Imagine standing next to Xavi six years ago as he said goodbye to a packed Camp Nou stadium after his last game for FC Barcelona. When he left his beloved club, it appeared to be in perfect condition. In his final season as captain, a campaign in which he humbly accepted a greatly reduced amount of playing time, Barcelona claimed the La Liga title, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League. Imagine standing next to Xavi that day, and telling him that: “Within six years, Real Madrid will have won the Champions League three times, while Barcelona will not once have returned to the final; within six years, Neymar will have spurned the throne he was due to inherit from Lionel Messi for one in Paris; Messi, following the most humiliating of exits, will join him in France, and this entire empire will lie in ashes, financially and spiritually.” You’d admittedly have to be a brave human being to warn him of all that, but you’d probably not have finished speaking before stadium security was escorting you safely away, on account of your heresy. Yet you’d have been speaking the brutal truth, and now that Xavi returns as his club’s manager, he must face this bitter reality.
Rather like the collapse of an Arctic ice shelf, Barcelona’s implosion seemed sudden but had been in the cards for a very long time. The staggering financial mismanagement that led them astray, overseen by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, was one problem; and a related one, which Xavi has been employed to address, is their loss of identity. Over the past few years, Barcelona have been mocked for their motto, their assertion that they are “more than a club”—each time they accept a morally dubious sponsorship, or make a transfer that is unseemly, they are regarded as hypocrites, as betraying their higher ideals. Yet they are more than a club. Unlike Real Madrid, who almost take pride in the pragmatism with which they claim trophies, Barcelona face the pressure of not only winning but winning with a certain panache. In that sense, Barcelona are like Brazil: They represent an exhilarating style of football, part futuristic and part throwback. Xavi was the embodiment of this approach, his manner of playing at once astonishingly advanced and thrillingly simple: Witnessing him on the pitch was like watching the world’s greatest supercomputer play Connect Four.
Barcelona fans still have much room for excitement, and that is partly due to—and not despite—a financial predicament so severe that it forced Messi out of the door. For one thing, the running of the club has been so shambolic that it has given Xavi a vast supply of goodwill upon which he can draw. At this point, the most realistic supporters are not expecting an avalanche of trophies; they are merely looking for their team to play like one that they recognize, and Xavi is supremely well-suited to enable that. He will be helped, as chance has it, by one of the best selections of young footballers you will find anywhere in the world. Most obviously, Ansu Fati, Gavi, and Pedri are possibly the three most talented teenagers in world football, and they belong to the same squad. Sergio Busquets, despite his physical decline, has shown that with the right tactical setup he can still dominate matches at both club and international level.
Why, despite Xavi’s relative lack of coaching experience, is there so much anticipation about what he might do? Well, for two key reasons. First, because he is committed to a philosophy of attacking football that is almost hilarious in its intensity. “Clearing the ball”, he told Javier Prieto Santos in a 2018 interview for So Foot, “is an intellectual defeat.” Secondly, and on a related point, because he is obsessed with football like few others: His devotion to study of the game, both as a player and now as a manager, is almost unrivaled. There are times when it appears that he thinks about little else, and this is not only to his detriment, but to many of those around him. Xavi has spent the past six years as a player for and then a manager of Al-Sadd in Qatar, a team that Xavi has inspired to countless mesmerizing passages of play and several titles. However, Xavi’s time there has coincided with some of the most egregious human rights abuses that his beloved sport has seen, and he has not merely ignored them, he has denied their existence. It was reported at the start of this year that at least 6,500 migrant workers died during construction of Qatar’s stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, with the true figure thought to be far higher. Yet Xavi, in the one major stain on his legacy, has been an enthusiastic and unquestioning ambassador for the tournament. In a grimly ironic twist, he praised the playing conditions in which the World Cup would take place as “the best possible,” while studiously avoiding all mention of the often horrific working conditions workers faced to create this spectacle. For better or worse, when Xavi returns to Camp Nou, he can be trusted to stick to matters of football and nothing else.
But what a show he promises to produce. This, after all, is someone who was one of the key minds behind Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, a team that produced a level of poetry and precision that may never be rivaled; this is the man who was at the heart of the Spanish national team as it went on an extraordinary and unprecedented run of three international championships (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012). And he did it all with an apparent ease. As arguably the best central midfielder of all time, Xavi made his name by navigating chaos with deceptively straightforward steps. As he strolls back into the chaos of his old home, it may be that he can successfully offer a brilliant return to the basics.