The form dictates that things like this — that is, profiles or columns in which the praise is effusive and often, as will be the case in this one, unchecked — typically begin at the moment in time when the writer, or the audience at large, realizes that the subject is someone who deserves all the praise that is about to be heaped upon him. The place where he proves his mettle, where he becomes worthy.
I don’t have one of those moments with Xavi to give you. His highlight tape is to me one long blur of close control, deft escapes, and passes through clumps of defenders massed so tightly they look like soldiers in the Terracotta army. To me this is fitting, because Xavi’s greatness isn’t like the greatness of other players.
Zidane dominated games. Even in the summer of 2006, at age 34, his superiority was facepalm-level obvious. He only scored three goals in that tournament, two of them on penalty kicks, yet was so clearly the best player in the competition that I remember little of France’s games except what Zidane did, as though their entire World Cup run was an extension of his 21st Century Portrait.
Xavi’s not like that. He controls games, not overwhelms them. He’s not the kind of player you’re always aware of;indeed, he moves about the pitch so much you’d be hard-pressed to keep constant tabs on him. Instead, you’ll notice his contribution — who played that pass? — then go back via replay or rewind and discover that of course it was him.
I play a little game when watching Barcelona — try to spot Xavi’s pass before he plays it. Even with the advantage of the wide shot and bird’s eye view, he typically beats me to it, and when he doesn’t play before I see it he plays passes better than the ones I see, to teammates in more dangerous positions or under less pressure.
His presence isn’t additive to whatever team he’s on, it’s multiplicative. His entire game fits into that one most-hallowed sporting cliché — he makes his teammates better. One senses that if he were surrounded by a squad of zeroes — say, four Eric Betts’, three Wes Pickard’s and three Adams Sibley’s — the effect would be negligible, but for Spain and for Barcelona, he’s won every trophy he could possibly win, except for – ahem – the Confederations Cup. He’s the operator of the Incredible Machine, but he needs the machine to be around him.
It’s even just not the passes he plays, it’s how he plays them: perfectly, with the right pace and at the right angle more often than mere mortals could possibly hope for, whether he’s hitting it four yards back to Busquets or forty yards crossfield to Alves.
My most memorable pickup moments are the ones that are most Xavi-like, playing a pass just fast enough to thread it between two centerbacks and just slow enough to allow a streaking winger at the back post time to catch it and tap it in; chipping a pass while on the run over a (different) pair of defenders with a sharp enough arc so it fell onto the foot of my teammate running past them, who then blew the scoring opportunity, a crossfield ball from the halfway line in an intramural game that put our opposite winger through on goal, where he shot wide. I am not a Xavi; my sporting vision falls somewhere between that of Kurt Rambis and Mr. Magoo. But those moments are the ones that I play for, where kicking the ball feels like solving a puzzle. He must get that feeling all the time.
The usual metaphors — conductor, driver, psychic — somehow still fall short. The ones that come to mind instead are more grandiose: He’s the Ed Harris character in The Truman Show, watching and manipulating everything as if from above; he’s Speed Racer, one with the car; he’s Dr. Manhattan, existing outside of space and time yet able to manipulate both. He’s Ender Wiggin, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Professor Xavi-er.
Is it any wonder those of us who are geeky about soccer love him so much?
1. Or proves it again, so that the praise is still valid.
2. There is a case to be made for Buffon, yes.
3. Playing most of his games with Messi, the kind of player you are always aware of, probably contributes to this.
4. Ahem, Wes, who almost certainly doesn’t remember this.
5. I’d call him out too, but I don’t remember his name. He was one of those friends of a friend of a guy you let onto your team for no apparent reason.
6. Kristof, just so you know.