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  1. // Spain
  2. // Interview
  3. // Xavi

Xavi: "Clearing the ball is an intellectual defeat !"

We met Xavi - often referred to has "the best midfield in the history of the game" - in Qatar, and talked with him about his career, his love for football and for clearing the ball properly.

In recent years, Football has focused on the physical aspect, so much that it seems difficult to improve it. Only thing remaining to ameliorate is the Football IQ?
I totally agree with that. You have to improve game's intelligence and focus on talent. It all depends on the coaches obviously. But today, in training sessions, there is 60% of physical training and 40% devoted to the technical part. In other words, 0% of the time is devoted to the reflection of the game, to its interpretation. You cannot enter a Football pitch with just motivation, like: 'Vamos!', 'Come on!' It helps, yes, but it's not everything. The mind is the most important thing to work on for the future in Football.

How is it possible to improve the work on the mental aspect of the game?
Football is a sport in which you have to watch what is going on around you to find the best possible solution. If you do not relate to others, you do not know anything and you cannot do anything. There is the space-time thing to apprehend in this game. And if you are not aware of it and you're not thinking about it, it's complicated. What makes the difference today in football? It's talent. And what is talent? It is the possibility of controlling what you do and what others do, because you play with your head and not only with your feet. I love Usain Bolt, he's a great athlete. Physically, nobody comes close to him. Who runs faster than him? No one. But with all due respect to him, he will never make any difference on a Football pitch.

Because we can not supplant mental speed and game's intelligence with physical abilities. It's impossible. (He gets up and goes next to his friend Matias). If I pass the ball to you and Matias moves from one side to the other. There you have to look where he is before you go. It's simple, right? To observe is to evaluate the situation in order to decide better. When you lift your head, you are in the reflection, you activate your neurons. On the other hand, if I give you the ball and I tell you: 'Pass the ball and Matias sends it back to you!', you do not think anymore. You are just in mechanization.

Man in the middle

I love Usain Bolt, he's a great athlete. Physically, nobody comes close to him. Who runs faster than him? No one. But with all due respect to him, he will never make any difference on a Football pitch.
Some training centers believe that repeating the same things leads to perfection..
It's heartbreaking. If the coach says: 'Xavi, pass the ball to Matias, who passes it to Javier, Javier to Xavi, Xavi to Matias again, & so on for ten mins, what`s the point? What does it improve? Maybe the passes' technique, OK, but when do we activate the brain? We are stuck on elementary mechanic physical principles. During training, some players are even asked to run ten meters for no useful reasons: 'After the pass, you have to sprint!' But where? Why? Running is good, doing it smartly is better.

Do players at least try to understand why some coaches try to make them do these things?
l, personally, always had the will, I would even say the curiosity, to understand what is happening on the pitch. Why? How? Where?' These are questions I would constantly ask myself and will continue to do when I become a coach. We do not all have the same thoughts. There are professional players who do not understand what is happening on the pitch. Simply because they weren't trained to develop their talent, to think about what`s happening with them.

But Piaget said that intelligence is what we do when we do not know the situation we are in..
l couldn't agree more. Intelligence is the ability to react and adapt to a problem that has never been encountered. Knowing how to encounter situations that have never been confronted is pure intelligence. It is true in everyday's life, but also in Football: 'This is new, I do not know it, but I will try to get out of it.' Dani Alves' match on his right side, between the opposing lines, at the Bernabéu, was spectacular. We always have the impression that he is everywhere. He is an incredible player. Incredible. But truthfully, he does not play with his feet. He does it with his brain. Same with Verratti. How does he play? With his neurons. He's small, not fast, but he's smart. He plays a lot like me. If he did not play with his head, he wouldn't be able to play Football.

