Sixteen years after making his Champions League debut the man who defined his football by saying ‘That’s what I do: I look for spaces. All day’ is set to make a record 143rd appearance
(By SidLowe/Guardian) “When I was a kid I used to watch him on the television. Playing alongside him today was a pleasure.” Saturday evening at the Camp Nou and the Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto is talking about team-mate Xavi Hernández. It is no exaggeration. When Xavi made his debut in the Champions League against Manchester United in September 1998, Sergi Roberto was six. Tonight in Paris both men will probably begin on the bench. If Xavi does get on, it will be his 143rd appearance in the competition, taking him one ahead of Raúl.
From Old Trafford to the Parc de Princes, Xavi will have played more Champions League games (not including qualifiers) than anyone else in history. He will be a substitute tonight and he was a substitute back then, coming on in the 67th minute. It was 3-2 to United; three minutes later Barcelona got the equaliser with a Luis Enrique penalty. Luis Enrique is now Xavi’s manager. That night, Louis Van Gaal was his manager. And although Van Gaal’s time in Catalonia is not always looked back upon with the fondness that he, certainly, thinks it deserves, the Dutchman is proud of his legacy. Xavi is central to that.
Xavi defines himself as a “romantic”. Even he admits that he watches too much football: any game at any level in any league. Talk to him and it doesn’t take long for that to come through. He’ll talk Barcelona and Madrid but he’ll talk Portsmouth and Oviedo too. Matt LeTissier once joked that he was thinking of getting a t-shirt made up with a slogan on the front that said: “Xavi’s idol.” And Xavi’s eyes light up when he is asked about Paul Scholes, against whom he played that opening night in September ‘98,
To listen to him is to listen to a man entirely committed to a philosophy, a very specific way of understanding the game: pass, pass, pass. “That’s what I do: I look for spaces. All day,” Xavi said. Dani Alves once referred to him as “playing in the future”: the run did not make the pass, the pass made the run. It was the way that Xavi saw the game – “if not, what are you playing for?”
At times, that has provoked rejection from those who see football differently: Xavi is like the leader of a sect, they complain, refusing to admit other ways of playing. Xavi would disagree; everyone can play as they wish, he would reply. But his way is not going to change. He has swum against the tide too and that single-mindedness, that clarity, has carried him: here is a man who admits to having felt under threat of extinction but who ultimately has outlived them all.
Xavi stayed, for the time being at least. Now another record is unexpectedly within touching distance. On Saturday evening he started for the first time this season and Barcelona won 6-0. The debate has not yet exploded, but it is lying there latent. Should he still be leading this team? And if not, let’s at least enjoy the last waltz. One of the goals was classic Xavi, classic Barcelona: Xavi’s diagonal ball, Dani Alves’s first time cross and Leo Messi’s finish. Just like old times.