Our Guest Author: Ritwik Sarkar
For a man who’s donned more gold around his neck than Snoop Dogg in the ’90s, Xavi’s quiet demeanour shows that there is so much more that truly glitters. Behind the lexicon of superlatives, which have truly run dry at this point, it is his leadership that often goes underlooked.
Rather than raising his voice, Xavi raised his game. The eternal source of oxygen for a Barca team that can boast of being the best ever, the Spaniard never needed the armband. In a side gloated stars in each slot, Xavi shone like the supernova at the centre of the galaxy, with every teammate revolving around his gravitational field. He was a magician, who’s aura was as infectious as it was potent, and for Barcelona, it was a pivotal factor towards all their modern success.
The Nolan masterpiece “The Prestige” bases it’s storyline around the three stages of a magic trick as laid by illusionist Ricky Jay:
“Magic is all about structure,” Jay said. “You’ve got to take the observer from the ordinary to the extraordinary, to the astounding.” Xavi’s journey from upstart to leader follows a similar lead.
On the 23rd of April, 2008 Barcelona hosted Manchester United in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and Xavi was first handed the armband. Flanked by Deco and aided by a burgeoning Yaya Toure, Xavi orchestrated midfield mastery against the reigning European champions, ending the game in a stalemate.
Xavi was handed the baton temporarily in 2008, and what would follow in the coming years was sheer greatness. (Photo by ANDREW YATES/AFP)
Barca would go on to lose the tie the next leg, but Xavi emerged that night as an assured alternative to the great Carles Puyol, a deputy that could enact the same duty of care. The perfect vice for the beautiful game.
It was the summer after that season finished that Xavi was contemplating a move to Bayern Munich. What seems like an apostasy looking back, it was the pivotal moment in both his and Barcelona’s future.
Xavi in an interview with Mundo Deportivo
“It was pretty serious. There was even a meeting with a coach of Bayern. But Pep grabbed me and told me that I could not go; that what he had in mind for the club revolved around a group of certain players who could not leave.”
Messi might grab the plaudits, but it was Xavi that was the lethal cog. He made a pledge and stuck by it to usher a period of unbridled success. He was appointed captain for 15 games in the 2010/11 season which saw the Catalans claim their 3rd and Xavi’s 2nd European title, further cementing his legacy.
As far as the book on duos go, Xavi’s bond with Andres Iniesta is a page earmarked by football fans across time. The two understood the game and each other’s decisions by the step. For all their brilliance together, however, you could place any midfielder with Xavi and you could see the impact his sheer presence could bring.
Xavi and Iniesta marked an era together. (Photo via Getty)
“He is the most amateur player I know, and at the same time the most professional player too, such is his love for football. When he is not playing football, he is watching football”Pep Guardiola
He’d only don the armband thrice in the 2008/09 season, but his influence was more apparent than it had ever been. It was at that time where Xavi had taken the debuting Sergio Busquets under his wing, provided the central steel around which other players could function to their highest level.
Where Puyol’s command over the backline ended, Xavi’s control over the rest of the pitch began. An outstanding 24 assists proved only the tip of the iceberg for that campaign, as his presence stood tallest in a team that claimed Barca’s first treble. A year later, he would win the World Cup with Spain, completing a star-studded trophy cabinet.
Xavi worked in the shadows, helping the team emerge from it. (Photo by Clive Mason)
Guardiola’s departure however brought with it a lull within the Catalan side. Puyol’s influence was waning, and the team had failed to reach the astronomic heights they themselves set up. Xavi performed to the best of his abilities.
Neither Xavi nor Barcelona were falling from grace, but there was a sense that their way was lost. The deck could only be shuffled so thoroughly, and there were no proverbial aces left to pull from.
After a chastising exit at the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, Xavi was close to announcing his retirement—a decision he said was “well studied.”
Much like 2008 however, he was swayed to reconsider, again by a former teammate and new manager Luis Enrique. This time, however, there was no Carles Puyol to lead the charge and to avoid a power vacuum, Enrique diplomatically let the team decide who would lead them. The result was a four-way tie with Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Busquets all being named co-captains.
