloom understood. They championed an unflinching, at times suicidal, commitment to diffusing the ball from keeper, through midfield, to the forwards, venturing through the many peaks and valleys of brazen creativity en route to goal. They passed and passed and passed until they were ready to spare the other team total embarrassment, then they’d score. It was idealism that enthralled and unnerved, and perhaps most importantly to their legacy and to Xavi’s, it worked. In that piece, Xavi also revealed that if he weren’t a footballer, he’d want to pick mushrooms for a living. Romance.

Xavi wasn't the soundtrack to a footballing generation. He was the metronome to which the soundtrack was figured upon. Barcelona, Spain, and all of the ensuing reactive narratives: none of it happens without him. Now that he is, for all intents and purposes, done for good, I can't believe that I'll ever shake him from my soccer-watching consciousness. Every time I see or hear a football being passed, a part of my brain will recall that mundane haircut, those periscopic eyes, and that undying ability. In that way, I'll never forget him.

***

Xavi is enamored with his own ideas about football, but he also loves money and power, as most people do. He is set to earn €10 million per year over the next three years at Al Sadd. Although he is one his generation's most beloved talents, Xavi’s legacy is now burdened by the treacherousness of this move to a well-documented slave state. Nevermind for a moment the questionable means by which Qatar may or may not have won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The wickedness of that caper is massively dwarfed by the human rights clusterfuck that keeps the nation ticking.

A 2013 investigation from The Guardian uncovered horrific truths about the ongoing labor practices in the emirate. Starvation, abusive treatment, desert heat, and poor working conditions led to Nepalese migrant workers dying on an average of one-per-day during the summer of 2013. (The Washington Post just released a chart illustrating the sheer vastness of the death toll.) Nepal, from where 40 percent of Qatar’s workforce—a workforce comprised of 90 percent immigrants—originates, is the 19th-poorest nation in the world according to Global Finance. Qatar is currently the richest.

Director of Anti-Slavery International Aidan McQuade says, “The evidence uncovered by The Guardian is clear proof of the use of systematic forced labor in Qatar.”

“In fact, these working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labor to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labor. It is already happening.”

And FIFA’s worried about whether or not Marquinhos is going to be too hot.

***

Despite all this ugliness, Xavi has committed to Qatar’s “cause” as an ambassador. Maybe he doesn’t realize what he’s doing? With some chagrin, I hope that’s the case. I’d be delighted if Xavi returned to Barcelona in January citing “creative differences” with the heads of Al Sadd. Regardless of what that would mean, I could always use it as my own personal justification for his unknown justification for this immoral move. Basically, I hope the most educated footballer I’ve ever seen is making an ignorant decision.

But as a glutton of all things Barca, I’ve already signed off on the same benefits that Xavi is signing on to. It started with the Qatar Airways sponsorship supplanting the oft-lauded UNICEF shirt logo. It’s expanded to the Qatar Foundation imprint being plastered over every inch of the stadium cules impiously refer to as a “cathedral.” There’s bags of money—the soiled-in-red kind—behind those curtains. Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu did voice his concern over the business relationship in January, specifying problematic “social issues,” but as of yet nothing has changed. And if it never did, would I budge? Probably not. Though my eyes might not be colored in green, their Blaugrana tint is just as strong. It’s all a farce, and many of us are complicit in it. It’s worse than turning a blind eye to the backwards cashflow of the NCAA. It’s worse than paying $100 for a Floyd Mayweather fight on pay-per-view. It’s worse than pretty much everything except going to Qatar and taking up an ambassadorial role.

Over the years, I’ve always imagined this eulogy as nothing but a soaring tribute. Whenever I’ve looked ahead to the dreadful day that my favorite footballer moves on from his legendary post, it’s been rouged end-to-end in positives. I’ve nostalgically and somberly thought of writing with no restraint, enthusing over Xavi’s every last tiki-taka touch, glorifying his resume of excellence. I’ve never imagined it being how it’s actually turning out: thankful, but disappointed, too.

This is the problem with worshipping celebrities. We don’t know them and never will. Although you or I may feel a strong personal connection to a man like Xavi, the reality is that that personal relationship doesn’t exist. It’s not as if I’ve fallen for the grounded, responsible gentleman that is Xavier Hernandez, accepting him into my home, offering him a cup of chamomile just for being a swell guy. Seeing him that way intensifies my adoration, but those qualities, nevermind whether they actually exist, have always been secondary.

I fell for the precise passer, the orchestral conductor, the steadfast leader. I fell for his footballing persona, not his real one. And it’s probably a good thing I did. Because his on-pitch incandescence has made it tolerable for me to live with such an awful off-pitch decision. Xavi’s the only footballer I’ve ever really idolized. This explicit revelation of his humanity makes me hope he’s also the last.


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