Xavi and his little brother

The first time you saw Iniesta at La Masia, did you tell everyone: 'If this guy do not succeed, then he is an idiot..'
Well, Andrés is a special case. He has an unusual talent, he could not fail, impossible. There was another Iniesta at Barça. I will always remember his name: Mario Rosas. If you saw how he played at 15, 16 or 17, you would say: 'When this guy makes to the first team, the Camp Nou will hallucinate.' He was a mixture of Laudrup and Messi, for real. He played with two feet, dribbled, was competitive. He had it all, but he got lost. It shocked me. Maybe he was not professional enough or didn't have a strong mentality, we will never know. Adolescence is a crucial period in life, your personality isn't yet fully built and it is very easy to make mistakes. You are full of doubts: 'Will I be able to play for Barça?' 'Will I have the level for the first division?' 'Will I make it to the NT?' You can fix these issues if you are mentally stable and have a supportive family. I`ve had the chance to always be protected by my family. Andrés’ family has also been amazing and taught him a bunch of values. But there are players who have chaotic lives, with complicated parents. When you don't have a support or someone to refer to, it's hard.

"People used to tell me that I was the cancer of Barça, that I did not have the ability to play for this club."
You are very confident. But before winning titles with Barca and Spain, you had plenty of doubts. How did you change from a player that nobody believed to a world's reference?
Putting doubts aside is part of a footballer's duties. Today, I am a veteran, I am more mature but when I look back, I realize that I have always learned a lot of things. In 2005, when I was recovering, some people said to me: 'Shit, it sucks for your injury!' I often answered: 'But no, what are you talking about?' Without it, I would not have understood that I had to take better care of myself. Before that, I had never been to the gym in my life. I had no muscle tone, it was hard. My knee said to me: 'Hey, a*shole, you're going to the gym, because if we continue like that, we're not going to play a lot of games.' It's been a lesson in life. Puyol, Valdés and I suffered at the beginning of our career. It was complicated with Barça.

What do you mean when you say you suffered at the beginning of your career with Barcelona?
People used to tell me that I was the cancer of Barça, that I did not have the ability to play for this club. That with me, we would never win the Champions League. They said that Iniesta and I were incompatible. Visionaries... Iniesta and Xavi together on the ground? It was a taboo until the arrival of Rijkaard and Luis Aragonés. It's them who made us play together for the first time. They believed in us. And we made them proud. Fortunately, we won titles. Without that, we'd have been killed. It's the business of football. You should have in mind that once you become a professional, you will get exposed. what`s funny about Football is that everyone thinks they understand it. People who think they know football are many but all they do is criticize and criticize. That's why it's essential to have clear ideas.

Is it because of these clear idea that Maradona calls you: ' a Football Master'?
That's nice, right? Coming from Maradona, an idol. But I am not a Football genius. I am just a student of Cruyff's school, and Cruyff summarized football in a sentence: 'Football should be played with the mind.' I have had to use my brain to play Football. I am not Mbappé. How does he play? He runs, pushes the ball, passes a player. I don't have Mbappé's legs, but I use my brain. I compensate like that. I came to Barca when I was 11 and from the first day, I was forced to understand everything I did. We cannot play Football if we don't understand everything that happens on the pitch. It goes deeper than just the contact between the foot and the ball. Each reflection, each question open new perspectives. Why are we asked to give space to each other? Or to open up the game? It's logic. Imagine that I have the ball and I want to give it to a team-mate but an opponent is in between the two of us and wants to take the ball. If there is enough space between my team-mate and l, the other player can't do anything. I think like this: 'If he comes to me, I pass the ball to my man.' And, bam, the ball is already in the other direction. If we are in a confined space, we can easily lose the ball. That's the accordion of Cruyff. When we don't have the ball, what should we do? Defend highly and shortly. Why? To f*cking stifle the rival by closing spaces. The less space we give our opponents, the less chance they have to reach our goal. what`s Football? It's space-time.

