The MSR Advent calendar: Our favorite signings that never happened: Door 22 – Xavi
The situation with the player
Xavi at FC Bayern? The Xavi? Xavi Hernández? I know exactly what you are thinking. Miasanrot ran out of unfulfilled transfer ideas at the end of the Advent calendar, and now they have gone into overdrive, wildly pulling random names out of the hat, the sillier the better. But you would have thought wrong! Among the infinite number of parallel universes, there is also one in which a seemingly stagnating Xavi at Barcelona’s decided against Pep Guardiola and for Jürgen Klinsmann in the summer of 2008.
“After the Euros 2008, I had the feeling Barcelona were ready to sell me. At that time Real Madrid were the dominant team and not us. I met up with the national team knowing that the club would sell me as soon as an offer came. […] I spoke to my agent and he told me there was an offer from Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge wanted me.”Xavi in Marca
To understand how Barcelona could even have entertained the idea of selling one of the best footballers of all time, it is important to remember that Xavi’s reputation before the 2008 European Championships was exactly not all that hot. In a world dominated by the physicality of the Premier League, Xavi’s reputation was merely that of a technically gifted stylist, but not much more. Few spoke of world class. He was seen as more of an also-ran than a key performer. All in all, he was one of those typical players who a club would readily pass on when things have not gone well for two years and a rejuvenation of the squad is seen as the key to turn things around.
The situation at the club
In the summer of 2008, everything seemed to be hunky-dory at FC Bayern. After the disgrace of being demoted to the UEFA Cup as a result of the disastrous planning surrounding Michael Ballack’s departure, the club had turned to their famous fixed deposit account and signed Franck Ribéry, Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose and Zé Roberto. Owing not least to this infusion of quality, they had almost immediately reclaimed the domestic double. And so, now that Ottmar Hitzfeld had been able to bring stability to the club, it was time to set out for new shores. Just as he had done with the national team, Jürgen Klinsmann was to bring Bayern’s game into the modern era of football.
The result is well known: In the absence of an assistant like Joachim Löw, Klinsmann’s house of cards completely collapsed. Precious little was there to see of the fresh attacking football everybody was looking forward to. VfL Wolfsburg became Bundesliga champions, while in the Champions League Bayern suffered the most consequential defeat of the millennium against Xavi’s Barcelona, of all teams. In the end, Jupp Heynckes had to rescue the shambles of a season and secure qualification for the Champions League.
The ‘what if’ outlook
The central midfield at that time consisted mainly of captain and fighter Mark van Bommel, as well as creative director Zé Roberto. The Brazilian was going through a truly golden career twilight, returning to FC Bayern at 33 and finally being deployed in his best position in central midfield. As a deep-lying playmaker, he almost reached world-class level, but of course he did not match Xavi’s quality. Had the Catalan come in, he would almost certainly have taken over Zé Roberto’s role in the team, although pairing him with the Brazilian in a 4-3-3 would have been conceivable as well.
World class even then
With Xavi, Bayern would have had a demigod in the team for years to come, although it is quite unclear whether the general public would have realized this at all. For if I dared to describe the great Xavi as an also-ran above, I was referring exclusively to his reputation, not his actual quality. Certainly, nothing magically clicked with Xavi during the Euros in 2008 that would have served to catapult his reputation in the general public from solid to possibly the best midfielder of modern times.
If people generally considered him world-class only after the tournament, it was only because in the years thereafter his teams eventually fully embraced his short-passing style of play. Although he arguably did indeed reach a new level at the Euros, yes, he had been already world-class before that. It was just that nobody noticed.
Spain relied on an intricate short passing game so heavily at the Euros that it forced people to look at Xavi and Iniesta in a completely new light. A light that should now, at the latest, also have dawned on FC Barcelona’s senior management. Although Xavi himself states that it was only the conversation with his new coach Pep Guardiola that encouraged him to stay, it seems abundantly unlikely that the Catalan super club would have given away the best player of the Euros.
A complete counterfactual
Therefore, if we are to rewrite history, we also have to, for better or worse, erase Spain’s triumph in Austria and Switzerland. Only this way does it seem even remotely conceivable that the Catalans would have let go of one of La Masia’s three most capable talents.
But what would football history have been like without Xavi at the heart of Barcelona’s midfield? Would Guardiola’s football have been as influential? Presumably he would still have left his distinctive mark on the game because he invented gegenpressing, which he could also have implemented without Xavi at Barca, but his football would presumably have had less success and his personal rise been a little less stellar.
More exciting, however, is the question of whether Xavi would have developed into the same player at FC Bayern. I actually doubt this, because even if all the key names that are inextricably linked to the FC Barcelona of the time are certainly footballing giants, be it Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Guardiola or even Messi, they also all have in common that they stand on each other’s shoulders. While even as individuals they may all be world-class, only as a whole they were able to scale the very highest peaks of the game of football.
Xavi would certainly still have been a world class player at Bayern, but he would not have reached the same heights as under Guardiola in Spain. That may have been a shame for football lovers, but FC Bayern could hardly have cared less had they signed him. A midfield consisting of Xavi, Bastian Schweinsteiger and presumably a destroyer like Javi Martínez a few years later? What a mouth-watering image! Klinsmann would probably have been beyond saving anyway, so let us go with the assumption that Louis van Gaal would still have followed soon after as in fact he did, the chances of this trifecta actually playing together would have been quite decent.
The history of football might have taken a very, very different course. The possibilities are endless and each new turn begets new ones. We are talking here about potentially very different winners of Champions Leagues and World Cups. Much more than perhaps all the other doors of our Advent calendar, this transfer would have turned everything – and we really are talking about everything – upside down. The alternative reality with Xavi in the shirt of FC Bayern would have been a substantially different one, and would have had ramifications right up to the present day, despite Xavi having ended his career a long time ago.
In the end it is only a dream
It is just as well that this transfer ultimately never came about. Because even if Xavi himself went to Austria 2008 with the attitude that he would leave his home club after the tournament, Guardiola would never have allowed it. At any rate, I cannot imagine that happening.
Guardiola’s power as an inexperienced head coach freshman was by no means as great as it is today. But at least he was powerful enough to persuade his club to get rid of such big names as Deco and Ronaldinho. While the European Championships certainly did not ignite Guardiola’s love for Xavi, they will have rekindled it.
Even if there were talks and Xavi was possibly already thinking of Bayern, to ever see the great exemplar of the modern midfield magician and the inspiration of so many other players coming in his wake in the shirt of FC Bayern has been and will forever remain a pipe dream. A wonderful dream, yes, but only a dream.