Xavi earned the shirt and the armband with pride, and the rewards followed. (Photo by David Ramos)
Despite this, and the fact that Iniesta, Rakitic and Busquets were the preferred starting trio, it was the most experienced Xavi who took upon the mantle more often than not. In his 22 games leading the Catalan giants, Barcelona tasted defeat only twice, winning the rest of the 20 ties.
It seemed like a token gesture at the time Xavi’s legs weren’t what they used to be. What he lacked in pace he made up for with pinpoint accuracy. The proverbial hourglass was running out, but Xavi kept the team ticking like a freshly wound clock.
That is why his influence never waned. There isn’t one particular moment, one goal, one game that stands out above all the others — he was excellent all the time. Whatever time he had on the pitch, he used to build the base for everyone around him, and no fact highlights that more than Barça trophy haul that season. They achieved the treble. It was the club’s and Xavi’s second, as well as his fourth European crown.
As far as fairytale exits go, it probably doesn’t get better than his. It wasn’t a question of rising up when it mattered, because it always mattered to Xavi. A quiet leader who led by example, raising everyone’s game without having to raise a finger.
A send-off most can only dream of. (Photo by David Ramos)
It’s hard to point to certain instance where he took the game by the scruff of it’s neck. It was a seldom sight to see him running to the referee to bring to light an injustice. Only once you peel away what your think of as a ‘captain’ do you find out who a leader truly is.
His one time and oft-forgotten teammate Gaizka Mendieta put it best in a tribute to the number 6.
“He took responsibility. He is totally committed to the well being of the dressing room. He is involved with everyone at Barca, from Messi to the youth team. He knows everyone, not just the first team but the B team, the youngsters – he’ll know their best position, everything about them. One day, after his time in Qatar, he will be back, either as a manager or a director of football.”Gaizka Mendieta | GOAL
The final act of the magic trick that was Xavi and his story with the baton reminds us of the intangibles in football we can always believe in. Hidden behind the statistics of beautiful goals, and even more, beautiful setups beats a silent commanding heart. A ticking clock which always tells you the right time. A man who was more than just a leader, he was simply magic, no trick.
Lionel Messi: The unconventional captain
“Here he is again. Here he is again. That’s astonishing! That’s absolutely world-class!” “Look at this, Kevin! It’s a brilliant run from Messi. Can he go all the way!” “But here’s Messi. Away from two…three…four. Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”
They say mere words cannot express beautiful stories. Yet these few lines are enough to send shivers down the spines of Barcelona fans all over the world. They bring back raw emotions of those glorious days of the past. Those fervent Champions League nights, Cup finals and El Clasicos. A point in time when all the ardent Barça supporters used to have their eyes glued to their TV screens to watch the magic unfold in front of them.
The all-conquering team donning the historic blue and red colours brought exuberant smiles on the faces of every Culér out there, and at the heart of it all, was one man — Lionel Messi. An outlier in a generation of extraordinary footballers.
Born in Rosario to working-class parents, Lionel Messi had relatively humble beginnings. But his passion and love for the beautiful game was apparent from the start. He was ready to give his all for the sport.
“He would never say no to anything. If I told him to run, he would run. If I told him to do an exercise, he would do it. All I had to do was to encourage and support him.”Enrique ‘Quique’ Dominguez | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
This quote from his coach Enrique Dominguez, during his Newell’s Young Boys days, goes to show that his dedication was not something he learnt. It was a virtue he already had from the beginning, etched on his heart from a very young age.
Life did not start at high speed for Lionel Messi. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
As with any artist, Messi had the sublime levels of talent and the desire to fight for his dreams. All he needed was a canvas to paint on. And when his father took him to Barcelona for trials, he caught his lucky break. Before he knew it, he had been picked up by Barcelona and thus began the journey that defined an era.
It was not plain sailing, though. A success story never is. Carles Rexach, Jospe Maria Minguella and Horacio Gaggioli, the three figures behind the signing, faced opposition from board members and coaches. To comply with FIFA regulations, they had to pay an amount unheard of for a player in the under 14s to keep him at Barcelona. Yet they took the risk, and Barcelona supporters all over are reaping the rewards today.
The False Nine
When talking about Lionel Messi, it is impossible not to talk about the false nine position under Pep Guardiola. It is not easy to become the very definition of a particular position, but the six-time Ballon d’Or winner managed to achieve the feat nonetheless.
