On a bright autumn Monday in Barcelona, over 10,000 people found a good reason to skip an hour or two of work. They made their way to Camp Nou - not for a match, not for a concert, but for a promise. They were there with their flags and in some cases their children, to witness and celebrate the return of a favourite son.
On the pitch, Xavi Hernandez, the captain of Barcelona for much of what was the club’s golden era - four European Cups in nine years up until 2015 - signed a contract to become the fourth different head coach in the last 20 months. “Welcome back!” announced the big screen set up behind him. Fans had prepared banners on a similar theme, willing Xavi to apply his intimate knowledge of the club he grew up in, from studious academy kid to metronome of a peerless midfield, as a cure for Barca’s apparently chronic decline.
The occasion made an evident impact on the star of the show. “I’ve got goosebumps,” he told the supporters spread across the upper tiers of the stadium. “The way I have been received makes me very emotional.” He later joined the crowd in spontaneous chanting.
But Xavi was quick to stress that hard work lies ahead - “maximum effort” - and he is under no illusions about the size of the challenge. Xavi, who spent the last two weeks negotiating his release from Qatar’s Al Sadd, where he has been coaching for the last two and half years, touched down in Catalonia on Saturday.
That evening he watched Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman as coach nine days earlier, concede a 3-0 lead at Celta Vigo and come home with just a point. They sit ninth in La Liga, and closer in points to the bottom of the table than the top. In the Champions League, they have lost two of four group matches so far by 3-0 and face a tight tussle with Benfica, who beat them by that score, to qualify for the knockout stage.
“This is a difficult moment in a sporting context and financially,” acknowledged Xavi, who, according the club’s president Joan Laporta, contributed a part of the settlement with Al Sadd to rescind his contract in Qatar. Barcelona’s debts - over €1 billion ($1.16bn) - and unwieldy salary bill meant that during the last transfer window, they were unable to pay transfer fees and obliged to let Lionel Messi leave for Paris Saint-Germain and Antoine Griezmann join Atletico Madrid on loan.
Messi, a Barca teammate of Xavi’s in 399 matches, had wished the new coach "good luck", said Xavi. Much as he might wish he could still call on Barcelona’s greatest ever player, Xavi said firmly: “Messi is not here now, we have to work with the squad we have.“
Some are former colleagues, and from the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Sergi Roberto, Xavi asks “they must take the lead. I have friendships with some of the players but they will be in a dressing-room where there are clear rules. When there are rules, things always work better.”
About 15 kilometres away in San Cugat, Pep Guardiola, another former Barcelona captain and head coach, was at a golf course attending a fund-raising event. Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, did not attend the Xavi presentation, but his name loomed large, as it has throughout Xavi’s adult life.
“Pep was a reference for me as a player and as coach,” said Xavi, who followed Guardiola into the first team as a midfielder of vision and leadership, and played his best football under Guardiola after Guardiola’s appointment, by Laporta in 2008, as a then novice head coach.
The comparison is unavoidable. Xavi, 41, has limited experience coaching, just as Guardiola did before he guided Barcelona to a Treble, and two further Liga titles and another Champions League in four seasons in charge.
Xavi, emphasising that his Barcelona need “a medium- to long-term plan,” acknowledged he will be labelled the New Guardiola, but that being a former club idol as a player is no guarantee of being a success as coach. “I hope to belong in the group with Pep and Zidane [an iconic footballer and then a decorated coach at Real Madrid] rather than the others.”
Koeman, who scored a European Cup-winning goal for Barcelona, ranks among the "others": He lasted just over a year as their head coach.
Xavi will spend his first few days on the training pitch assessing the return dates of 11 injured players - including Ansu Fati and Pique; Sergio Aguero is being assessed for a possible cardiac problem - and without those away on international duty. When they return, the challenges are immediate: a local derby against Espanyol for Xavi’s opening night at Camp Nou, and the potential decisive hosting of Benfica three nights later.
He knows what is expected from those fixtures. “This is the hardest club in the world to coach,” he said. “You have to win and win well.”