Football: Xavi, Pirlo never passed up chance to play 'director'

Football: Xavi, Pirlo never passed up chance to play 'director'
Xavi Hernandez has provided many of the passes that Messi and Co. have profited from while Andrea Pirlo turns defence into attack at a stroke.

It will feel like losing two friends when I wake up this morning and realise that we will not see Xavi Hernandez or Andrea Pirlo play at the top of their game ever again.

Around midnight in Berlin, the Spanish playmaker and Italian virtuoso said their goodbyes to the players they have shared their lives and their greatest triumphs with. No, let me correct that: To the players, some of them greats of the game, whom they have directed through life.

Barcelona's Xavi, now 35, will next appear for Al-Sadd, a Qatari club where he will wind down to a slower tempo, study for his coaching credentials and serve as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup. Juve's Pirlo, 36, will travel in the opposite direction.

It isn't yet official but he is heading west to America where he is expected to become the third "designated player" along with Frank Lampard and David Villa at the New York City FC club bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City.

First-class travel, and top-of-the-range salaries, no doubt. But don't kid yourself that these are anything but the cushioned retirement roads for two men who last night were competing for the Champions League.

Each has won the greatest prizes in their game, including the World Cup of 2006 for Pirlo and Italy, and the 2010 World Cup for Xavi and Spain.

I don't know at the time of writing which of them was celebrating in the Olympiastadion late last night.

I imagined it would have been Xavi, probably coming on as a substitute, to join Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Co.

But it doesn't matter from the perspective of this commentary who won or lost.

The greater loss is ours. Xavi and Pirlo have been two of the most compelling reasons, to go to the stadiums in some pretty remote parts of the world.

They make other players play - in fact they guide and serve players who more often than not take the headlines for scoring from their passes.

But it is beyond just a pass or a dribble, or even a goal.

Let me put it this way: There is no excuse on the grounds of physical attributes for any child in Singapore, or in the whole of Asia, to conclude at an early age that football is for bigger, stronger, more powerful athletes than they might grow into. Xavi is 1.70 metres.

Pirlo is a little bit taller, but not much.

Surrounded always by bigger boys, and then bigger men, they may have been (although in the tiki-taka style that Xavi grew up with at Barca, he's actually shoulder to shoulder with Iniesta, and a good few centimetres taller than Leo Messi.) but it is the size of their imagination, and their heart, that has made them what they are.

Talent, in other words, isn't measured in size.

Xavi knew at 11 what he wanted to be - by then, the Catalan was enrolled in the La Masia academy.

The philosophy was what Johan Cruyff, the great Dutch player, imbued: Play with the mind, pass to feet and move with imagination.

Pirlo, born into another, sterner culture, willed himself to be different.

One of the things he did as a youngster was to study for hours - for weeks on end - the technique by which Juninho Pernambucano, a Brazilian free-kick specialist, applied spin and deceptive movement of flight to a ball.

In Pirlo's autobiography I Think, Therefore I Play, he describes the fascination, then the practice, and finally the Eureka moment when he found he could bend the flight of a ball like Pernambucano did for French club Lyon from 2001-09. Italian scribes have dubbed their Pirlo "l'achitetto" or "il professor" or simply "Mozart".

His role, usually in the defensive area of the team, is to turn defence into attack at a stroke.

He spotted (or plotted) the movement of forwards and pinged the ball 20, 30 or even more metres to them.

It would land into their stride, on their strongest foot. Or onto their chest. It created openings which, in the defensive labyrinth of Serie A football, few others would envisage.

In Italy, where pragmatism often rules, Pirlo has been prima.

He has been a winner because that is inbred into the culture.

But he sought, and achieved, to transcend the mere winning.

Xavi was blessed with more accomplices for his art. Barcelona built their culture around ball possession but movement too and a trust in more skills than I have seen in any side elsewhere.

What always impressed was Xavi's humility. He didn't just pass the ball, he shared it around.

Dani Alves, the Brazilian wing- back, talks of "Xavi always playing the game in the future".

That means thinking ahead, deciding which colleague was most likely to be in a position to receive it. Obviously, it helps when he's a Messi or an Iniesta whom they have grown up with together.

But just look at the way that Ronaldinho thrilled the Camp Nou audiences long before anyone ever thought of Neymar.

Look at the way Barca have integrated Luis Suarez when critics couldn't see why the club paid so much for another striker.

The coach, Luis Enrique, and his staff knitted the ensemble together.

But 120 goals between the front three before last night had to come from somewhere and, in a season when captain Xavi was winding down, his name was on many passes that liberated the scorers.

"Its about doing something extra, not just winning," Xavi once said. "Greater than the result is controlling or dominating a match.

"That is the legacy."

It is his legacy. One which Pirlo will understand. I'll miss them but wish them well on retirement road.

stsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 07, 2015.
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