Why there are no winners in sorry story of Xavi’s exit from Barcelona

Estimated read time 8 min read

Parco on Passeig de Gràcia does the best sushi in Catalonia, or at least the most famous. If the Vatican has white smoke, FC Barcelona had a delivery boy in a white helmet getting off his motorbike and pressing the buzzer at Joan Laporta’s penthouse flat near the top end of Diagonal. It was just before 11pm on 24 April and he held in his hand an embossed brown paper bag containing the takeaway which in that instant became a symbol of celebration and agreement, the scene excitedly broadcast live. The restaurant had free publicity and Barcelona had a new coach, same as the old one.

For a couple of hours the crowd outside had seen people arrive, a show played out in public the way they wanted it. It had started at San Joan Despí, the outcome uncertain, but they had decamped to the president’s place. Outside, journalists watched Xavi turn up, reverse into a parking space too small, pull out again and go in search of another. They had seen Deco, the sporting director; Rafa Yuste, the vice-president; and Alejandro Echevarría, who doesn’t have a post but does have a lot of weight. They had seen Bojan Krkic by the intercom. There had been the occasional false alarm too. But now they knew.

It was done: Xavi’s continuing after all, let’s order a takeaway.

A month later it was undone again. The coach who had extended his contract in September, resigned in January and had been convinced to continue in April, has been sacked in May. The same people, the same president, who celebrated him then – all big hugs and smiles, some tears too – have slipped in the knife. After 10 days avoiding him, of briefing behind his back, Laporta finally faced Xavi on Friday lunchtime and told him it was over. The meal with which they staged their togetherness back then – some even took to calling it the sushi pact – now appears a symbol of something else entirely.

It could also yet prove not only the best takeaway in Barcelona but the most expensive. The next morning, Xavi insisted that had he walked away, as he had said he was going to do in January, he “would not have taken a single euro: the money from my contract would have been there for the next manager”. But that was then, this is now. That was him resigning, his head needing it; this is them sacking him only a month after asking him to stay and 10 days after leaking that they were going to get rid anyway. He may now feel entitled to demand the €20m (£17m) due; €20m Barcelona can’t afford.

Hansi Flick replacing Xavi is not really the problem – plenty would welcome that decision and still more after the past nine months. It is more the way it has happened, and to whom. Xavi Hernández played 767 times for Barcelona, the club captain who won it all, an ideologue, defender of their footballing faith. And, while it has been forgotten fast, the coach who won the league last season. But like Ronald Koeman and Lionel Messi before him, now he has to go and he does so hurting. Which is not to say Xavi is entirely blameless, still less that his team were brilliant.

None of this ever felt quite right, holes in almost everything almost everyone has said, a lack of conviction in almost every word and decision.

When Xavi announced that he was resigning, he described the manager’s job as “cruel and unpleasant”. He talked about the impact it has emotionally, about mental health. He didn’t see the point in continuing; this was no life. He felt undervalued, that his work went unrecognised. Listening to him, the lasting emotion was sadness: for the job that was all he had ever wanted to have left him feeling like that was just wrong.

While Xavi placed that within the usefully vague concept of the entorno – Barcelona’s surroundings, with its swirl of politics, press and pressure – he knew that was not only an external thing. He knew the criticism, the toxicity he felt so keenly, came from within too. He could not have been unaware that pressure was building, that voices inside pushed for his departure, his potential sacking increasingly real. After one game, the president had sent of tray of vol-au-vents flying. His team really weren’t playing well; voices close to the president suggested that with someone else, perhaps they would.

In that context, his resignation could be seen partly as preventive, pride. And there was no attempt to talk him out of it, not yet. The bottom line, though, was that he had done this, not them.

Joan Laporta (left) and Xavi announce the U-turn on 25 AprilView image in fullscreen

Xavi told Laporta that he would see out the season, then go. “It is a formula I accepted because it’s Xavi proposing it and he’s a Barcelona legend,” Laporta said. Those were not the words of a man convinced and if necessary he was ready to act: Rafa Márquez in place to come up from the B team and take over. Although Xavi kept saying that the team were better now, precisely because he had said he was going, he never really explained why and it didn’t sound convincing either. Or, rather, that’s exactly how it sounded: like a man convincing himself that he had done the right thing, or trying to.

But Barcelona did improve. The criticism subsided, the experience of being coach more agreeable, like a ceasefire had been declared. The threat of a sacking faded. People asked if he might not reconsider, with increasing insistence. Xavi kept saying that nothing changed right until the moment it did: he continued to say he was going at the end of the season – yes, even if he won the Champions League – but the tone shifted and he quietly let it be known that continuing might not be so bad. As for Barcelona, they had not found a replacement although Flick remained on their minds and soon they were publicly saying they would try to convince Xavi to stay.

Privately, some close to the president weren’t sure. On the morning of 24 April, there were suggestions that this was the end. Instead the meeting with Deco at San Joan Despí was adjourned, to be continued at Laporta’s place. There, Barcelona convinced Xavi to stay, or so it goes. The story is not quite as one-sided or straightforward as it was sold: he convinced them too, keen now to continue. All it needed, Laporta said, was for them to “look each other in the eyes”; it had taken “two, three minutes”, Xavi said. When it was done, someone said this calls for a celebratory dinner, so someone did.

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At the press conference the next day to announce the U-turn that everyone already knew about, Xavi said: “Correcting your mistakes is what wise men do.” The word he and Laporta repeated was ilusión: hope, enthusiasm. They talked about confidence, trust, ambition, a winning project, which the president said this already was. They said how much they loved Barcelona, how united they were in that, how that was all that really mattered.

Xavi (centre) leading a Barcelona training session earlier this month.View image in fullscreen

“This is good news: we’re delighted to accept his decision to change his mind,” the president said. There was a moment when the president choked up, pausing as he tried to say that Barcelona could be “proud of the coach we have”. Applause went round the room and the two men embraced, big smiles on their faces, a hint of tears in their eyes. “I was always clear that I wanted Xavi to continue,” he said. “Stability is very important for success.”

The next time they sat down together, Laporta sacked him. The president, an emotional man surrounded by many voices, let it be known that he had been unhappy at Xavi offering a more pessimistic appraisal of Barcelona’s economic and sporting situation, publicly admitting that it would be difficult to compete with Madrid next season. Doing so, Laporta felt, went against an agreement made at his flat that night to project a united, positive message and contradicted the enthusiasm they had expressed the next day, all the talk of a project that could win. For all the difficulties, Laporta judged that Barcelona had made a huge effort to provide Xavi with players, more than €250m spent during his spell in charge.

Yet there was something simpler at play too: the conviction had never been complete, the doubts never far from the surface and the end of the season offered them the right moment to move. More importantly, they now saw that the upgrade they had sought but been unable to secure since January could actually be completed.

Xavi had lasted a month; for the last 10 days, he had been waiting, knowing that his time was up because he had heard it on the radio but was unable to get anyone to actually tell him so. He was abandoned and alone except for the fans at Montjuic chanting: “Xavi yes, Laporta no!” – and he said he didn’t like that much either.

It was over. For all the show, for all that they had looked into each other’s eyes, it had meant nothing; there had been no winners that Wednesday night in April. Apart from Parco on Passeig de Gràcia.

Source: theguardian.com

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