Interview: The Maestro on Barça, coaching and more

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Xavi Hernández was never a man of many words. Whenever the former Barcelona midfield puppet master spoke to the press, he did so to offer some words of wisdom and to offer opinions that always echoed the voice of logic. Xavi, now ready to begin his second season with Qatar’s Al-Sadd sat down with SPORT journalist Javier Miguel before joining his team’s preseason training in Austria for a comprehensive interview. TotalBarça is bringing you the whole interview in English.

How do you see your second year in Qatar?

What I like most is to play football and I want to continue doing just that for at least another year, and I don’t see why I won’t be fulfilling my contract and go on for a third year, although that will also depend on how I will be physically. The team has improved. We started off badly, some players were unable to settle and become part of the group. We changed coaches in October, and the coach who came in (former Porto coach Jesualdo Ferreira) was up for the task, he had better tactical awareness and lots of experience in Europe. We also signed two or three players and in the end we were able to mount a genuine challenge. We have played the best football in Qatar during those last three months, but even that cannot guarantee that you win every time. We reached the final of the Emir Cup, but we ended up blowing a 2-0 score that was in our favour. However, I am not here just for that. I am here to help the younger players and to train at the Aspire centre. The project here is very exciting ahead of 2022. I can say that I am one of them now, I’ve now got full confidence in the people holding the reins.

How do you see yourself once you hang up your boots?

The idea is to end up being a coach. I am trying to see where my personality, my type would fit best. Surely, I would also enjoy myself as a director of football because that’s football as well, but it’s also about business. I prefer to be on the pitch with young people… I still haven’t got my license, it’s still early days.

Will you get your coaching badges in Spain?

Yes, in Madrid. I would take more time to do so in Qatar, because of the language above all.

How long will it take you?

The course is made up of three sections each two or three weeks long. We are looking to skip some stages for us active players, those who want to get their license quickly.

Is your first destination going to be Barcelona? I’m asking because people here are waiting for you with open arms

It is an honour that they are thinking about me and that having spent one year away from Barcelona my name comes up. But it’s still very early. I don’t feel that I am ready to coach yet. It’s very early, but I do feel that being a coach makes me passionate and excited. I spend time with Félix Sánchez at the Aspire Academy, also with Oscar Cano. I pay close attention to the training sessions and methodology. Judging from the fact that losing as a player hurts me a lot, I suppose that as a coach it will hurt me even more. Of course, as long as my body is up for it, I will continue playing football. I feel good physically and I would like to go on for at least another two years.

Can we consider tiki-taka to be dead?

No. We would be in serious trouble if it were dead. We wouldn’t be Barcelona. I can tell that nobody plays like Barça. No team is at Barça’s level.

Not even Pep’s Bayern over the past few seasons?

No, they didn’t quite get there.

What about the current Barça side?

Barça is the side that plays the best football in the world, national teams included. No team plays like Barcelona, and even so the team gets criticism. Apart from playing the best football, Barça has the best players. Barça is unreachable.

Isn’t that an opinion that goes a step too far?

The only thing that I know is that I watch a lot of football matches on TV and most of the time I get bored. I only enjoy watching Barcelona.

True, but in the end results are all that matters and Barça didn’t win the Champions League…

Tell me if there’s a better forward than Barça’s front three or if there’s somebody better than the three midfielders. You wouldn’t be able to find one. I could even say the same for the defenders and the goalkeepers. We have to judge based on what we have, because really there is no black and white in this case. Winning or losing are both possibilities, the Champions League was lost purely because of sporting reasons, because we didn’t get a goal, because on that day we were not effective or we were misfiring, but if we want to talk about football in capital letters, that is still being played by Barcelona, without a doubt.

Isn’t it true that the presence of the ‘tridente’ forces you to adopt a new version of tiki-taka?

Clearly, having forwards who can create plays for themselves is a luxury. Now, building up every single play is not necessary because one of the front three can pop up and make the difference. That’s something that is in Barcelona’s favour. Now rivals don’t know what to do, if they have press high up the pitch, if they have to sit deep… Barcelona now has many alternatives in attack, they go on a counterattack and it’s pure spectacle. The counter that day against Arsenal was textbook stuff.

