Xavi: I'd take Barça only winning Champions League next year
In part two of Xavi Hernández's interview with Diario AS, the Barcelona legend gives his thoughts on how things are going at his former club.
Do you think being turned down by Antoine Griezmann is a major blow for Barcelona?
I don't know exactly how he would have slotted into the team, but he was certainly a good option for the attack. There's no point talking about something that's in the past, though. He's opted to stay at Atlético Madrid and you have to respect that. He's clearly happy there and, as we've seen, he does the business for them out on the pitch.
Don't you think that Barcelona seem to have lost a bit of glamour? They no longer appear to have the same ability to attract players.
At the end of the day, this remains a business. The people who make the decisions at Barcelona set out the direction the club takes. They'll have a vision for how they want the team to play and it's down to them to call the shots. I've been away for three years but, as far as I can see, Barça are in good footballing health.
What are your reasons for saying that?
Because they're still winning trophies. The problem is that Real Madrid have been winning the Champions League, and so that comparison is made... Imagine if Barça had won the same but Real hadn't won those three Champions Leagues; we'd be talking about a golden age at Barcelona. But Real are keeping pace with Barça in terms of silverware, and perhaps theirs has greater clout because of the Champions Leagues. That's why it seems like Barcelona aren't doing well, but they are. Barça are in good health; the thing is that Real are in excellent health. And that's the problem.
The problem is also that if Barcelona fell 18 points behind Real Madrid by the midway point of the LaLiga season and went out of the Copa del Rey early doors, the atmosphere surrounding the club, particularly in the media, would be too explosive.
At Barcelona, it's impossible to win the Champions League without lifting other trophies in the same season, because there would be too much negatitivity surrounding the club. Real Madrid don't get the same level of criticism until they're mathematically out of the title race; only then do they get panned. At Barcelona, there's criticism from the word go. Those of us who have experienced it can understand it, but for anyone coming into the club from outside, or for a new coach, it isn't easy to live with. So if Barça went 18 points behind Real and were knocked out of the Copa by Leganés, they'd be 99.99% certain not to win the Champions League. If they don't win LaLiga, they won't win the Champions League.
Would you swap a domestic double for a Champions League?
I would for a season, yeah. If you asked any Barcelona fan, they'd take winning the Champions League and nothing else next year.
Although it's worth noting that Zinedine Zidane said his biggest achievement at Real Madrid was winning LaLiga...
LaLiga is a reflection of how you have performed throughout the season. The table doesn't lie. The Champions League can depend on a refereeing decision, on whether you're in good form at a particular time. In the league, it's 38 games and the end result reflects where everyone is at. It's also the case that coaches tend to appreciate what they haven't won much more than what they have.
What's your assessment of the job that Ernesto Valverde has done?
I think he's done a very good job. He's come in with his idea of how to play and put different systems at the team's disposal - 4-4-2, 4-3-3... - but above and beyond the system, he's instilled a real sense of calm in the group. The group look happy and take things in their stride out on the pitch. Valverde's a guy who fosters togetherness, who's positive. I know his fitness coach [Ros Pozanco] from when I was playing for the [Barcelona] 'B' team. At the end of the day, they're good guys who are straight with you and keep things simple. He's been a really good appointment.
Are you worried about the fact Andrés Iniesta won't be there next season?
Valverde showed that he could deal with Neymar leaving last August, as well as a motion of no-confidence [in the club board] and being given a going over by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. And from there on in he created a positive atmosphere for the group, gave it stability, and won the double. His achievement shouldn't be underestimated. Iniesta will be a big miss, both on the pitch and in the dressing room, but at the end of the day Barcelona can survive losing anyone. World-class stars like Ronaldinho, Romario and Rivaldo have all left, and Barcelona have continued to compete.
Is Philippe Coutinho Iniesta's natural successor?
Yes, without a doubt. I think he's been a great signing. They're different players, but he can slot into Iniesta's position perfectly. In fact, we're seeing him in that position with Brazil, with Neymar, Gabriel Jesús and Willian, and then him on the left. He's already played there for Barcelona. If you start by accepting that it's impossible to replace someone like Andrés, you then have to look for a solution and I think Coutinho is an absolutely top-drawer solution.
Lionel Messi has complained this year about how few youth products are making the step-up to the first team. What's your take on this from your vantage point outside the club?
I can only talk about my own experience. I could feel that Barcelona were right behind me, that they had a long-term plan for me. People like [youth coaches] Joan Vilà and Oriol Tort gave me a lot of confidence. I felt that I had a chance of breaking into the first team. It isn't easy to do that. They have to give you the chance, they have to believe in you and you as a player need to be able to see that that door is open for you to make it. We're seeing that it's harder and harder. The bar is really high, but the talent is there in the youth ranks. It's just about having the mentality, the support of the people in charge and you feeling that you can make it there. The last one [to establish himself in the first team] was Sergi Roberto, who had the patience to wait for his moment and has now made it a reality. Often, the lads who are 15, 16, and 17 are in a real hurry; perhaps too much of a hurry. I also found it hard to make the breakthrough, as did Iniesta. It took us three or four years, and we had that patience. Now, people put financial priorities ahead of footballing ones. You've also got to have a particular mentality to make it as a player at Barcelona.
You've always been very clear in your view that once youth players decide to leave the club, the door shouldn't be open for them to return.
Yes. If I've backed that lad, have told him that we've got a long-term plan for him and that the first-team door is open to him, and then he leaves, the door should be closed on him returning to the club. It's his decision and one that has to be respected, but I'd make it very clear to him that he won't ever be brought back. If I were to bring him back to the club, what would I be saying about how I value those who have stayed? If you think that by leaving it'll be easier for you to return [as a first-team player] because I'll buy you back for so many million euros, you're very wrong. If you leave, you can't come back.
Which team did you most enjoy watching last season?
[Pep] Guardiola's Manchester City side. They played extraordinary football and got the results to go with it. Not only City, though. Quique Setién's Real Betis also played some terrific stuff. But I also understand that other people like [Diego] Simeone's Atlético Madrid, and their opinion is just as valid as mine. I prefer attacking football that's about taking the initiative with ball at feet, but I also understand that there are other ideas about how to play and I respect them. Personally, I suffer when I don't have the ball. I like watching Guardiola's City, Barcelona, the Spain team...
You already talk like a coach... When will we see you in the dugout?
I don't know yet, because I'm still enjoying being a player. Right now I've got the Asian Champions League, which will last until November if we get to the final. If I feel in good shape, maybe I'll carry on six months more.