Interview | Xavi Hernández

Words By James Montague Illustrations by Philippe Fenner
February 8, 2018
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Over a glittering career that made him the most decorated Spanish player in history, timing has never been a problem for Xavi Hernandez. But, today, the former Barcelona midfielder is running late for our interview in an empty but plush cafe in the Aspire Tower in Doha. Qatar, the much maligned host of the 2022 World Cup finals, has been his new home for over two years now, but few would argue – including Xavi himself – that it was his time at Barcelona that continues to define him to this day. After all, his metronomic, almost infallible range of passing saw him direct a Barcelona side during arguably the defining golden era in the club’s history. Rising from La Masia at the age of eleven, he went on to replace his mentor Pep Guardiola and win everything in the game, including eight La Liga and four Champions League titles. As his former club proudly state, Xavi was “the conductor of the FC Barcelona orchestra.” His almost preternatural ability to read the game was put to equally as devastating effect with the Spanish national team, where he won back to back European Championships and the 2010 World Cup.

Today he plays in the Qatar Stars League for Al Saad. the final, well-paying stop of his record-breaking playing career. The day before – as Al Saad beat Al Gharafa 2-1 in a largely empty stadium – he had shown the same pin sharp clarity of passing and awareness that had characterised his time at Camp Nou, even if he didn’t quite have the legs he used to. This will be, he later says, his third and final season as a player. Yet, as he finally arrives at the Aspire Tower – flustered but apologetic and friendly – his thoughts aren’t in Doha. Catalonia is in his blood and Barcelona still in his thoughts.

“I recorded this video, in English, and it was not easy!” he says sitting down, a little out of breath. He has spent the morning catching up with events back home. A long gestated independence referendum had been held, and violence against voters and protesters at the hands of the Spanish police had followed, images that had shocked the world. Xavi too. He unlocks his phone and shows the video he had recorded that morning, and the reason for his delay. It’s a message of solidarity with the people of Catalonia, in English, a language he had only begun to seriously learn when he arrived in Qatar at the age of 35. “Only Catalonia people want to vote. Just want to vote. Is there a democracy or not in Spain?” he asks rhetorically. “Look at the videos in Barcelona now. Look.”

He flips through picture after picture. The first is of a group of young protesters being beaten. The next an old lady with blood on her face. He gets more and more agitated as he flips through perhaps 20 more. The images of blood and violence blur. “This picture is the reality, look,” he says, stopping on the picture of an old man being manhandled by police near a polling station. “One old man trying to vote and two police beat him. For me it is a crying shame. It is a reality in Spain now.”

When he posts the video he is inundated with both praise and criticism. On the one hand he is praised for using his position – as a player proud to be both Catalan and Spanish – to call out abuse of power. “I am very proud to play to be in the national team of Spain. Very proud,” he says. “But this is different. We talk about democracy.” Others pointed to the fact that the referendum had been illegal and, besides, he was posting on social media from Qatar, a country with zero democracy which had been pilloried for its poor treatment of migrant workers.

Guardiola, the one player whose name both precedes and follows Xavi’s and who spent a brief time playing in Qatar himself, had much the same experience: Praised for standing for something important, loathed for the perceived hypocrisy of coaching Manchester City, a team effectively owned by the United Arab Emirates which has an even worse record on human rights and democracy.

That morning’s events had underlined an often forgotten footnote of Spain’s international success. The marrying of long held Catalan identity, exemplified by Barcelona, with the Castilian identity of Real Madrid. The referendum, the violence, reaction and polarisation that followed only highlighted what a difficult job that was. “One journalist said in his Twitter that ‘Catalonia is gone’,” says Xavi, agreeing with the sentiment that independence – after these pictures – was now inevitable. “Catalonia is already gone. Because these images, they are really bad, really sad for people. And we want that these images are everywhere. That, everywhere, the people can watch these images.”

He takes a moment to compose himself. We are, after all, here to talk about football. “I am trying to be calm,” he says. “But it is very tense.”

