Xavi starts his battle to lift Barcelona from the lowest point in their history

The midfield legend's Camp Nou coaching career begins against Espanyol with no guarantee of success at a floundering club

Barcelona's new manager Xavi Hernandez during his official presentation at the Camp Nou. AP
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Before he left in 2015, Xavi’s last act as an employee of Barcelona was to sit alone on an open top bus as it passed along Arago Avenue through the centre of the Catalan capital, the team having secured the treble the night before by winning the Champions League.

“I wanted to memorise as much as possible from that bus ride,” he said a few months later. “It was my final hours as a Barca player, I wanted to see the faces of thousands of fans, to applaud them. I’ll remember that parade until I die.” Xavi had won the lot in 767 games.

The 41-year-old is back now, this time as coach, and the circumstances couldn’t be more different. Barca haven’t won the Champions League since, they might not even make the knockout stage this season for the first time since 2004.

In Spain, La Liga is almost a third into the season and Barca are level on points with neighbours Espanyol in mid-table. The pair meet on Saturday at Camp Nou. Espanyol haven’t finished above them since 1941/42, when Barcelona were 12th in a 14-team league and came the closest they ever have to relegation.

Few expect Barca to finish below Espanyol this season, but it’s a measure of how far they have dropped. A top four finish would be creditable for a side already 10 points behind Real Madrid and six behind champions Atletico. The last time they finished outside the top four was in 2002/03 when the club had three presidents in one season, the third being a young lawyer and former fan activist, Joan Laporta. They also had three coaches – Louis van Gaal, Antonio de la Cruz and Radomir Antic.

And that with a team containing the homegrown players Xavi, Carles Puyol, plus the emerging Victor Valdes and Andres Iniesta supplemented by the brought-in Luis Enrique, Philip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert, Juan Roman Riquelme, Marc Overmars, Gaizka Mendieta, Frank de Boer and Michael Reiziger. Yet Barca were 12th with seven games to play and only qualified for Europe on the final day of the season.

It has never been anywhere near as bad since – until now.

In 2003, Laporta brought in Ronaldinho and helped bring success back. La Liga was won in 2005 and 10 times since. Barca’s second European Cup arrived in 2006, a third in 2009, a fourth in 2011 and a fifth in 2015.

Empires crumble, but Barca’s has collapsed. Simon Kuper’s excellent book Barca came out only in August with the cover line ‘The inside story of the world’s greatest football club’. Yet if you buy the book today, it reads: ‘The rise and fall of the club which built modern football'.

'Barca: The Rise and Fall of The Club that Built Modern Football', by Simon Kuper - version two.

Though they were fading, Barca were still in the race to win La Liga until May last season. It was no surprise that they stumbled. They had offloaded Luis Suarez, Arturo Vidal, Rafinha and Ivan Rakitic off the wage bill in the summer of 2020, but received only €1.5 million in transfer fees for all four.

The summer of 2021 was a catastrophe. Lionel Messi was staying and then he was not. The world’s best player left for Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer and the gloom from his departure still prevails.

Almost every other Barca player had a price and seven were sold as €61m was raised, with a further €20m in loan fees (and fewer wages to fund) for Antoine Griezmann, Francisco Trincao and Miralem Pjanic, who earned €15m a year and wasn’t even in the first team.

Six of the seven players brought in were for free: Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia from Manchester City, Memphis Depay from Lyon, Luuk de Jong from Sevilla (unfortunately for him, a late signing to fill the gap left by Messi and Griezmann) and Yusuf Demir from Rapid Vienna and, only this week, Dani Alves, the 38-year-old free agent who was long a one-man right wing when Barcelona were the best team in the world. He’s signed until the end of the season, but can’t play until January.

Xavi presented as Barca manager

The club and the city remain major attractions for footballers and their families and Barca will push whatever virtues they can, but this is so far from the days of the Catalans overpaying for Ousmane Dembele (€105m), Philippe Coutinho (€145m) or Griezmann (€120m) under the reign of Josep Maria Bartomeu as they squandered the money from the surprise sale of Neymar to PSG in 2017. Frenkie de Jong, a €75m signing from Ajax in 2019, the year Barca had the highest wage bill in world football, has looked worth it, while Dembele’s talents can inspire – if he can stay injury free.

At least they could turn to their youth system. Gavi, a 17-year-old midfielder, has been superb and is already becoming a key player for Spain. He doesn’t give the ball away, he always looks to make the killer pass forward. Nico Gonzalez, 19, and son of legendary Deportivo La Coruna player Fran, looks as big physically as his talent. Add in Pedri, one of the best players in the league despite being only 18. Forward Ansu Fati looks fantastic but has been injury prone. But will Barca win anything with these youngsters?

Results, revenues, performances and crowds are down while debts are high. That the club is still functioning isn’t taken for granted where for a very long time finishing first or second in the league and winning or reaching the latter stages of the Champions League was the norm.

