Xavi Hernandez: One of Spain’s finest grooming Arab thoroughbreds

Xavi Hernandez has been in Qatar since 2015, the year he ended his 17-year-long association with Barcelona. He signed a lucrative deal with Al Sadd in the Qatar Stars League and lent a helping hand to the Qatar football team, which bagged its maiden AFC Asian Cup title in January this year.

Former Spanish football star Xavi Hernández during a football game with Indian children, in Mumbai on March 18. Hernández is the first global ambassador for the Generation Amazing programme of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy — the organisation responsible for delivering the infrastructure required for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.   -  AFP

It’s a sultry afternoon in Mumbai and a bunch of kids are kicking a football around at a corporation school in Colaba. Amidst them is one player, wearing a white bib, who shows distinctive skills and sublime ball control, and he’s not all that taller than they are. Though he displays a childlike glee, there’s something different about him. And when you get to the touchline, it all becomes clear: that tiny maestro is among the finest talents to grace a football pitch — Xavi Hernandez.

Despite the sun bearing down, the Spaniard has hardly broken into a sweat. I casually ask him, “It’s quite sunny here, eh?” He smirks and says, “It’s hotter in Doha. I’m used to it now.” The thick layer of vermillion on his forehead, somehow, refuses to melt despite the weather that has us scribes clutching our kerchiefs to wipe away beads of sweat.

Xavi has been in Qatar since 2015, the year he ended his 17-year-long association with Barcelona. Born in Terrassa, Catalonia’s third largest city, he joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at the age of 11. He would emerge as one of the greatest talents to be produced at the academy and go on to clinch four UEFA Champions League titles and eight La Liga trophies.

His move to Qatar was a well laid out one and saw him become the ambassador for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first one on Arab soil. He signed a lucrative deal with Al Sadd in the Qatar Stars League and lent a helping hand to Qatar football. And his efforts bore fruit when Qatar bagged its maiden AFC Asian Cup title in January this year, serving as a terrific boost going into the Copa America and, of course, the World Cup.

“I know them, I know them very well,” he says, fondly speaking about the players. “You saw how they played and won the Asian Cup. They deserved the title and now have time to prepare for the World Cup and also have the Copa America. They have a very good generation of talented young players.”

Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, congratulates Xavi, captain of Al Sadd on winning the 2017 Emir Cup at Khalifa International Stadium on May 19, 2017, in Doha, Qatar. This was the first completed 2022 FIFA World Cup venue, five years before the tournament.   -  Getty Images

 

As many as nine players, including captain Hassan Al-Haydos and the charismatic Akram Afif, play alongside Xavi at Al Sadd. The Spaniard stresses on the vital role played by the Aspire Academy, which is credited with guiding Qatar football to where it is today.

“It all started with the Aspire Academy in 2006. They have a project, good coaches and good ideas. Their project doesn’t end in 2022, the main objective is the World Cup. It’s like Barcelona many years ago when Johan Cruyff arrived. We had an idea then and now Qatar has an idea. I’m very proud to be a part of this project,” he says with conviction.

In an interview with The Coaches’ Voice, Qatar coach Felix Sanchez, who also worked at the Aspire Academy, showered praise on Xavi. “This victory in the Asia Cup doesn’t belong to anybody in particular, though. This triumph belongs to all those who have taken part, or who are taking part, in the development of football in Qatar. For all the people who have believed in the project, that victory was a very important moment. That includes Xavi Hernandez, who comes to help us every time he has the chance. Nine players in the national team are at his club, Al-Sadd. I think he knows the team better than we do. More than that, it’s Xavi’s optimism regarding the team. He’s always believed that it could be done,” he said.

Xavi won the 2010 World Cup with Spain.   -  Getty Images

While he doesn’t play as much now, ask him about his most memorable moment with Barcelona and his face lights up. “My most memorable moment? I think when we won the Champions League,” he says. But hey, there were four of those! He shrugs, struggles to pick a moment and says, “(The wins) in Rome (2006) and Paris (2009), those were the best moments. I was very proud to be a part of the Barcelona family for 17 years.”

Ask him about his favourite goal and you’re greeted with a split-second response. “It was when I scored against Real Madrid in our 5-0 win at Camp Nou,” he states with ease. Xavi scored the opener on that November evening in 2010, a goal that was born out of some clinical passing between him, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta. Xavi would also combine with Iniesta to lead Spain to its first FIFA World Cup triumph in 2010, sandwiched between successive UEFA Euro Championship titles in 2008 and 2012.

“I was enjoying a lot. I’m a passer and I need my team-mates, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. We had that amazing generation and that’s why I enjoyed a lot and we enjoyed a lot of success,” he reminisces.

Talking about Messi, he says: “Messi is becoming a better player every day. He’s unbelievable and in my opinion, he is the best player in history. He’s improving with every game and has been incredible over the last 12 years.”

He goes on to recollect how he was awestruck the first time he saw Messi play. “It was unbelievable. I was surprised because everybody told me about his level, but when you see him training, it’s incredible. His level is amazing. He’s the best player in history!” he reiterates.

While Messi might be the best according to him, Dani Alves had once famously said: “You and me, we live on the same planet. But Xavi ... he’s from another world."