Concretely, what do you do to apprehend the game?
What should I do when I have the ball? Search for free areas to save time for reflection. What should I do when I do not have it? Cut the opponent's space not to allow him to find solutions. If done correctly, the opponent is confined to a space-time mistake. He has less space to move the ball, so less time to think. It's a summary, but to put all this in motion, you have to pay attention to a lot of details. For example, if I get the ball on the touchline, I have to be able to stand in a way that would give me the opportunity to look at what`s going on on the pitch. If I look in the stands' direction or on the sideline, what’s the point ? It's simple, but I still see players doing it. 'But what are you doing, how can you turn your back to the game?' No, no, no. You have to have look properly at the pitch. If I get the ball and try to put myself in a position that would make me see the pitch, I see it all. I take the information on space and I save time to think. It makes sense, right? And yet some players put themselves in complicated situations, like the comer side, but why? You'll have to turn around, you're going to waste valuable time. Losing time in football is like losing gold.

What is your biggest quality, according to you?
Like everyone else, I surely have something innate. Technically, I`m not bad. But my greatest quality is mental speed. I love 'Toros'. Everyone sees this as a simple warm-up exercise, it's wrong! It must not be something you do for fun, but didactic. It is great for the technique, for the speed of execution, for the vision of game. It allows you to work the passes on the second lines of play, to understand where the player is located, how to position yourself. In 'Toro', you cannot give your back to others, you have an overview of everything that happens. So, you work on altruism too. If you anticipate that a team-mate will be in a complicated situation if you pass the ball to him, do not give it to him. Look somewhere else, towards the second line. Be clever with your teammates, do not put them in trouble.

I believe I can fly.

Nowadays, Football is full of statistics.
It makes me laugh to see all these GPS that they put on our bodies. Because when they look at the data, statisticians say to themselves: 'On 100 passes, 80 were accurate. ' Oh really? And how do you know they were good? Do you know how they count them? For them, it's valid from the moment the player controls the ball that I sent to him. This is a good pass for the GPS. So yes, the guy may have controlled the ball, but he has four opponents on his back. So no, that's a bad pass. The good pass was elsewhere, to the one who was free of marking, the GPS doesn’t detect that. If it was enough to get rid of the ball in any way by putting the other in difficulty, I do not see the interest of statistics. I have the responsibility not to lose the ball, but I also have the one that my team-mate does not lose it. The difference between big teams and mediocre teams lies in the quality of the network of passes. The problem is that statistics will never replace sensations. They let you believe that Modric had a bad game against PSG. Sorry? Yes, he lost some balls, but he gained space, he relieved his teammates and hurt PSG. His contribution is uncountable. If you do not want to take responsibility for the loss of the ball, do it like Modric or Iniesta: keep the ball, gain space and look where is the free player. There is always someone free. Always. You know why? Because there is always the solution to give the ball to the goalkeeper. When the match begins, we are eleven against eleven, but when you have the ball, there are ten of you that want to take it, not eleven. There is always a free man. Those who say the opposite lie. Lately, people are hallucinating when they watch City. They are like: 'Gosh, they play really well!' But they play well because Guardiola spends his days finding ways to make everything work better for his players.

I was turning my head in all directions, I was nicknamed 'the girl from "The Exorcist"'.
Some coaches also spend their days finding solutions for their players but by making them defend..
The majority, yes. Whether in defense or in attack, everyone is looking for the free man, but not for the same reasons. Guardiola wants to find solutions so that his players go towards the goal. Others want to find ways to prevent the opponent to reach their goal. Simeone does that very well, for example.

You are considered like the leader of offensive Football. For you, can defensive football be praised in the same way as attacking football?
Defending well can be an art, just like attacking. That's right, and I respect it. My great sorrow is that the defensive and physical aspects has taken over the attacking one, the technique and the talent. At this rate, we will all be bored watching football.

