Where does one begin to describe Xavi Hernandez and his contribution to Barcelona over the past 24 years? With 764 appearances, nobody has worn the sacred blaugrana jersey on more occasions, neither has anybody at the club lifted more trophies, with 23 to date and a possible two more to follow in the coming weeks. In reality, however, no numbers can do justice to what the great midfielder has done for Barcelona.
Xavi joined the club in 1991 at 11 years of age and after almost a quarter of a century leaves as the club’s most decorated player.
All of the trophies, awards and accolades, however, were the result of his sworn dedication to the footballing mantra passed down by the legendary former Barcelona player and manager Johan Cruyff.
The Dutchman’s vision for the club was always to do things in a unique manner, that winning alone was not good enough; it had to be in a particular style, one which focused on domination of the ball and creating a spectacle for the supporters.
8 - No Barcelona´s player has conquered more league titles that Xavi (8). Bye pic.twitter.com/c84xbGKaOd— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 21, 2015
"Football is a game you play with your brain,” Cruyff famously stated and, thankfully for Xavi, his brain was his most valuable asset. He was always a player ahead of his time – not only on the field where he would read the movement of his teammates or the direction of an opponent, but in a wider sense too.
The idea of a short and not so quick central midfielder in the late ‘90s was a far stretch of the imagination but nevertheless Xavi would remain stubbornly loyal to the style he was taught and would redefine the sport as a whole.
Xavi has always remained faithful to Barça’s deeply engrained philosophy, but his value in the side was only truly realized when he was handed more freedom in midfield than the deeper role he occupied at the start of his career.
It would be hard to imagine Barcelona without Xavi spreading passes left, right and center but the fact is that the midfield maestro came very close to leaving. With Pep Guardiola as the established central midfield pivot, it was becoming increasingly tough for the youngster to break into the first team.
After winning the under-20 World Championships in 1999 with Spain, a lucrative offer arrived from AC Milan but his love for Barça valued more than a huge wage rise and the chance of playing regularly.
23 - Xavi has won 23 titles with Barcelona. He needs just one more to become the most decorated player in Spanish football history. Elected— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 21, 2015
As fate would have it, Xavi’s global recognition would come when Guardiola returned to the club as manager – it was he who gave him the license to roam freely between the defensive and attacking midfield positions.
With this came Barcelona’s most successful ever period, with Xavi as the nucleus of the side. Guardiola’s first campaign in 2008-09 saw the Catalans earn their first ever treble including the Champions League where Xavi would finally earn the plaudits he merited.
The midfielder was named the final’s MVP in one of the most complete and assured midfield displays in the history of the sport.
As Xavi’s game grew to become more understood by an audience which previously looked kinder towards spectacular long-distance strikers of the ball or mazy dribblers, the personal accolades came flooding in. He was named in the UEFA Team of the Year for five consecutive years between 2008 and 2012 while achieving third place in the FIFA Ballon d'Or in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
For all of the stars who passed through the team, it was Xavi pulling the strings from midfield who, for many, was the driving force.
From the infamous 2-6 win at the Santiago Bernabeu to the 5-0 pummeling at the Camp Nou, Barça entered a period of dominance over arch rivals Real Madrid with Xavi at the forefront of each success.
In 2011 came another Xavi-inspired Champions League success as Barça again defeated Manchester United convincing at Wembley.
It was only natural that his influence would slowly begin to wane as the years passed, especially with a long-standing knee injury which had him playing through the pain-barrier for a number of years.
Finally, at 35 years of age, Xavi has decided to pull the curtain down on a simply fabulous career and while only Barça and Spain reaped the rewards of his legacy, the sport as a whole has evolved due to the man from Terrassa.
The way in which he describes the importance of how to win tells you all need to know about his character and it is one that the club cannot forget when moving forward.
“In football you play to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and are content but it is not the same. There is a lack of identity. In football, results can be deceiving. One team can do things well, very well, but not win. There is something greater than the result, something more lasting: a legacy.”
The tributes will pour in from staff and players alike when he says his final goodbye but it those who remain at the club who must remember the style which Xavi fought so stubbornly to evolve - continuing with the same principles he played by all those years is the greatest tribute that can be paid to Barça’s legendary midfield maestro.