Barca reached the last eight of the Champions League in 13 consecutive seasons from 2007-2020, yet they lost their opening two games of this season’s group, easily beaten 3-0 at home to Bayern Munich and then by the same score away at Benfica – the first time the Portuguese have beaten them since 1961. Two 1-0 wins against Dynamo Kiev have Barca second in their group, but they must host Benfica next week and go to Munich and in their final two games.

Barcelona's Dutch coach Ronald Koeman's last match in charge, the defeat against Rayo Vallecano. AFP

Ronald Koeman, a club legend who scored the goal to win Barcelona their first European Cup in 1992, was in charge for the most turbulent period of their modern history. He replaced Quique Setien, the successor to Ernesto Valverde, who had helped Barca to consecutive league titles in 2018 and 2019 – and yet was still hounded by many fans online since they weren’t at the same level as past Pep Guardiola’s sides.

Koeman was thick skinned, blunt and honest about the situation which was spiralling out of control. He tried to be calm as the team he managed was sold around him and he trawled the youth system looking for unmined gems – with some success.

Koeman lost his job last month after a 1-0 loss at Rayo Vallecano, which came days after a home defeat to Real Madrid, when his car was surrounded by angry fans outside the stadium. Barca have increased security. In their next game, for which B team coach Sergi Barjuan took charge, Barca went to Celta Vigo with eight players injured and came back with 11 out. They led that game 3-0 at half time but drew 3-3.

“We played like kids,” said stand-in coach Sergi, maybe because so many of them are.

After the Celta game, one TV programme did an XI of injured players: Neto, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Garcia, Sergino Dest; Dembele, Nico, Pedri; Aguero, Martin Braithwaite and Fati. Most should return, though Aguero, 33, has a heart issue and his future as a footballer is uncertain.

Barca beaten by Real Madrid at Camp Nou

And into this mix comes Xavi, seen as a saviour, and commanding huge respect among fans. He was one of the best midfielders in the world, he’s Catalan and offers an intelligent and down-to-earth persona. He may have been working in Qatar for six years, first as a player and then coach, but he’s a football addict who stayed in touch with his many friends in Spanish football. He knew how Cornella or Terrassa were doing in the third division, and he knew how Barcelona were falling apart.

The club, which critics say is too rigid structurally and which became bloated on success, continues to undergo monumental changes. Ramon Planes, the club’s technical secretary and the man who brought Pedri and Aruajo, asked to step down this week, as did two of the main first team analysts.

There are always shifting plates of power since Barcelona is a political construct, owned by fans who vote presidents in, usually on populist promises they can’t deliver.

“The first thing we need to do is put rules in the team,” said Xavi, who was greeted by a crowd bigger than the one which attended Barca’s first league game of the season.

“That is important, then we can talk about values, respect, attitude and effort. This is important because without values we don’t have a team. And then we can talk about the game model, the way we’re going to play, how we attack, how we defend. But the most important thing is rules.”

Xavi Hernandez poses next to Barcelona president Joan Laporta. AP

Xavi was there when Frank Rijkaard came in and reset Barca in 2003, he was there when Guardiola did the same in 2008, with Messi the main man.

“Before Messi, we had more control of the ball, more passes, more play,” said Xavi. “Then he became the focus of the attack. Then Neymar, Suarez and Messi. As soon as they got the ball they’re out to attack.”

Xavi saw it all and he played under those that followed Guardiola, whose job was to maintain that success.

“There’s a little less possession and a little more direct attacking,” he said of the football under Luis Enrique. “Luis Enrique likes the Barca philosophy of having possession, of being the protagonists. Luis is a winner. He’s honest, he’s a worker, he does it for the team.”

Xavi was indoctrinated in Johan Cruyff’s style best embraced by Guardiola. He needs time and the current sentiment is for him to get it. Many older Barca fans don’t consider themselves only obsessed by results, like they accuse Real Madrid fans of. They occupy a higher moral ground and claim that it’s the way they play which matters most – and that wins should come from that. Let’s see if that’s the reality.

Xavi does have talent like Depay, he doesn’t have a Messi and the club don’t have money to go out and buy the best any more. With Alves, the Brazilian brings a shot of adrenalin into the dressing room but also an important ally for Xavi, who now has to oversee former teammates like Pique and Jordi Alba who have been so powerful for so long. Maybe they need to be challenged. He’s close friends too with another of his players, Sergio Busquets.

“He’s the best player in the world in his position,” Xavi said of Busquets after he left Barca. “He understands football, he’s ultra competitive, he finds solutions all over the pitch. He’s playing well, he never loses the ball, he always takes the best option with a pass. I have great admiration for him and I’m not just saying this because he’s a very close friend.”

I interviewed Xavi many times in his career and went to see him in Qatar in 2015. One thing he said seems applicable right now. “When people start attacking Catalans from the outside, they come together,” he said. “It’s actually better for the team, they are more united. The Catalan is a tranquil person. He’s relaxed, he enjoys life, he’s peaceful. But attack him and he becomes a fighter.”

Barca have a great fight on their hands under their new boss.

Updated: February 01, 2022, 12:55 PM
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