But are you aware that some people get bored while watching Barça?
It's incredible! Which team is boring? Barça or the team playing against them? Sometimes I hear: 'Barça is not dangerous enough.' But how can you be when you have eleven players in front of the goal? It's impossible. The team that plays on the back is not the team that tries to play, but refuses to. Isn't it boring when you watch teams losing time or sending the ball to the stands to break the rhythm? In front of ultra-defensive teams, It happened for me to ask myself: 'But how can I find spaces? There is not any.' But, there are always some. You have to move the ball from one side to the other, move, move again, and there you go, there is space. I spent my life searching for it, finding ways. Where is there space? How to make it happen? I was turning my head in all directions, I was nicknamed 'the girl from "The Exorcist"'. I do not turn my head to 360 degrees like her, but there are games where I have rotated mine more than 500 times.

According to a Norwegian researcher, you produce 0.8 information per second. Why do it so often?
My brain works like a processor: it stores data, informations. Turning my head helps me do it. And that's not only important, it's fundamental to master space-time. I think: My team-mate is man-marked, so I turn my head to look for another solution. Behind me, an opponent says to himself: I`m going to take the ball from him, he's turning his back, he does not see me.' Except that I saw him. Just as I saw that the player who is marking my team-mate is moving forward at the same time as his partner. Before they reach me, I passed the ball to the same team-mate who got free. I found spaces, solutions in a few seconds. What is Messi doing today? Why is he incomparable? Because he has everything. He does not make random passes. He does not get rid of the ball in silly ways. No, Messi attracts the defenders and then, pam, he passes to his free team-mate. And I think: 'Holy sh*t, he dribbled four and created spaces for his partners. He is very good.'

Not everyone has the chance to have Messi in his team..
Everyone does not play for Barça either. Barcelona play a game that is very different from others, because we learn to think. When I went to the NT, those who played in other teams did not play the same way. They did not see football in the same way. It was the same when new players signed at Barca. The first time I saw Abidal, I was devastated...

Was he a disaster?
No, not that much, but he was not on Barça's level. Then he started to think about the game, to observe, to ask questions, to find answers. This ability to adapt quickly has allowed him to become the best defender in the world. At least in my eyes. He was incredible. Abidal illustrates this: with a little stimulation, reflection and patience, everyone is able to play smarter.

Why don't we stimulate more creativity if it's so simple?
Because we tend to believe that it is impossible. If I become a coach, and that's my wish, I`d like my team to have the ball. When am I calm on a field? When my team has the ball. As a coach, it will be the same. What did Cruyff say? 'There is only one ball.' And he was right, if I have it, I do not even need to defend, it's the others who have to run after it. If they steal it, I have to get it back quickly. I want to have 99% possession, 100% if possible. The ball is what stimulates players. In Football, in any case, there are two types of coaches: those who are afraid of having the ball because they do not know what to do with it. And those who are afraid of not having it because they do not know how to live without it. These are two different ways of thinking that require intelligence. But please, give me the ball.

Is it that hard not to have it?
Without the ball, I`m afraid of not enjoying the game. You have to play with Iniesta to know what pleasure means. You have to have exchanged passes with Messi to understand it. 'Pam, pam, pam.' And Leo, Iniesta came. Then Busquets was there too. We had six or seven passes in a row. We did not even do it to attack. But for pure pleasure.

Messi and Iniesta continue to make 'one-two' while they are two meters away from each other. Except for pleasure, what is it for, concretely?
To attract the opponent. I tell my team-mates: 'Let's go to the side, you and l.' 'Pam, pam, pam.' Even if we are winning 2-0, we want to do it.

So you, kind of, want to humiliate your opponents.
No, not all. If we start making these small passes, it's because there is space to do it. And if there is space, it means that our opponent is waiting for us at the back. A player is naturally attracted to the ball, even if he plays in a team that likes possession or not. And he likes it even more if he is losing. To make a comeback, it will be necessary to recover it, so at some point, they will come to stop us. We cannot give them the ball. What do they see? Two players, men-marked, passing to each other on the sideline. While for example, when we are losing, what Messi looks for is a way to find space, attract players towards him to free his team-mates to be able to pass the ball to them.

