Xavi: The total footballer who defined an era

"He's from another world," one team-mate said of Xavi Hernández; UEFA.com's man in Barcelona, Graham Hunter, pays tribute to the supernaturally skilful midfielder.

Xavi Hernández with the UEFA Champions League trophy in 2009
Xavi Hernández with the UEFA Champions League trophy in 2009 ©Getty Images

If you tell Xavi Hernández that he is the greatest footballer in Spanish history he will contradict you. Of this I have personal experience. The 35-year-old Catalan will, with a calm smile and firm assurance, reply that he's not even the best Spanish player at FC Barcelona. That honour he consistently awards to Andrés Iniesta.

However, as Xavi announces that the next three matches – against RC Deportivo La Coruña in the Liga, Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey final and Juventus in the UEFA Champions League final – will be his last for Barça there's probably sufficient evidence to state the case still more firmly. Even his 'Adios' (or is it 'hasta luego' – 'see you later'?), drips with class.

A year ago he had decided to leave the Camp Nou and move to play his football in New York, but a call to arms from both the club president, and more importantly his former team-mate and new coach, Luis Enrique, stopped him in his tracks. 

Now, a season later, his beloved Barça stand on the verge of a league, cup and UEFA Champions League treble – unchartered territory given that no European club has managed that feat twice. Xavi has helped steer them here with his play, his goals, his captaincy and his diplomacy while a new coach and a hard-nosed squad settle in together.

Xavi after winning UEFA EURO 2012
Xavi after winning UEFA EURO 2012©Getty Images

Most great men and women, in life not just in football, just don't know when to step away from the stage. The temptation is for one last cheer, one last jag of adrenaline, the belief that 'They can't do without me' – the crazy notion which tempts us all, that we possess some sort of Peter Pan gene and our powers will never diminish.

Yet here is Xavi, ending his one and only curtain-call season with an eighth Spanish title, the Copa del Rey final to be played at the Camp Nou and a shot at his fourth UEFA Champions League final (100% win rate so far). He has already won 26 trophies, more than any other Spaniard. He became the first player to reach 150 UEFA Champions League appearances in the semi-final second leg; no player has featured more.

World and European champion at national level, world and European champion at club level. World U-20 champion. The statistical evidence sets him apart. So does the fact that the Spanish national team's entire change of philosophy, authored from 2006 onwards by Luis Aragonés, was based around Xavi's playing style and ability to 'possess' games.

Two UEFA European Championships and a FIFA World Cup later, it was a shrewd leap of faith by Aragonés. Total faith in the total footballer.

Xavi's UEFA Champions League story
Xavi's UEFA Champions League story

But neither the trophies nor the statistics tell the full story of the magic. The game, ultimately, is about the ball and the ball is a part of Xavi's right foot. What he has done with it over the last 17 years for Barcelona has been magical – slashes of colour, movement and operatic thrall which embody the elements which have made football the greatest sport.

Now, as we are about to lose him from the European game, it may surprise some that Xavi won just one trophy in his first seven years of senior club and international football. That means the other 25 trophies came in the following ten years – 2.5 per year, every year. Starting from precisely the time when the Johan Cruyff/Rinus Michels/AFC Ajax 'possession-position' philosophy was reincorporated into Barcelona's playing style. The most complex, thrilling playing philosophy rendered dominant by a football genius.

Once I asked his team-mate Daniel Alves what it was that allowed Xavi to play with such mastery. Without missing a beat Alves told me: "You and me, we live on the same planet. But Xavi ... he's from another world." Amen to that.

Xavi's kit laid out for UEFA Champions League action
Xavi's kit laid out for UEFA Champions League action©Getty Images