Xavi at El País
As you know, our querido Xavi has the chance to play his 100th game with La Roja this week in Granada against the Czech Republic. In this interview with Luis Martín (again, I want his job) published today in El País, Xavi takes a look back at his storied career with Spain. The interview’s long, but well worth the read. And there’s a very, very funny moment in there too. I think you can tell which one.
On Nov. 15, 2000, Xavier Hernández played his first game with the national team. He has now played 99. On Friday in Granada, if nothing goes wrong, he’ll enter into the club of 100, joining Zubizarreta (126), Casillas (117) and Raúl (102). The 100 games represent a look back at the recent history of Spanish football, the history of a road that led La Roja to the top of the world in Johannesburg on the back of Xavi’s passes.
Do you remember your first game with the national team?
It was against the Netherlands. They beat us 1-2. But before this debut with the senior team, there were a lot of other games. I have the sensation that I’ve been playing with the national team my entire life.
Did you ever think you’d play 100 games with Spain?
During the World Cup, I realized that I was only a few games away, and if the míster wanted, I would get there. But before that, of course not, are you crazy? I only wanted to play with Barça one day, and to me that already seemed impossible, a faraway thing. I didn’t expect to play 100 games until recently. And I’m excited about it.
Are you a big fan of La Roja?
Very much so, very much of La Roja. I like playing with the national team. It’s a plus for me. One time Luis Aragonés told me, “this, feelings and ideologies aside, is football. And who doesn’t like playing football?” And he’s right. Who doesn’t like playing football? I don’t know, I grew up in Barcelona, that’s my home, but the national team has given me a lot, and made me better. I see how I was the first time I joined the team, and how I am now, and I can’t believe it!
Do you remember your first time?
With the national team? [JAJAJAJA!!!!!!]
Yes, of course…
A training session when I was 16 years old, in November. I spent three days in Madrid. Vila, who was my coach, told Teodoro Nieto from the federation, “take this one, he’s very good.” He chose the team with Santisteban. Iñaki Sáez was also there, and he commanded a lot of respect, but then you get to know him and he’s great! Also there were Llorente, the one from La Real, Iker Casillas, Soriano, Aranzubia, Varela from Betis, Orbaiz, Yeste… many of the players from this team played in the first division. I had the feeling that these three days were fundamental. It was, “I’m going to become a footballer or not.” And it worked out well for me.
How many balls did you lose during those three days?
No, I played well, fluidly. I moved it around well, and I left content. But you don’t forget about the mistakes… I would remember them. I must have done well because I was chosen for the Meridian Cup in Portugal. Nigeria won. That’s where Barça signed Okunowo. Simão was named the best player of the tournament, I was second… in that team, a group was created and that base was built on. You become a habitual call-up and that gives you a plus in your club. [Xavi, once again showing he’s a walking football encyclopaedia.]
The coaches look at you differently, and value you more. And your teammates as well. You go play with the national team, and that gives you more confidence. The rival knows that you play with the national team, and you can see that on the field, more is demanded from you. And the national team gives you prestige. It’s different being an international, ask Valdés. On the professional level, it gives you a status… and it also makes you demand more from yourself, because you think, if I don’t work hard, I won’t return.
Did you always return after that first experience?
Yes, that same year, in 1997, I went to the U-17 World Cup in Egypt with Casillas, Sousa, Camacho from Huesca, Corona from Almería… we ended up third. Brazil won with Ronaldinho. We played the semifinal against Ghana. Brazil had Matuzalem, Geovanni, a small one that played in Barça, Ronaldinho, Mancini from Roma. We really wanted to win! We were all so excited. There was a lot of harmony; we had a great time. You talk more in the lower categories, you share more, because you have the same doubts, your life is only that. And I believe that fear makes you talk. I’ve had a great time with the national team.
Why does Iker usually say that you are very quiet?
It’s because I’m very formal! He’s the dangerous one. Ask Blas, from Lleida. We played cards and Iker always won. You had three cards but if the ace came out, it beat everything. And it always came out for Iker… from under the table, of course. On the national team, I’ve had a great time playing, I’ve been treated well and I’ve made some very good friends.
Have you had any problems there being catalán?
Never, never inside the federation. I’ve never had problems because of this. I’m a people person, and there are great people there. I’ve always felt good there and respected. I feel that the national team values me. And Barcelona has always made it easy for me to go play with the national team, always.
What does a player made in Barça bring to the national team?