However, having the world’s top three forwards also has a downside: nobody wants to come in…

What we have to look at is what Barcelona really needs. It doesn’t need many more players. A forward. Perfect. You have Denis Suárez, you have Turan who can also play up front, you can find another forward.

How on earth can you convince a top class forward to come and compete with those three monsters?

But why would you need a great forward if you have already got three of them. They must look for a player with a lower profile and who will be keen to be part of the group.

Nolito did want to come though…

That is beyond me. I don’t know why that didn’t go through. He would certainly settle in.

Would you sign any more players if it were up to you?

The truth is that Barcelona needs very few things at the moment. One or two touches but the rest is already there. Renewing the contracts of Neymar, Busquets, Messi, Iniesta is what is really needed. Taking care of the people who are winning titles.

And what about if a bargain shows up in the market until the end of the transfer window?

Who can come in and do a better job that the players Barcelona already has? Who you leave off the team? For me, the very best are already here. Is there anybody who’s better than Busquets, or Iniesta? Or the three up top?

You haven’t mentioned Rakitić…

Rakitić and Barcelona are the perfect match. He’s the best. If another player comes it won’t be the same.

Then why is Robert Fernández here if everything is so rosy?

You see, we live in an age where Madrid can sign Pogba, or where City can sign whoever they want. For me, it doesn’t make a difference.

If you were able to sign a Real Madrid player would you bring anyone on board?

No. Barça don’t need to sign anyone, they’ve got it all. Why would you go to Madrid to sign somebody? No thank you. We don’t need that.

Could the problem be that Barcelona has the best starting XI but not the best squad as a whole?

It’s out of the question. I am sure that if players like Vermaelen were given more chances they would play much better, but once again who would you leave out, Piqué or Mascherano?

Going on to Mascherano, do you think that given his age, he will soon have to save himself a little bit?

Age is not affecting Mascherano, he is a joy to watch. We would finish tomorrow if we started to list his qualities, because what he does on the pitch, between marking, being aggressive, leading the team is fantastic. And yet he gets so little credit, just like Dani Alves.

You are talking about the best right back in the world…

Yes. They were saying that he can’t cross, and that he leaves acres of space behind him… You will see that we will miss him. Mark my words.

Were you disappointed by Arda Turan’s first year?

He’s only played four months of football. Be patient. He’s only been with the team for a short time, and the Barcelona system isn’t easy to understand, it takes some time… I can remember many footballers who took some time to settle, but they were able to turn it around in the end. We are going to give Arda patience. It seems like every year we need to criticise one player and this year it’s Arda’s turn. Yes, he’s not been at his level, but be patient. He is a seasoned player, he is 30 years old…

Getting patience at Barcelona though is a summer night’s dream…

We have all lived through this. Who has not faced criticism at Barcelona? Everyone has lived through it. Even Messi has been criticised. Arda will come out on top. It is a question of time.

Now that you’ve mentioned Messi, do you think that everything that going on around him is affecting him?

I don’t think so. How long has the court issue been going for? Two or three years already? And he continues to be the best in the world, making the difference, and he’s still perfectly capable of firing one in to the top corner just like that. He is happy in Barcelona, and I am not saying that it’s not possible that he might be worried about a non-sporting issue, but on the pitch he is still the same player. It’s a blessing to have Messi and what is need is to make him happy and content. Above all though, this whole thing needs to be sorted out quickly and we need to turn the page. Honestly though, none of this affects him. If there is somebody who is stronger mentally than Messi, than he can beat everything.

Do you keep in touch with him?

Yes, through WhatsApp above all. We have a friendly relationship. We see less of each other, but we do talk. Not on a daily basis, but we do talk quite often, as I do with a number of teammates from Barcelona.

Who do you think will succeed Messi, who will be the man tasked with continuing his legacy in the world of football?

