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Sergio Ramos and Xavi Were the True Idols of El Clásico

The Real Madrid–Barcelona rivalry was defined for years by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but the soul of each team was better understood through their longtime leaders

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ten years ago, Real Madrid and Barcelona played four times in 18 days: once in La Liga, once in the Copa del Rey final, and twice in the Champions League semifinals. It was thrilling and exhausting, beautiful and ugly, a brief period when the world’s biggest rivalry reached some of its highest—and lowest—points in its history. Today, Musa Okwonga examines the legacy of Xavi and Sergio Ramos in El Clásico.

Every storm requires an eye, and when looking at the long-running hurricane that is the conflict between Real Madrid and Barcelona, it seems as if Sergio Ramos has always needed Xavi. It is difficult, in the modern era, to think of two elite footballers who have more closely embodied the spirit of their respective teams. It is even harder to think of two players whose ascent to the summit has been more different. If the two of them were climbing a mountain, then Ramos would scurry uphill bare-chested, slashing desperately at the rockface and risking a plummet into oblivion at each turn; while Xavi, wearing every element of the correct outfit, would carefully execute the climb that he had been planning for weeks. And, of course, both of them would get to the top at precisely the same time.

Maybe it is reductive to say that Real Madrid generally enables chaos while Barcelona calls for order. At the same time, their triumphs during this era were largely won in the style of these two individuals. Real Madrid, for all their extraordinary talent, were often scrappy and pragmatic on their way to victory. Barcelona, meanwhile, were burdened by their motto to be “More Than a Club.” For them, it was not enough to win; they had to do so in a style that would be aspired to by millions. When Xavi and Ramos met in 2011 for those four Clásicos in 18 days, a period that would see their sides face each other in the league, the Copa del Rey final, and the UEFA Champions League semifinals, these extremes of approach were at their peaks. For decades, the two teams had been neighbors in football’s grand estate; for now, it was Real Madrid who were peering resentfully over the fence as Barcelona strolled across the lawn with new swagger.

How could Real Madrid not have contempt for Barcelona? How, in a sporting context, could Ramos not loathe Xavi? At Real, Ramos had to claim his throne; by comparison, Xavi was the inheritor of privilege. Ramos started off as an outsider, born and raised in Andalusia and starring for Sevilla as a rampaging right back. Supremely skilled, his playing style was an equal blend of flair and flame. Xavi was born in Catalonia and rose through Barcelona’s youth system as a faithful disciple of the club’s footballing philosophy. He would end up patiently taking over at the pulpit from Pep Guardiola, his predecessor as the key playmaker in Barcelona’s midfield. If Ramos was the wild-eyed missionary, bringing his congregation to its feet with his zeal, then Xavi was the dutiful choirboy turned priest.

The fascinating thing about Ramos—if we stick briefly with this religious analogy—is the vigor with which he has converted to Real Madrid’s cause. When he arrived at the club, he had the demeanor of a rock star who was about to go on a thrilling but utterly self-destructive world tour. Now, though, he has a much more stately and measured air, and is even more ruthless for it. In his first season at Real, he showed an appetite both for goals—he found the net six times in 46 games—and the early bath, being awarded four red cards. But then, subtly, Ramos changed. That is not to say that he necessarily matured—his game would always retain a sinister streak, making him one of the most-carded defenders in modern history—but that if he was going to risk being caught as he broke the game’s rules, then he would ensure that he got a spectacular return on his investment. Three of the most significant interventions of his career have escaped the prying eyes of officials; his play-acting in the 2017 UEFA Champions League final that earned a red card for Juventus’s Juan Cuadrado, and his two fouls in the equivalent fixture against Liverpool a year later. The first of these, when he twisted Mohamed Salah’s arm as they both fell, forced the Egypt forward to leave the field in agony; the second was a clash with Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, leaving the German with an untreated concussion. Karius would later make two humiliating mistakes, both resulting in goals, in one of the worst goalkeeping displays in a major final.

Xavi’s fervor, despite the infinitely more measured nature of his game, was no less intense than that of Ramos. Like Ramos’s, too, most of Xavi’s most important performances are beyond the capture of mere statistics. In 17 seasons at Barcelona, he scored 10 goals or more on only two occasions, and those were not necessarily the ones when he was at his best. What Xavi and Ramos share, above all else, is their utter dominance of the space that they occupy on the field. When Ramos reluctantly moved from the flank—where, as he pointed out, he had won European and world titles for Spain—to the center of the defense, he became an overwhelming presence. Meanwhile Xavi, despite his size—he was only 5-foot-7—took such overwhelming control of the center of the pitch that he may as well have been nicknamed “The Landlord.” To take any one of the countless such examples from his career, just look at Barcelona’s first leg of the 2011 Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid, when Carles Puyol was tasked with playing at left back. This meant that Seydou Keita was drawn over toward the left to provide greater attacking balance, leaving Xavi with even more ground to cover than usual. Yet Xavi simply did what all landlords do when faced with prime real estate: He devoured it. His assurance in possession set the tone for a composed performance from Barcelona, and they went on to win 2-0.

But again: Xavi and Ramos did not get on, perhaps because the former was better at suppressing his demons than the latter. While Xavi and Ramos may have shared a love of property management, Ramos—with 26 red cards in his career and counting—often seemed to be doing his best to get kicked off his own premises. Their mutual loathing was apparently such that Iker Casillas felt it necessary to step in between them as a peacemaker, an act of diplomacy that may have hastened the end of his Real Madrid career. Or maybe, in a superficial sense, they were just too different: the tall, high-scoring defender and the diminutive, low-scoring playmaker. Whatever the case, the rivalry between the two teams while they were playing frequently seemed to be a tussle for the supremacy of their method: Ramos was obsessed with winning by any means necessary, while Xavi was bound by Johan Cruyff’s creed of beautiful football, constantly telling his fellow Barcelona players “This is the way,” like a footballing Mandalorian.

The Ramos method seems to have prevailed, with Real having claimed four UEFA Champions League trophies since 2014, while Barcelona have won just one in the same period. During that time, Madrid’s all-white kit has revealed itself to be a smokescreen—although it implies a team that is not ready to get its knees dirty, in fact, its key players are defined by their willingness to work exceptionally hard. Barcelona, on the other hand, have to some extent been victims of their own brilliance. The Xavi Method set the bar so high in terms of aesthetic beauty that they have struggled and failed to implement it ever since he left Barcelona in 2015; even some of their notable successes since then—for example, a double of league and cup under Ernesto Valverde in 2018—have been met with less than total enthusiasm.

However, recent evidence suggests that there may still be hope for the Xavi Method. Current Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman is a fellow devotee of Cruyff’s methods, having won a European Cup for the late, great Dutchman in 1992. Judging by Barcelona’s final goal in their 4-0 win over Athletic Club in the 2021 Copa Del Rey Final, when they kept possession for 60 passes and almost three minutes before scoring, they are slowly finding their way back to their former selves. This season closes, fittingly, with Real Madrid and Barcelona again engaged—along with Atlético Madrid—in the closest of races for the La Liga title. With Real and Barcelona both struggling toward the summit at the same speed, with young superstars emerging at both clubs, it seems that the dance of Xavi and Ramos is set to proceed for a few years yet.