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Xavi and the End

The end appears to have come for Xavi, the avatar of and prime mover in Spain's tiki-taka attack. These moments are always sad, but nothing ever really ends.
May 22, 2015, 1:24pm
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Xavi was a thinker. He still is, but he can't implement his ideas with his body like he used to. In a brief, lovely tribute to Fabio Cannavaro upon the decorated defender's retirement, Alan Jacobs grouped the Italian and Catalan together, in the sense that you could ask about either how fast is he? and "the only really honest answer is 'I'm not sure.'" This, Jacobs explains, is because "extreme anticipatory awareness reduces the need for speed." Xavi's greatness, in this sense, was all in its invisibilities.

The broader point about speed and anticipation is undeniably true, but eventually, age takes away more footspeed than even the keenest anticipatory awareness can compensate for—a person does have to be able to move, after all, to play soccer well. A different sort of speed goes away, too: the ability to react to something as swiftly as your mind perceives it. Cannavaro lost too much of that second speed about five or six years ago. Xavi has past that point as well.

Read More: Spanish Soccer Is Being Canceled. Here's Why.

He hasn't played as much since Pep Guardiola left. The conclusion of Xavi's Barcelona tenure has been coming for a while; by extension, this is the effective end of his career. (It's fitting that he would sign himself into two years of well-compensated semi-retirement with a Qatari club called Al Sadd.) Some stars live on in an altered, diminished form long after their peak performances have passed, and we come appreciate their post-primes nearly as much as we did their most thrilling work. Xavi hasn't been like this, not because he can't play anymore, but because there has been no reinvention on his part. He was nearly perfect for a long time, and now he's a thoroughly imperfect version of what he was at 30. The only changes have been physical, but they are now impossible to miss.

This unsatisfying decline wasn't due to stubbornness. Really, what would a 5-foot-6 guy whose greatest strengths were his panoramic vision, a special attunement to his teammates' movements, and a talent for measuring passes make himself into, as age sapped his physical gifts? But Xavi is stubborn. If an angel appeared in his living room and offered him three more years of starting for Barcelona with the caveat being he had to play with the body and attitude of a buccaneering winger, he'd likely decline the haloed fellow's offer with a solemn shake of his head. Xavi needs to play his own way; anything else would be unthinkable, in his eyes, verging on obscene.

When you see your main dude and you know you're emblematic of an entire era of soccer. — Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For a while, Xavi's way was Barca's way, and the Spanish national team's way, too. Tiki-taka has been discussed to death, as has Xavi's role in it, but that doesn't make the bond between the two any less intrinsic. Many other great players who have participated in the system could have played exceedingly well within a different one. (And they have: look at Fernando Torres at Liverpool or Leo Messi at present-day, vertical Barcelona.) Xavi and tiki-taka needed each other. Tiki-taka was the finest use of Xavi's skills, and Xavi distilled the style, rendered it as powerful a tool for winning matches as it had ever been, and maybe ever could be.

Perhaps as a result of this, Xavi can be arrogantly parochial about how soccer should be played. He's a pass-and-move zealot, dismissive of teams that sit back and defend, or ones that knock the ball long for their forwards to chase. He believes the point of playing a game is to win it by controlling it, not by dint of a couple low-percentage passes taking fortunate bounces. It's an elitist stance, and an unhelpful one. Using Xavi's logic, a squad with a pretty good defence, a lousy midfield, and an adequate front line shouldn't play in the manner that gives them the best chance to succeed. It's a snobby, you-ain't-ballin-with-a-million understanding of the game. Xavi never had to worry about playing in a lousy midfield. He was his immensely talented self, and he came up among what might be the greatest generation of midfielders from one youth academy in the history of the sport.

Tiki-taka officially died in Brazil last summer, both violently and of old age. It had barely been breathing for a while. There were rumors that Xavi was going to make the switch to Qatar toward the end of the 2013-14 season, but he elected to stick around for another year, to contribute in a minor role to a Barcelona team no longer molded in his image. He'll almost definitely start this Saturday at the Nou Camp, with Barca having already won La Liga. He'll get the kind of ovation Derek Jeter got at Yankee Stadium, and that Kobe Bryant will receive sometime soon from Staples Center: an outpouring of admiration that isn't mitigated one iota by the fact that the end arrived a little sooner than the player publicly acknowledged. It's time for Xavi to move on, and to be appreciated in full for the indelible mark he has made.

But Xavi was different from his celebrated peers in one crucial respect. He was a thinker—an ideologue, even. Thinkers can come back from the dead uniquely. Tiki-taka has been mothballed for now, but it's not hard to imagine that in the same way Pep and Xavi tinkered with concepts that were established in the early and mid-90s by Johan Cruyff, someday, at Barcelona or elsewhere, some new Pep or new Xavi might reimagine what tiki-taka can be. They'll borrow from the past to create something modern. They'll call it Tod durch Steuer or Isosceles Football, or something. Xavi will know what it is. He'll sit on his couch, watching this new-old style. We might as well imagine him smiling as he admires what others have done with his ideas.