We’re romantics. Basically, style, the love of touching the ball. The catalán footballer or the one made in Barça takes very good care of the ball. The one that comes from Madrid, for example, is very competitive, very strong mentally, and never gives up.
Your commitment was questioned, because you are catalán.
Yes, a lot of stupid things were said about me, but not in the federation. They accused me of covering up the flag on the socks. I never wanted to get into this because it’s ridiculous. What kind of commitment do you want me to show if I’ve already played 99 times with the national team? What more could they want? I do things because I feel them and I give everything I have. I’ve played for this team since I was 16. I’ve played with injuries, with sprains… but you can’t tell the journalist, “hey listen, I’m going to force myself to play.”
What has the national team taught you?
How to compete. I already had that from Barcelona, but on the competitive level, the national teams give you a plus. Playing with Barça against a Swedish team is not the same as when you play against the 11 best Swedish players. As a younger player, when you played against African teams, you got to the field and you thought, “are you sure these guys are only 17?” And you wanted to beat them of course. In that sense, Spain has always been very competitive. And now that I think about it, Africa has been great to me.
We were third in Egypt, we won the U-20 World Cup in Nigeria and we won last year in South Africa. But I always got sick. In Egypt, I contracted pink eye, and in Nigeria I felt horrible. It was 39 degrees and I slept with a sweatshirt and blanket because I was so cold, yet sweating like a dog. They kicked Gabri out of the room so I wouldn’t pass anything on to him. I lost four kilos. And in South Africa, during the Confederation Cup, I got some kind of animal allergy. But Africa has always brought me luck and I like it a lot. I’ve also been on vacation in Kenya and Egypt. The people are super nice, I like it.
Why weren’t you named the best player of the U-20 World Cup in Nigeria?
There was a mix-up. Tabárez and Platini came in the name of FIFA to congratulate us, and they told us that I had won the award as the best of the tournament and that Gabri was second… but no. In the gala, they gave the awards to others; Keita won. Orbaiz, who was our captain, said, “well then, let’s go to dinner.” And we went to have pizza. It was a tough World Cup. We ate burned spaghetti.
You know, when they’re stuck to the bottom of the pan and they come out black? We either ate that or nothing! We were in a hotel where the chef would put the eggs in the frying pan and mix them with his hand. I told Gabri, “Máquina, you eat that.” We wanted to leave. Lorenzana threatened to report us. It was a very violent situation.
You’ve never had problems with anyone, not with any coach?
No, I’m not like that. I’ve had many coaches and I’ve never had one that was a bastard. I’m only speaking for myself, others would think differently, but I’m very grateful.
Camacho was the one that give you your debut. It’s easy to believe that the type of footballer he likes has nothing to do with you.
The first one that called me up was Camacho. Pep got injured, I began to play with Sergi, Luis Enrique, Puyol… I debuted in Sevilla, 1-2, with goals from Hasselbaink and Frank de Boer. He told me, “Chaval, I already know you, tranquilo.” He called me up for my first World Cup. I came out during the overtime against Korea, I played against Paraguay, and started against South Africa. Camacho is a motivator, he’s considered defensive but he made us treat the ball well, and with him you always had to be alert. He was always shouting “¡venga, vamos!” and always on top of things. The experience was very sad, as the elimination against Korea was very unjust. We played very well, but the field was very dry… Joaquín and Valerón did everything well, they played a partidazo! But how the Koreans ran! They never got tired. I thought, “they’ll get tired in the overtime.” But they continued running, we got to the penalties and they continued running. That day was tough. I will never forget the image of Hierro crying in the locker room. It shattered me. It was his last game with the national team… We didn’t deserve that, it was the moment to change history.
In the Eurocopa in Portugal, you didn’t start either…
Baraja and Albelda, who were the ones in fashion, were playing sensationally. Xabi Alonso and I were the substitutes. I had a great season, with the goal in the Bernabéu… I think that Iñaki wanted to play me more, but didn’t find the right moment. I’ve had a great time with Iñaki, he’s a great person. But it wasn’t good for us because if at that level you don’t win… and we didn’t make it to the next round. Iñaki is one of those who says “live and let live,” he’s very tranquil and very normal.