I was at the Al Saad-Al Gharafa game and I guess this is your last season in Qatar, right?

Yes, I guess, because I’m 37 now, in January [2018] 38, and I feel a lit bit tired. Not in my mind because I am fine to play football. But in my legs it is difficult now for me to recover between games, you know? We will see. In my mind now I think this is my last season.

Maybe you could move to being a centre back or a ball playing sweeper. Somewhere you don’t have to run so much…

No, I’m running a lot! I feel well. We train well, we have a very good coach [veteran Portuguese coach Jesualdo Ferreira], very good technical staff. Good physical coach. Like professionals in Europe, it is the same.

When you first got here, what did Qatari football look like, and how has it changed since you’ve been here?

It is a little bit different. Not technically, they have talent here. Technically they are good, they are fine. Physically they are doing well. The big difference is tactically. They don’t know how we attack, how we defend. That is the big difference, conceptuality, on the field.

How are you trying to change that?

I’m trying to change, I’m trying to use my experience of Barcelona, of the national team of Spain. I’m trying to put inside them my philosophy. I like so much to play association football. Trying to do triangles on the field. To be a star on the field. Not to go into attack, to enjoy in the field. That is my philosophy, and the philosophy Qatari people want.

I imagine you got plenty of offers when your Barcelona career came to an end. Why did you choose Qatar? Was it just the money?

Everything. The main reason is that I can continue to play here, in a different rhythm and a different intensity than in Europe, than in Barcelona. In Barcelona it was too hard to play every three days. I was going to the national team for many, many years. It was difficult to continue to play at 35 years old. So I can continue to play football here, I can start as a coach here in Aspire [Qatar’s state funded academy]. I am learning a lot in the academy. And the country permits my whole family to come here.

One of the things often said about Qatar is that it is a new nation that has a very young football culture. What have you learned about the football culture here?

They are new to football. They don’t have a long culture of football. It is difficult for them, for us to come here and try to motivate them to play football. They are a rich country. The new generation now has passion and are motivated to play football. But it is difficult because Qataris is only maybe 10 years, 15 years since they started to play football [seriously]. It is not easy but we are trying to put in their mind the motivation and culture of European football.

What has been some of the more unusual experiences you’ve had here?

Normally in the games in the Qatar Stars League the stadium is empty. It is really empty! But I have adapted very well. The big difference is during the Emir Cup, the stadium is full. It is the Emir cup, everybody follows the Emir [Tamim bin Hamad al Thani] everywhere.

You met the Emir. What did he say to you?

I met him and also with Sheikh Jassim, his brother. They love football. They are passionate for football. They are the reason why Qatar has the World Cup here. They want to be competitive in 2022. They have time.

It is interesting you say “we”. What do you think they have to do to compete?

It is not easy for them, because it is a very small country. I think we have only 6000 licensed players. But I have found here some very good talent. Even the new generation, especially the under 19 team, now they are competing very well against Croatia, Australia, Japan. Even the generation of under 23s is really good. Now the people who decide things here put [Spanish former Qatar U23 coach] Felix Sanchez as the coach of the first national team and I think it is a really good decision. Because he’s a very good coach. He has experience. He worked in the youth teams in Barcelona. This is the way.

What about the players. Are there any Qatari players in the Qatari Stars League who you’ve thought, yeah, this guy can play in Europe?

We have now one defender Ahmed Yasser who plays in the second division in Spain with Cultural Leonesa. It is a Qatari team now [the state funded Aspire Academy bought the club in 2015]. We have two players in Eupen in Belgium [also bought by Aspire, in 2012]. Akram Afif is one of the best players. Now Abdelkarim Hassan is in Belgium with him. [French born Qatari international] Karim Boudiaf, Hassan al Haydos, Ali Assad, are players that could play in Europe perfectly, I think.

Did Pep Guardiola give you any advice before you came to Qatar, because he played here… [and was also an ambassador for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid]

Yeah, I was talking to him. And Raul and Fernando Hierro [both of whom played in Qatar]. They talked to me about the good things. The biggest handicap here was the weather. We passed three or four hard months for training. That is why we changed the World Cup to December.