Everyone knew Leo was going to be a world-beater when he began making headlines at the age of nineteen. But the true potential of Barça’s crown jewel was on display when Guardiola’s team destroyed Real Madrid 2-6 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Lionel Messi left no scope for Real Madrid in this encounter back in 2009. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
A false nine is a centre forward who drops back between the lines of opposition players creating spaces and opportunities to score. ‘La Pulga’ excelled in the position because it took full advantage of his repertoire of sublime traits. Unlike most players, Messi possessed a lethal combination of skillsets that brought out the need for the use of such an unorthodox role.
Beleaguering defences at all times and causing havoc on the pitch was Messi’s job. However, he achieved it with unforeseen levels of elegance. Be it his mazy and intricate runs or his telepathic connection with midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, or with fullbacks like Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, the #10 never fails to surprise.
Messi’s understanding of the game allowed him to form sensational on-the-pitch connections. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts)
While he was a bodacious dribbler and a natural goal scorer, his supernatural passing and astounding vision made him a priceless asset. He was also a phenomenal reader of the game. But nothing was more important than his adept decision making. Not only was he almost always right in his choices, but he also made them at the blink of an eye.
“Its about understanding the game. When in every situation, he takes the right decision at the right moment. And every time, his decision is correct.”Pep Guardiola | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
A different kind of skipper
Leo Messi is, for the most part, a silent leader. His performances speak for themselves. Especially in recent times, when he has an off day, the team heavily suffers. His mere presence on the pitch is enough to lift the team spirit. He has a magical aura around him that can strike fear in even the toughest of players and one that can turn an average team into levels above.
The number of times the 800-capped La Masia graduate come to Barça’s rescue is ineffable.
But one thing that many people forget to speak about is his personality. Whenever a new player comes to the team, it is understandable that it is tough to adjust to the new environment. Especially at a club like FC Barcelona, a player may have varying levels of maturity.
Lionel Messi’s performances speak a lot more than he does. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN)
Be it an established player like Antoine Griezmann or a fledgeling talent like Pedri, Leo is one of the first to help them feel comfortable. He uses what he has learned throughout the years to help others elevate their game. Leo’s influence on his teammates is an equally important and much-overlooked aspect of being a captain.
“From day one, Messi has been good to me. He gives me a lot of advice on the pitch. He is an incredible person.”Pedri | Dynamo Kyiv Pre-game Presser
The imperfect captain
Whilst the little magician is a master of playing the beautiful game, he is not exactly an ideal leader, on the pitch anyway. When Andres Iniesta finally decided to leave his beloved club in 2018, it was natural that the mantle would fall to fellow La Masia graduate and teammate.
He had been brought up in the Barcelona academy, and the team’s principles were deeply instilled in him. Having already proven himself as a player, it was a new challenge for the Argentine. However, it was a provocation that brought with it some problems.
Despite being the centrepiece of the team, it was clear that Messi’s reign as captain was not going to be insouciant. Unlike the days of the past, Barcelona were in need of a complete overhaul. The old guard’s time was nearly up, and it was the dawn of a new era for the Azulgranas. The following years were bound to be long and gruelling. Now more than ever, the team was in desperate of a skipper who could guide the team on and off the pitch.
Barcelona were no longer the club Lionel Messi once joined, and it was time to say goodbye. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
It was evident that gone were the days where Barcelona could steamroll past opponents on their way to glory. Year after year, heartbreak followed the team as performances reached an all-time low. Roma, Liverpool and then finally the drubbing against Bayern left fans desolated and drained.
It was the number ten who came under immense scrutiny for the failures and his desire to leave the club at such a delicate time was the final nail in the coffin. Media erupted with claims of Messi’s disloyalty. He became a scapegoat for the press.
There was a hint of truth in the claim that Messi was not a deserving bearer of the armband. Much like cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, Leo did indeed let the pressure affect his performances. However, his love for the badge shone through the darkness.
Irrefutable loyalty through controversy
Loyalty is just another one of Leo’s characteristics that makes him so incredible. Be it off the pitch towards his family and friends, or on the pitch to his team, Messi’s fidelity never falters.
