Barcelona are the needy partner in a happy marriage to Xavi

Xavi was always going to return to Barcelona but he and they would have hoped for it to be in much more positive circumstances. They need him.


Xavi Hernandez was alone, standing at the podium with tears filling his eyes. It was the day he had been dreading for all his footballing life, the day any Catalan dreads. He was leaving FC Barcelona. Looking back, it was the beginning of a much greater end; the golden era had lost one of its pillars and others were soon to follow.

His final words struck a chord, proving to be prophetic: “It is not goodbye, it is see you later.”

Everybody knew he’d be back. Natural progression said it would be as coach. Six years on, Qatari side Al Sadd, the club he played for then cut his managerial teeth with, have allowed him to leave and his second coming at Camp Nou is all but confirmed. He is set to be named as successor to Ronald Koeman.

There could have been no greater way to complete a story filled with the highest highs and some difficult lows. Luis Enrique guided Barça to a second ever treble, bringing Xavi’s personal trophy haul to 25: eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, three Copas del Rey, six Spanish Super Cups, two UEFA Super Cups and two Club World Cups. But now he’ll return at the other side of the transition. In his absence the squad’s ageing core broke up, winning stopped, the playing identity waned and those financial issues piled up.

Andres Iniesta soon followed him out the door, moving to Japan to see out his playing days. Neymar’s transfer to PSG was as much a watershed moment for the face of football as it was the Spanish club’s prospects. Luis Suarez’s departure for Atletico Madrid was instigated from the top. Never in Xavi’s worst-case scenario would he imagine taking over a team without Lionel Messi in it; nothing sums up the size of the task he now faces – and why he is needed so badly – more than life without La Pulga.

Debt has rendered the days when silverware was on tap little more than a distant memory. Expectation has subsided, replaced by faint hope and a desperation for the club to become recognisable again.

Josep Maria Bartomeu, the former president, is the main reason for such a hefty decline. But he’s gone now, replaced by Joan Laporta. His second term came with a sense of relief. He is, after all, the father of the modern Barça, focusing everything on the footballing principles of Dutchman Johan Cruyff, which Pep Guardiola, the man who won 14 trophies in four years as the coach hired by Laporta in 2008, and Xavi swear by. The latter has been called an extremist; his devotion to the philosophy is absolute. What makes it work is the understanding that, done properly, it leads to success. There doesn’t have to be a choice between it and winning.

But Laporta played his part in this nightmare late on. The seeds were sewn for Messi long ago, yet he didn’t leave on great terms with the president and a war of words has continued through the media. There is baggage and clutter in need of clearing out all over the club, and the sense of ‘getting the band back together’ has already fallen flat once, but if Barcelona have nothing then they need their pride. Champions League hopes for this season do not stretch past the second round, a league title challenge is already feeling like a pipe-dream and as El Clasico showed, Real Madrid are light years ahead in so many ways.

Xavi may arrive to a squad reeling from the loss of its best player and with the outlook as bleak as it has been for two decades, but that can provide an opportunity.

Results and style were once taken for granted by fans who have now seen a glimpse of life with neither. Koeman, a legend as a player for scoring the winner in Barça’s first European Cup under Cruyff in 1992, failed on a basic level, abandoning possession principles in the hope of a quick solution, and openly speaking about the club’s problems in terms that appeared to shirk responsibility. Xavi should, in theory at least, be given time that no other coach in the club’s recent history has; issues precede him and are out of his control so he can strip things back to basics and start again, with a group of quality young players emerging and ready to be coached.

It is easy to assume Xavi will succeed by virtue of his route to the job. Like Guardiola, who was a lynchpin of Cruyff’s midfield, Xavi thrived as a player from the youth system to the first team, understanding what was required of him at every stage. There is a shared love and obsession between them. Hunger, too. But Guardiola’s own reaction to the Xavi news was telling. He said his players, including Xavi, were the reason for historic success. The reality is both were crucial, but Guardiola’s predecessor Frank Rijkaard had set the wheels in motion under Laporta. There was a big clean up operation after a disastrous start to the century. Guardiola had the tools Xavi does not. Pressure to mirror his former boss could be detrimental and derailing.

In many ways, Xavi was seen as the brains of Guardiola’s operation, but he was the heart and soul, too. There were dark days, such as those punctuated by whistles from Camp Nou during his nascent years, as well as blame for the hardship of the 2002/03 campaign and beyond. But Xavi saw it and lived it and learned from it. He knows, better than most, that it wasn’t always like it was when he left in 2015 as a European champion.

This is the bright new era everybody wanted, though maybe not in the way it was dreamed. There are pluses and negatives to Xavi’s Barcelona homecoming, but above all, there was a necessity. He has never been more required than he is now, and that should ensure the resumption of a happy marriage.

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