So there is something mechanical.
Repeating the same things is only good if you understand why you do it. I spent my life receiving the ball from the back, turning around and looking at where opponents were. Then, my brain tells me: 'Here, there are three, there. There are two. Well, I`m going to pass it on the other side.' Sometimes I watch games on TV, and I say: 'Well, they're attacking badly.' They often do it on the side where there is the more opponents. But why? You cannot attack well If you are outnumbered. When I played with Alves and Messi, we often attacked three against one, Ok. Three against two, Ok. Three against three. But it was the maximum. As soon as you are outnumbered, you have to switch the game where there is space and time.

When you watch games on television, despite the camera's different angles, do you manage to distinguish these notions of space-time?
When I watch a game, I do it deeply. If a friend talks to me during a match, I say: 'Hush, I`m trying to understand! Watching a Football match is like watching a film. If you distract me, I do not understand anything about dialogues between players. Talk to me when there will be a stoppage of play. Do not be like my wife: Xavi, I do not know this. . ' I do not answer my friend. I am so absorbed by what I see. Thinking is all I have in football. I`m not Messi: he dribbles four guys. I don't.

Xavi is more handsome than you.

Maybe they never taught you how to do it.
It cannot be learned. When you are neither fast nor skillful like me, you compensate with your other qualities. During an oriented control, yes, I can erase a rival, but otherwise, have you already seen me doing stepovers? Never.
Interview: "Why?
I`m not comfortable with that. It's not me. I am not good with that. I feel comfortable when it comes to creating numeral superiority. Give me the ball and I will not lose it. Because I think. Because I`m watching. Because I`ve been training on this all my life. Because it's written deep inside my neurons.

Beyond what you've learned at La Masia and while watching games on TV , you're also a fan of picking mushroom and baby-foot. Did these activities help you in any way?
l have some things I always do, it's like an obsession. When I entered this room, I analyzed how the chairs, the tables were placed. I always want to sit where I can see the whole room. It's a reflex, I always do that. Because I like to control. I do not like surprises, for example, I want to know what will happen. I have an organizational capacity even on a daily basis. I know what I have to do hour by hour, without the need of a reminder. The agenda is in my brain.

You seem to be pretty good at Tetris, right?
Are you kidding me? I was a champion. Do you see the pieces falling so fast? Well, it was me. I did not play anything else on Game Boy. It is a game in which you cannot do anything: you have to fit the pieces in a certain direction, anticipate the ones that will fall. It is a puzzle game that awakens your cognitive abilities. Sometimes you cannot play Tetris, so you have a little free space, you have to know what to do with it, guess the piece that will come, choose the right moment to drag it to such and such a place. It's space-time, like Football. Everyone who has played Tetris knows what I mean. You make a whole block leaving a space to fit the large piece so that it fits well. That's thinking about the second action. And preparation for Tetris is the same in Football, it is essential.

Do you also see bricks when you're on the pitch or is it different?
It's different. I calculate the passing lines, the distances. I try to correct them too: 'Why does my teammate come two meters from me? Stay 30 meters away!' I`m the happiest person in the world on the pitch when I see that there are movements, because it increases the passing options. After taking the information, just before making my gesture, my brain sends me a kind of signal: 'It's now that you have to pass the ball.' It happens to me when all the spatiotemporal factors are in place. And usually, it's for decisive passes.

