It’s time to say goodbye
El Clásico on Sunday followed a similar pattern of previous matches between the two Spanish giants: One team looked dangerous through blistering counter-attacks and set-pieces, while the other looked to unlock their old rival with intricate passing and quick movement. Can you guess who did what?
Probably not this time: It was instead Barcelona who scored on a set-piece, from a long ball over the top of defense, and Real Madrid who looked more incisive with their midfield passing.
The role reversal of the two sides has been in full swing since the departure of Pep Guardiola and the tragic death of Tito Vilanova. But there is one key player, a notable absence from Barcelona’s current starting eleven, that has more impact than any man on sidelines ever could: Xavi Hernández. Over the course of the season, an uncomfortable reality has bubbled to the surface at the Camp Nou: Barcelona is moving on, Xavi is leaving the building—and he’s taking tiki-taka with him.
It was difficult for me to watch Sunday’s match and not feel nostalgic for Xavi in his prime. It’s no coincidence that when he was at the pinnacle of his career, Barcelona was at the pinnacle of its history. Messi may have created the magic, but Xavi allowed Pep Guardiola’s vision to come to life. Without Xavi, tiki-taka wouldn’t exist.
It’s rare for a single player, like Xavi, to so completely and singularly represent a style and period of football. Almost all footballers, even great ones, adopt different philosophies and playing styles before their careers end. They have to adapt and reinvent themselves and keep up with the changing winds that constantly shift the game’s tactical landscape. But Barcelona’s Spanish maestro never did that. Xavi and tiki-taka are this generation’s Cruyff and total football. They belong to each other and always will. Their fates are forever linked.
Critics snickered at Xavi’s post-match interviews after losses, when he would bemoan Barcelona’s opponents for not playing the ‘proper way,’ and insist that more, and better, passes and possession should decide a contest. Was he being bitter and naive, or even childish? I don’t think so. To Xavi, the ball was everything.
Xavi’s style of tiki-taka was not the monotonous passing and possession that drove Guardiola, and millions of football fans, to hate the term. What he orchestrated on the pitch was a domination of the ball and the opponent, in a way we have never seen before and that will probably never see again. With the ball at his feet, Xavi became the center of Barcelona’s universe, month after month, year after year. The seasons changed, the world changed, but Xavi stayed the same.
This is when it starts to hurt. Xavi is 35 years old now. He still has a role to play for Barcelona this season, but the club is changing. It has to. No team can dominate the way Barcelona did forever. It wouldn’t be human. New players must be brought in, and new tactics adopted. It’s hard to stay on top without a man who so perfectly fits the term of maestro.
Sunday’s game was indicative of that: Barcelona were just a little less enjoyable, a little less magical. Xavi and tiki-taka are grabbing their coats and heading for the door. It’s our loss. We cheered and applauded and sang their praises, but did we really understand what we had? What we’re now saying a long, excruciating goodbye to? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, maybe to just to have seen his play, and remember the smiles it gave us, is enough. Maybe that’s the best thing football can ever do.