Leaving FC Barcelona as a two-time treble winner, Xavi Hernández tells UEFA.com about the "most talented Spanish player of all time" and the "phenomenon", Lionel Messi.
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Xavi Hernández signed off from FC Barcelona on Saturday by winning the 25th trophy of his illustrious Blaugrana career. The Liga club's victory against Juventus in Berlin completed a historic second treble for a midfielder who has made more UEFA Champions League appearances, 151, than any other player.
In this exclusive interview with UEFA.com conducted before the Olympiastadion decider, the 35-year-old – who is preparing to join Qatari club al-Sadd SC – discusses moving to the Barça at the age of 11, the impact of their explosive front three and lining up alongside "the most talented Spanish player of all time".
On moving to Barcelona as an 11-year-old ...
Everything was new for me. I came from a normal school in Terrassa, so you had to take your own bag, clothes, towel and flip flops – everything for the shower. It was a huge change going to Barcelona. It was like a big house. Everything was big: the facilities, changing rooms, showers. There were four or five people looking after you really well. We had everything we needed.
You are living a dream. It's like the best house in the world. On top of that, I have supported Barça since a young age, so I was the happiest person in the world playing for them. Just having the badge here, or wearing some Barça joggers, it was marvellous for me. I'm privileged.
On joining the academy and learning to play the Barcelona way …
I arrived in '91, so that Barcelona side had already won the league and been given the name the 'Dream Team'. The pioneer that came from La Masia was Guillermo Amor. He was the reference point – a player that had come from the academy and succeeded in the first team. And to him we can add Guardiola, Chapi Ferrer, Sergi Barjuan and the Basques [Bakero, Beguiristain, Zubizarreta]. They were all examples for us to follow.
The trainers were too. In those days they used to say: "Watch the 'Dream Team', watch how they play. We are going to play like them. A straight 3-4-3, with the main men dominating the play. We always want to have the ball." The philosophy was to deal with all the teams in the same way. You had a number on your back. If that number was four, you were Guardiola. So my point of reference was Guardiola. Before that Milla, and Amor before him.
On making 151 UEFA Champions League appearances …
You want to win and do things well. Then you realise the extraordinary numbers and milestones you have achieved or that you have yet to achieve. We have made history. This team has made history. Not only Barcelona, but also the national team. Collectively, we have won everything. We have enjoyed ourselves and played football in the way we were taught growing up. What we learnt at home has been transferred on to the pitch, playing for Barcelona and Spain, and it has been marvellous. I have enjoyed myself on the pitch to an extent I can't explain. It has been a joy playing finals, European Cups, Champions Leagues, the World Cup.
On Barcelona's perceived change of style under Luis Enrique …
Luis Enrique wants to play in the same style that Barcelona have always adopted, or certainly in the last 30 years. That's his idea – to dominate games, to put the opposition under pressure, have as much possession as possible, play an attacking, attractive game and to go after the ball. His priority in midfield is to create attacks. Nothing has changed. What has changed? It's to do with the three players up front.
Before we had players who were dominant in games. They didn't lose the ball. Maybe they weren't outstanding when it came to taking players on. Maybe we only had one player like Messi who took players on. Now we have three. We have Neymar and [Luis] Suárez as well as Messi. When the ball goes forward, it's an attack almost straight away. We don't need to build the play much to find Messi or to get numbers forward. Now the ball goes to Luis Suárez or Neymar and they can beat a man. We can turn defence into attack at any time.
On Lionel Messi …
He's the smallest, but he's the best at everything, even in the air. Messi is a phenomenon. I'm not about to say anything new. What Leo has been doing is amazing. He's even the best at defending. When he puts pressure on the full-backs, he wins the ball back. He's the best at everything, no matter what he does.
You know that something will happen. Having Messi in the team means you always have to look for him, there's no other explanation. When you see Messi ahead of you and there's another pass open, the ball still has to go to Leo. You know that it will be an attack and he'll create danger.
The opponents expect it. He's the best player in history without any doubt. He has shown over the last eight or ten years that he's the best player in the world. He has had some ups and downs, such as last year, but that's normal, he's human.
On long-time midfield partner Andrés Iniesta …
He's fantastic. He's the most talented Spanish player of all time. He's an amazing player and a wonderful person with a huge heart. He's excellent at everything, such as the way he treats people, and he is an example in the dressing room and on the pitch. He's a leader. He always wants the ball, he never hides. That isn't easy to find [in players]. Aside from his talent, he makes a difference in all areas of the pitch. He's extraordinary. It's an absolute pleasure to have spent so many years playing alongside him.