Emery said that he wants his player to be smarter than him. How can you deal with a group of players who don't see the game the way you do?
l will try to teach them my idea of football. Make sure to stimulate talent. Obviously, I will not ignore the physical aspect, which is necessary, but I mean that I do not want my defender to just spend his time defending. No, no. I want him to play, to go forward. Ask Mascherano if he has not learned to play football in Barcelona. He had to adapt. He was smart. Like Abidal and Umtiti. Umtiti is the best centre-back, isn't he? Why? Because he's doesn't spend his time just defending. He plays, he thinks, he goes forward, he anticipates. In Lyon, he recovered the ball, then was happy to only give it to the midfielder, who was doing his job. At Barca, you have to participate more, it facilitates the work of the midfielder. When he goes forward, it gives him better option to pass the ball. It also gives him space and time to think.

What about Dembélé?
He will need some time. Barca is like a final exam for a footballer. It is like Dembélé is passing a Master degree right now because not everyone can play for this club. Why? Because you have to know things three times more than elsewhere. Barca play on barely thirty meters of play. Dembélé has a lot of talent, he is very fast, but here, he is not going to have the boulevards he had at Dortmund or Rennes. He had more space, so more time there.

What will he do then?
He will have to learn to think faster, in a few thousandths of a second. This is where we will see if he has the mentality. He must say to himself: 'l am a Barça player. ' You have to be mentally strong, to have convictions. There are average players who spent fifteen years at Barca, because they had a character. And there are some excellent players who did not do anything because they couldn't handle pressure. At training, when you saw them, you would say to yourself: 'They will break everything. They’re going to be legends.' But no. As soon as they entered the pitch, their legs started shaking, they did not want the ball anymore. And you would wonder: 'Holy f*ck, what`s happening to them?'

Is it the famous 'scenic fear' that Jorge Valdano talks about?
That's it. Mental strength is what stabilizes the performance. That's what makes you stronger. When there is fire, Marcelo, Modric or Sergio Ramos do not hide. On the contrary, it's at this moment that they appear. What did Lucas Vazquéz do against PSG? He entered the pitch with the desire win. A missile. The guy even went to Kimpembe. And there you say to yourself: 'What is he doing? He's crazy or what?' No, he's just mentally strong.

Xavi and the Backstreet boys.

You played at Barcelona, which has a very specific game philosophy. But you also played with a lot of foreign players. Are there various forms of game intelligence in your opinion?
It has nothing to do with the nationality but rather with the character of each player. Obviously, a Brazilian does not have the same vision of life as a German. Generally, they are rather playful. They relativize the problems better. When you see Marcelo, Alves or Neymar, you have the impression that they play in the street, without pressure.

Godin, who is Uruguayan and defender, says his responsibilities are so heavy that he never had fun on the pitch. Can you understand him?
When you have a sense of responsibility, you suffer more. I have lived this early in my career. You want to do things right, to make people respect you. You want to be successful, so of course you do not enter the the pitch to joke. Still, he has to have fun at some point. It is impossible not to have fun.

Do you think that Godin sends so many balls out to avoid the pressure he feels or does he actually enjoy that?
Godin is an extraordinary defender. He does not do that because he enjoys it. But we do not play at the same position, so I don't really know. But hey, I do not see where is the pleasure to do that anyway. Do it in the 93rd minute of play, to have control on the result, why not. But in the 60th or the 70th, what is the point? You still have time to find a solution, to take advantage! Clearing the ball is an intellectual defeat: 'Can I really not do anything else there?' When you recover the ball and you lose it again, you give a new possession of ball to the opponent. Don't do that. Find spaces, pass the ball to the goalkeeper, dribble, get a throw-in by shooting the ball on the player you have in front of you. Do something, anything, but do not throw it out! My sense of responsibility prevents me from doing it.

What do you feel when you make a bad choice?
l feel my heart coming out of my chest.

By Javier Prieto Santos, in Doha (Qatar) Photos: Alberto Estévez /Panenka, Panoramic, Dppi,UE Syndication/Iconsport & Gepa/Iconsport.

Ceci est la traduction anglaise de notre interview exclusive avec Xavi publiée dans le numéro 154 du magazine SO FOOT.

This is the english translation of our interview with Xavi in issue #154 of SO FOOT