The same as Luis Aragonés…
The same! I wasn’t in the best shape before Germany. Luis was waiting for me, but I didn’t arrive entirely healthy. He came to see me in Barcelona, worried about my knee. Luis has had a lot of influence on me. No one has had so much confidence in me as he had. We talked a lot. He’s great. The word “football” in the dictionary has to be next to a photo of Luis. He’s very smart. He looks at you in the training session, he comes up to you and he says, “you’re not being serious, you came here to train and I’m not seeing you train. I don’t like that!” And then he would leave. Luis never tricks you, he tells it to your face. I think he marked a new era in the history of Spanish football, because he dared to allow the small players to play together in the Eurocopa.
What was the World Cup in Germany like?
It was complicated. There were some veterans that didn’t play. It was a problem, there was a very strong hierarchy that made you uncomfortable. The worst came after. I don’t know what happened with Raúl, I appreciate him a lot. He’s a great guy. Whatever happened, they know. It made me very uncomfortable. The road to the 2008 Eurocopa was very tough.
What is Luis’ contribution to the national team?
I think he marked a point of inflection. He placed his bets on the pequeños, he drew the line. Everything started with him, because the small ones got to play together – Iniesta, Cazorla, Cesc, Silva, Villa… With Luis, we had a revolution, we showed to the world that you could win while playing well. If we hadn’t won the Eurocopa, we wouldn’t have won the World Cup.
And the deciding moment was…
Iker changed history against Italy. I watched it from the bench, because Luis had subbed me out. I was so pissed off! It’s tremendous how badly you experience it from the outside. Until the penalties, because I knew that Iker would be there. I grew up with him and I know that he always shows up. It’s the same with Valdés in Barça. I’ve spent so much time watching them make saves… I knew that Iker would be there that night in Vienna and that the history would change. The only time that the flower tricked me was in Korea.
In that penalty that went by him?
Yes, it went under him and I thought, “shit, we’ve lost.” Against Ireland, he saved one during the game but against Korea… he touched it, but it went in and in that moment I knew that we wouldn’t win.
Do you think Iker had a bad time during the World Cup?
Busi also had a bad time, because he was criticized from the first game. I think Sara had a worse time than Iker, because he’s already used to being the center of attention, but she… poor thing. She had to feel bad because she knew that people were criticizing Iker because of her. It couldn’t have been easy. But in no moment did it affect our game, that’s stupid. It united us as a group. Iker and I have known each other for many years, the same with Marchena. We talk a lot. Marchena is one of those who is important no matter how much or how little he plays, because he brings a lot to the team.
Was he in the meeting in the cricket club?
Yes, he was. Hierro, Xabi, Marchena, Ramos. We talked about what we lacked up front, about how it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that if we didn’t take advantage of that, we would regret it for the rest of our lives.
What role did Del Bosque play in South Africa?
A leading role. Del Bosque rearranged a bit what already existed, not a lot, but without ego, without saying that I’m in charge here. He respected the footballing ideas and tried to improve on them with respect.
Almost a year later, what are your thoughts on winning a World Cup?
I have the feeling of accomplishing something, the happy feeling of carrying out a duty. You no longer have that anguish of thinking, “we have to show that we can win something.” Now I can enjoy myself, have a good time, since we’re champions of the world… I don’t think a lot about it, but it’s like that. In Germany, I looked at the Italians and thought that we would never be like them. I looked at the Brazilians as if they were aliens! I also like how we achieved it. We won and played well, focusing on the ball. We showed the world how we play.
But Argentina and Portugal steamrolled you. Have you lost competitiveness?
No, it’s not that. We lacked motivation. But when we have to win, when there are points at stake, we don’t fail.
Because of the World Cup, you’re received with applause on every field…
Yes, it’s like that. I’m happy about that. I like to know that people have affection for me. That’s the best thing.
Out of the 99 games, which is the most unforgettable one?
Uf, I don’t know, I suppose the final in South Africa, no? Well, in terms of football, the best were in the Eurocopa. We played very well in Austria, in the World Cup it was very difficult… Personally, my best game was against England in the Bernabéu, the day that Rooney was expelled. They applauded me in Madrid, imagine that!
And your best pass with La Roja?
A backheel tap to Villa in the World Cup, the one to Torres in Vienna, or the one to Puyi against Germany… those because they were decisive, but I’m sure you can find some better ones.
Until when will you play with the national team?
I don’t know, 100 more and then I’ll retire, no? En serio, as long as I’m wanted, they can count on me. I’ll be happy. Right now, I’m only thinking about the Eurocopa, but it wouldn’t be bad to get to Brazil, no?
Ok then, see you in Brazil, Xavi!!!