Most Culés know that the faults ran far beyond the Argentine, starting with the underwhelming board of directors. Years of controversies and deceit marred their five years at the helm. The Lionel Messi transfer saga looked to be the next in a line of outrageous mistakes and choices made by the board.
Leo, wanting to win the Champions League one more time before he hung up his boots, wanted to be at a club where the sporting project could enable him to fulfil his desire. Barcelona were miles away from taking the number ten close to his dream and thus he sought for a different club, such as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Lionel Messi – Pep Guardiola reunion stories had already caught fire, and it tore apart Culés. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON)
The transfer looked to be on for a free because of a clause in Messi’s contract, but club president Josep Maria Bartomeu intervened with the smallest of irregularities in the same. His argument was extremely fragile and would easily have been overturned legally. Yet the Argentine could not bring himself to take the team he loved to court.
He instead decided to stay and fulfil the agreement. All those who ever had the slightest doubts as to where his allegiance lies were silenced once again. Even if the little magician does indeed end up leaving, he would have left behind one last parting gift: the resignation of the irresponsible leadership of the club.
He came out and spoke the truth as to what was going on behind the scenes. He lashed out against all the accusations and revealed the true situation behind the scenes. This even prompted other players like Gerard Pique to hint at just how poorly the club was being run. The Barcelona Socios had finally had enough, and thus began the referendum that sent the board running from their posts to avoid embarrassment.
Like a devoted leader, he saved his team from the hands of the bureaucrats who were about to lead the club to bankruptcy.
Lionel Messi stood by the club, like any captain would. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Not to mention, he also led the charge against the board when they claimed that Barcelona players were not agreeing to a pay-cut during the pandemic, with each player releasing a statement on their social media to challenge the same. Lionel Messi’s charge as captain has been dominated by off the pitch work rather than vocal shouts, or tactical improvement – important all the same.
Respected by all
Being the best player in a club’s history brings you love from Culés all around the world. But a sensational talent like Leo is not loved only by Barcelona fans, but by football fans everywhere. The respect he has earned through his incredible performances is unimaginable.
An example of the same was when the Blaugranas faced Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin on March 18, 2019. It was the 85th minute and Messi had just scored a sensational chip from outside the box to seal the victory for Barcelona and to complete his hat-trick in the process.
One would have expected the stadium to jeer and whistle after seeing a player demolish their team 4-1 almost single-handedly. But the sight that unfolded was one that makes a person fall in love with football all over again.
The entire stadium gave Lionel Messi a standing ovation befitting the beauty that they had just witnessed. The chants of ‘Messi! Messi!’ echoed the stadium as the fans from both teams took a moment to absorb and applaud the genius of the little man.
Garnering such levels of respect and love from opposition fans is one of the most difficult things in any sport. But what else can one do but admire an artist painting out his masterpiece?
Name etched in diamond and gold
Whether he decides to stay and finish his career at the Camp Nou is something that only time will tell. After all that Leo has given to this club and the fans, not respecting his wishes would almost be a crime. He is 33 right now, and once that day comes when he leaves the club – and it definitely will, it will feel like a sword to the chest.
As his illustrious time at the very top of the game draws to a close, supporters can do nothing but reminiscence in the memories that he has left for us. Even though he may be an out-of-sorts captain if there is anyone who deserves to wear that armband, it’s him.
The day Lionel Messi decides to retire will be a sombre one for the football community. It will be difficult to see starting XIs without his name, and even harder to imagine a Camp Nou that does not shout “Messi, Messi” in unison game after game after game. Just like so many things in life, that goodbye is fast approaching.
Lionel Messi does not have a long time left with the ball. And that in itself is horrifying thought. (Photo by David Ramos)
The Ansu Fatis and the Kylian Mbappes will come and go, but there might never be another Lionel Messi in the world of football. But long after he retires, his legacy will remain, just like it did with Pelé, Johann Cruyff, and the late Diego Maradona.
Many people will have his future on their minds as the summer 2021 transfer window approaches. Many will dread the prospect of him leaving the club. But all good things do come to an end, and so will the extraordinary relationship that is Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona. Whatever happens, fans need to remember that it is time to move on. And as the great Dr. Suess said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”