Fame came early to Xavi Simons, the footballer millions knew about before he could really call himself a star. He was the kid who had a dedicated social media staff at the age of 14, an endorsement contract with a major sportswear firm at 13.
At seven he was recognised far beyond the junior pitches of Spain where, with his long curly hair and his nimble close control, he was catching the eye in the age-group teams of Barcelona.
Xavi – he prefers to go by his first name – has been a star-in-waiting for most of his life. He is 20 now, and, while that is hardly a time to start looking back with satisfaction, he can confidently feel that some of the scepticism that swirled around him during his childhood and his teens was misplaced.
Xavi was all hype, some used to suggest; he was a starlet at least as agile at getting himself marketed as at dribbling past fellow schoolboys.
In Amsterdam on Friday evening, Xavi will take on the finalists from the last World Cup, France, in the jersey of his native Netherlands, and do so thrust into the role of senior attacking midfielder.
He will carry considerable responsibilities in a Dutch side injury has deprived of Frenkie de Jong, among others. The manager Ronald Koeman will ask Simons to take on much of the creative work, given he is missing two of his better attacking duellers, Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay because of fitness issues.
But Koeman trusts Xavi. He has started all seven matches for the Netherlands since Koeman began his second stint in charge of the national team and his club form in that period fully justifies the promotion.
Last season, nobody scored more goals in the Dutch Eredivisie than Xavi, who had agreed to spend the last year of his teens at PSV Eindhoven.
So assured was he in his first senior campaign as a first-team regular that Paris Saint-Germain, who had sold him to PSV the previous summer, immediately exercised their €6 million buyback option in the deal.
He remains a PSG property, looking more or more like the prize asset they were delighted to lure away from Barcelona’s youth-team ladder when he turned 16.
Born in the Netherlands, the son of footballer, Regillio Simons, who played close to a decade for various clubs in the Eredivisie, Xavi was given his not-so-Dutch first name by his parents in honour of the former Barcelona midfielder and now Barca coach, Xavi Hernandez.
He was three when the family moved to Spain, and there he embarked on his precocious, heavily-posted and broadcast sporting education at Barca’s La Masia academy.
When PSG swooped in to offer better terms than Barcelona could give him at the cusp of his becoming a senior professional it made headlines. La Masia lost a high-profile student; PSG had raided Barca again, just as they did – albeit at much higher cost – in triggering Neymar’s vast buyout clause at Barcelona.
At both Barca and PSG, Neymar was an ally for the young Xavi, and an inspiration, both in aspects of his technique and in how to cultivate fame.
In Paris, the Brazilian watched Xavi gradually reach milestone moments – a league debut for PSG just before his 18th birthday, a first start the following season, and enough minutes here and there to feel his Ligue 1 winners medal in 2021-22 was earned.
But since first joining PSG, the French club have worked their way through four different coaches, all with different perspectives on the best balance of youth and age.
By the time Xavi signed for PSV, Mauricio Pochettino, who had given him most first-team opportunities, had left Paris. As Luis Enrique replaced Christoph Galtier this summer, the judgment was made that the breakthrough year Xavi had experienced in Eindhoven, and indeed as part of the Dutch World Cup squad in Qatar would be best followed with a loan.
He joined RB Leipzig in August on a 12-month deal. He promptly scored three times and set up four more goals in his first four Bundesliga outings.
“He’s exceptional in his all-round game,” said Marco Rose, the Leipzig manager, who praised the attitude of a young footballer who, having spent much of his life in an artificial sort of limelight, would be forgiven for imagining the trappings of success are a matter of routine. “He’s never satisfied,” noted Rose, “he’s always working and looking for more.”
Thomas Tuchel, who was PSG coach when a 16-year-old Xavi arrived there and now manages Bayern Munich, sees in the maturing Xavi’s impact on the Bundesliga the same qualities that stood out in all those childhood video clips and later on the PSG practice pitches. “Technically, he’s very strong,” said Tuchel, “comfortable on the ball and a real goal threat.”
The Netherlands, who lost 4-0 to France in Paris last March with a similarly depleted team as they will field on Friday, may now need all the best parts of Xavi Simons’ repertoire.