What about the controversy, particularity about workers’ rights. What’s your opinion on that? Do you see workers working in the heat? Is that something that has concerned you when you’ve been here?

It is normal [the criticism] because everyone wants to be the host of the World Cup. But everything is right here. For example [FIFA president] Gianni Infantino is coming here sometimes. Last week he came here to discus football, about the stadiums, and everything is right.

One of your previous teammates, Neymar, plays for PSG [which is owned by QSI, an investment fund owned by the Qatari state]. I guess, in a round about way, you have the same boss…

Yes, because Paris St Germain is a Qatari club. Everyone knows it. It is a big honour for Qatar to have a really big club in Europe. I think with Neymar, with [Kylian] Mbappe, PSG have a great chance of winning the Champions League this season.

What did you think of the circus going on between Barcelona and PSG. I guess you are on both sides now…

Let Neymar decide. Neymar had the really big decision to decide his future and he decided to go to Paris St Germain. He said to us at Messi’s wedding that he wanted to change club. And I said to him: “But, why?” He said: “I’m not happy in Barcelona. I’d prefer to go out. To have a new experience in Europe, in Paris St Germain”. And finally it was his decision. We must respect it.

You’re probably one of the most anglophile Spanish footballers, and talked about how you admired English football growing up. Were you ever close to signing for an English club?

Sometimes with Manchester United, but I was thinking always about Barcelona. I feel Barcelona in my heart. I think it is the best club in the world. But, sometimes, we were discussing with Manchester United to try and join there. But, no. Now that I am at the end of my career, I am thinking, it would have been nice to play in England, or Italy or a different country. But, no, I decided to play in Barcelona. Because it is my club.

Do you still miss being around the club?

I miss my teammates. My friends; Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, obviously. But I was thinking that it was my end. My last season, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was winning all the trophies. Never in my life, could I imagine that my career was like that.

What is the most beautiful moment of your career?

There are many winning the Champions League with Barcelona. Or the World Cup with my national team, Spain. Two Euro Cups. It was impossible to predict many years ago. The Spain national team was always knocked out in the quarter finals. Even in 2004, we couldn’t image we would win the World Cup. I am very proud. Not just of winning the cups. But the way that we played.

What do you do next? Will you go into coaching next?

I want to be a coach. I feel I can do it. At least I will try. Because I love football. I love staying on the pitch. I love helping players. I love football, the game. I can’t imagine myself in an office, for example. With a computer? No. I feel I can help improve the players on the pitch. I think, that is one of my ideas now. It is really soon. I have to take my licence coach [exam]. I’m thinking now as a coach.

This is a very similar path, of course. Pep Guardiola took this path towards Barcelona…

Everyone, my entire career, has compared me to Pep Guardiola! Pep Guardiola is a genius. He was a really good player in Barcelona and now he is a genius as a coach. Everybody knows it. He helped a lot of our generation to win a lot of trophies in Barcelona. And now he is helping Manchester City to win more trophies. For me, my opinion, he is the best coach in the world.

There’s a couple of jobs that might come up. Qatar will need a coach for the 2022 World Cup…

It is a big honour that people here are thinking of me!

Have they asked you?

Yeah, everybody asks me on the street. In the malls. At the Villaggio [mall], for example: “Xavi, will you be our coach for 2022?!” Ok, it is a big honour that people are thinking of me as their coach. But, I’m still playing, still enjoying the football as a football player, but we will see.

We started talking today about the Catalan referendum, and you represented the Catalan national team. Back when Johan Cruyff was coach. How did it feel representing the Catalan team compared to the Spanish team? Did you ever feel a division between the two?

No, but it is OK. I went to the Catalonia national team during Christmas. Sometimes they organised a game then. But it is natural that I can go to represent Catalonia, and then to my national team of Spain to play in World Cups, Euro Cups, I think it’s natural.

Now if independence happens, there might be an official Catalan national team…

This is a hypothetical. I don’t know. I just want people to vote.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

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