For me, there is no successor to Messi. There will never be one. There will be many great footballers, but nobody will reach Messi’s level. After being at the top for so many years and winning so much individual and collective trophies he is going to be unbeatable. In the future the very best will be on par with each other. It will be just like these days, where they like to sell us this idea of a war between Messi and Ronaldo. For those of us who are in the world of football, there is no black and white. Once Messi ends his career, there will be Neymar, Hazard, five or ten players at a very high level, but nobody will reach Messi’s heights.

The team that is always around, no matter if they are playing well or badly, is Real Madrid. In three years they have won two Champions Leagues, incredible isn’t it?

This is all about Madrid’s grandness and this is exactly why we always respect so much. You consider them as dead in the water but then you see that they always have one last breath. That is Real Madrid, a winning team, a historic team. That’s why they will always be, until the end of time, the team that Barcelona have to beat. You’ve got to have respect for Madrid even when you move 12 points ahead of them like this year. That’s it. Changing coaches in December and then going on to win the Champions League, these things simply don’t happen in Barcelona.

Definitely. When Barcelona win the Champions League that comes down to a magnificent season.

That tells you they come together more we do. They cling on to all their dreams and they all go on together as one until the end. Unfortunately, it is not the same here. Here, everyone chooses his side. The team, the press, the club. Everything is more difficult. This is why Barcelona is the world’s most difficult club to be at. For me it’s become even clearer now that I can see things from the outside. Barcelona plays the best football in the world and still gets criticism. That’s no good, that’s rubbish, we are not playing, the defence is leaky…

There isn’t a solution for that though, it’s all about that innate Catalan mentality, being critical and having to suffer…

But if we can’t change that now when are we going to change it. We have won everything over the past ten years. What will happen if we fall on hard times? Criticism can get really harsh. That’s exactly why I insist that we have to judge based on what we have. And what we have is something really great.

For you, is Barcelona still the favourite to win it all?

Without a doubt.

Despite of all the things going on, the criticism and everything that goes on with the club…

Definitely! We’ve got things there but we are always criticizing. It’s not fair. By contrast, in Madrid they make things look greater. When a player who gets a seven goes to Madrid he automatically gets an eight in the press, when he goes to Barça he gets a six. Why?

That’s why Umtiti and Digne aren’t rated as highly…

That’s the case I’m afraid. Oddly enough, a player who goes to Madrid, the fans and the press rate him two points higher than his actual value. We have signed Umtiti and Digne and already they are not so good players. It’s all about this famous negativity. “Ay, aquest any!” (“Oh, that year!” in Catalan). We are always like that. To start with, a player finds it more difficult in Barcelona than in Madrid.

Does mentality come before talent?

I don’t know if that’s so much the case, but it’s clearly that in Barcelona mentality is key. That’s a fact. Either you are strong or you are dead. At times, the pressure can be inhumane, almost excessive. And the real problem is that it is daily routine. You’ve got to be really strong mentally.

Is this like you are telling people ‘think twice before playing for Barça’?

Barcelona is like a final exam, nobody does you any favours. Either you are an excellent player or you’ve got to go because you are not up for the task. It is a final exam for all professional players. I lasted 18 years and there are also others who have managed it. It is all about adapting to the requirements and being able to live with everything that goes on around you because at the end of the road, the rewards are immense.

Don’t you repent having left Barcelona?

No. I left at the right moment. I believe that my career has been perfect. You can’t do more in your career. I do miss my friends, Barcelona, and my teammates, but I am in another stage now. My time as a Barcelona player has been exhausted, and I think that it has defined perfection. I couldn’t have left at a better time.

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  • Vishnu Choudhary

    There won’t be a second Xavi!

    • Travis Morphy

      They will be but these time around on the touch line insisting on tika taka its just how its at barca i see him as a future perfect coach for barca.

  • Kneowell Anyanwu

    Very apt!

  • Pius Kamau

    Guys are these rumours about Gameiro joining Barca for real??

  • Ayanfe Dada

    The wisdom of El-Maestro is unmatchable