When the team sheets for Barcelona’s match with Rayo Vallecano were handed to referee Jesús Gil Manzano, two names stood out more than most: Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta. For the first time since Barça was beaten by Real Sociedad at the beginning of January, and for only the fourth time in La Liga this season, the duo started alongside each other in the Catalan side’s midfield — the old team, back together.
There was a time when the two midfielders were never apart: Iniesta would follow Xavi like Jerry follows Tom and Robin follows Batman. Iniesta wore No. 8 for Barça and No. 6 for Spain; Xavi wore No. 6 for Barça and No. 8 for Spain. They were Barcelona. They were Spain. They epitomized Josep Guardiola’s lust for midfielders, winning admirers across the globe. However, since that defeat at Anoeta, Luis Enrique had only used them in unison for a grand total of 36 minutes.
Reunited in Sunday’s mid-day sunshine, it was like they had never been separated as Barça tore through Rayo. The 6-1 win came in front of 87,151 people at Camp Nou, many of whom were kids wearing shirts with Lionel Messi’s name brandished across their backs. The youngest of them may not be wholly aware of the significance of Xavi and Iniesta just yet, but when they grow up, they’ll be grateful they were given the chance to watch the tandem.
Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images.
It’s fair to suggest neither is at the height of his powers anymore, but they were both too good for Rayo. Several trademark runs from Iniesta had couch-fans scrambling for their phones, desperate to Vine the replay and post it on Twitter, be it for the retweets, favorites, or just to share the elegance of the thinning 30-year-old.
As for Xavi, you can’t talk about a player who wrote Opta’s business plan without referencing his numbers. Though he’s a long way from the days of recording 100-plus passes per match, his famed accuracy persists. On Sunday, it stood at 92.3 percent when the final whistle blew.
“It’s always a privilege to be next to [Xavi] because not only does he make your job easier, but he also makes the team work better,” Iniesta said, weak-kneed and gushing after La Blaugrana moved back to the top of the table. Unfortunately, it’s not likely we will get to see them together for too much longer.
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has insisted he’d like Xavi to stay at the club next season, and Luis Enrique tempted him into staying last summer, but interest from North America and Qatar cannot be ignored forever. Now 35, Xavi’s role has been limited to a mere 14 starts in La Liga, and two more in the Champions League.
It’s not just age which is catching up with him, though, but a shift in Barça’s appearance. The team’s best features are now in attack, where wild cats Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar are free to roam. The impetus on the midfield which brought Spain and Barcelona so much success has gradually decreased.
During those golden years, between 2008 and 2012(-ish), Xavi and Iniesta were nearly unstoppable. With them at the hub, Spain won two European Championships and one World Cup, while Barcelona won two Champions Leagues and three consecutive La Liga titles. “I don’t think either of them have ever given the ball away in their lives,” former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson remarked as the tandem defined the soccer world.
Each began to occupy the Ballon d’Or podium with a frequency you rarely see from non-goal scorers. Iniesta remains the last man to have split Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, finishing second to Messi in 2010 before claiming third in 2012 – the same spot Xavi claimed in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images.
Guardiola watched them both grow from teenagers into men, never doubting what either could become. As far back as his playing days, he recognized how the duo’s potential. “You will retire me,” he famously told a young Xavi, “but Andrés will retire us all.”
Looking back with hindsight, it should be considered ground shaking that it took the rest of the globe so long to catch on. “[Iniesta] has always been good,” former Barcelona goalkeeper Víctor Valdés once exclaimed. “I’m just surprised it’s taken so long for people to realize.”
Around 2009, thanks to the stage of a Champions League semifinal, Iniesta finally began to receive the attention he never sought. That year, his last gasp goal at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea set up a final with Manchester United, where Ferguson turned his attentions to the under appreciated star.
“I’m not obsessed with Messi,” he explained, saying Iniesta was Barcelona’s real “danger man.” A year later, Iniesta struck the winning goal in the World Cup final against the Netherlands in South Africa, affirming his legacy.
Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images.
Xavi’s rise to a cult hero status was a similarly slow burn. Widely respected within the game, it took a while for his masterpiece, the pass, to become truly appreciated. But ultimately, his distribution began to be appreciated.
“That’s what I do,” he told The Guardian in a typically modest 2011 interview about his eye for passing. “I look for spaces. All day. I am always looking.”
He also admitted to UEFA that he used to “attempt one-twos using a bench or a phone booth” when he played on the streets as a kid. It’s surely been easier having Iniesta around for the majority of his career to bounce the ball off instead.
Barça may never find a more symbolic pairing. While the emphasis has moved further forward for now, the search still goes on for the “New Xavi” and the “Next Iniesta” Hopes that they’d find answers in La Masia, or at least among its alumni, have slipped into quick sand. Sergi Roberto doesn’t have the quality, while Thiago Alcántara and Cesc Fàbregas left the club seeking prominence elsewhere.
Ivan Rakitic is the man that’s taking minutes away from Xavi this season, but he’ll never be Xavi. Atlético Madrid’s Koke and Juventus’s Paul Pogba are midfielders linked with eventually taking the baton if outsourcing is chosen, although it’s tricky to imagine anyone ever truly succeeding Xavi and Iniesta. Barça may have to get use to never having such a renowned duo running show from midfield. Soccer might, too.
If the trend of the calendar year continues, we may not see them alongside each other much more. After this summer we may never see them together again; all the more reason to cherish every time they’re trotted out together, like they were at the weekend. Xavi and Iniesta. Iniesta and Xavi.