When Xavi Hernandez arrived at Barcelona in 2021, it was curious timing. His tenure as coach at Camp Nou was supposed to go well; it had to, for so many reasons. After announcing his departure at the end of this current season last month, there is a lingering feeling that it never felt like the right fit. In reality, the timing was not great, but this disappointing end and the meaning behind it run much, much deeper.
Xavi was the midfielder who both led and embodied Barcelona’s greatest era of modern times. There were difficult moments, times where he’d be made a scapegoat in his younger days; but he embodied Barcelona. He is a Catalan, a culer (Barcelona fan), and the man who best represented their values as a club on and off the pitch, coming through their fabled youth academy, La Masía, to win 25 trophies over 17 years with his boyhood club. He set the tone from the centre of midfield, at his peak carrying out the instructions of former teammate Pep Guardiola, who had been on the same journey through the ranks all the way to the manager’s chair, believing religiously in the teachings of his mentor, and the man responsible for the modern direction of Barcelona as a club, Johan Cruyff.
Xavi was as much a believer as Guardiola, and even at the very peak of their four years together as player and manager, it felt like he would follow the same path. When Guardiola left in 2012, Xavi was still at the very top of his game, but three years later when he departed and set off for Al-Sadd in Qatar, where he would end his playing career and step into coaching. There was an emotional farewell at Barça as he celebrated his fourth Champions League crown and second treble; it was more of a “see you later”.
But the club he re-joined was not the one he left. Financial mismanagement following the world-record sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain had seen the club spiral into oblivion, culminating in the release of the club’s greatest ever player, Lionel Messi, because they couldn’t afford to register him. Since then, the club has been forced to be creative in order to avoid bankruptcy. But instead of reducing costs and expectations, they’ve hedged their bets, signing players with money they don’t have in an attempt to remain a force in European football and outrun what feels like an unavoidable doom.
This is all in Joan Laporta’s second spell as president; his first began at the point of Barça’s last nadir in 2003. Laporta, a Cruyff fanatic, wanted to rebuild the club in his image, and it was his vision for the team to play with his principles, focus on the youth system and combine it with smart recruitment. It was he who hired Guardiola and at the end of the first spell in 2010, left those strong foundations.
Returning in March of 2021, it seemed to make sense. With those foundations crumbling, he was restored to rebuild. Hiring Xavi felt like the natural course; Barça were a club who lived and died by their identity, “Mes Que Un Club” (more than a club) is their motto. But they were acting like the opposite, signing big sponsorship deals having previously avoided any in the past, and co-founding a coup of European football in the form of the egregious European Super League. Much of this has been under Laporta’s watch.
It has begun to feel as though Xavi’s return, which he had resisted on two earlier occasions, was about little more than optics. He won La Liga last season, and there are still potentially world class youngsters emerging in the shape of Gavi, Pedri and Lamine Yamal. Green shoots of recovery are there, but such are the problems, they aren’t able to develop. Xavi’s side are third in the table, behind Girona, a local club who until recently were considered little more than lower league minnows, and most crucially, playing without the identity Xavi’s mere presence promised.
His time as coach will end with a whimper even if they manage a huge turnaround in the league and win another Champions League. Xavi was supposed to represent the passing of the torch and the idea that Barcelona were still what they said they are, more than a club. But their actions and situation prove otherwise, and an early end to his time in charge perfectly encapsulates a tragic fall from grace.