In the run-up to the first goal in the recent game between Real Madrid and Barcelona—known around the world as El Classico—Lionel Messi, currently the best player in the world by a long shot, was fouled and knocked down, only to get up quickly, receive the ball, and pass it on to Xavi, who returned it with a sublime chip over the hapless heads of Real’s defense—and while Raul Albiol* thrashed around as though about to speak in tongues trying to stop him, Messi scored with a shot that simultaneously looked clumsy and exactly perfect. (There's video of the goal at the end of the piece.) Much has been made in the European soccer press of Messi’s quickly getting up after the pretty rough foul: un-Ronaldo-like, he wasted no time writhing in fake pain or demanding from the ref to smack the fouler with a yellow card. Messi’s eager resilience, the absolute focus on playing the game, and his burning desire to win rather than to be seen as great (which is what makes Ronaldo ultimately a second-rate player) was manifest in the narrative of that first goal in this year’s El Classico. Real’s galacticos (whose training sessions surely include whining drills and referee-intimidation exercises) could learn a lot from the useful lessons offered by Professor Messi and Dr. Xavi.
They would be wise, for instance, to study the perfect understanding between the two men evident in the sublime chip to Messi—it was clear that Xavi could have made that pass with his eyes closed. A similar mental connection was visible in Xavi’s pass to Pedro, taking out the entire Real defense in one fell swoop, on the way to Barcelona’s second goal. Indeed, an entire school year (which is what this season is amounting to for Real), ought to be dedicated to Xavi. The man simply does not lose the ball. Outnumbering the next contender by a few hundred completed passes, he is far and away the best passer in this year’s La Liga. And in the world, for that matter.
A galactico-muddled mind would assign Xavi’s unassuming brilliance (when not destroying Real, he likes to pick mushrooms) to some sort of market-evaluated greatness, a purchasable set of skills, nothing that money can’t buy. But the secret of Xavi’s dominance and Barcelona’s enduring power is rather simple and obvious and not exactly purchasable. Xavi has been part of the Catalan club since the age of eleven, when, 19 years ago, he entered its youth academy. Barca’s core players, Xavi included, have between them nearly a century of playing for the club: Iniesta (another perfect passer, whom Wayne Rooney declared the best player in the world after the humbling in last year’s Champions League finals) has been with Barca for 14 years, since the age of twelve; Puyol, the captain of the team, and Valdes, the goalie, have been around for 15 years; Messi joined in 2000, at the age of 13; the up-and-coming Pedro was 16 when he arrived six years ago; and Bojan Krkic, the youngest first-team player, has been part of Barca since the age of nine and scored more than 500 goals for its youth teams. To top it all off, Pep Guardiola, the coach, played for Barcelona for 17 years in his prime.
Unlike Real, Barcelona raises its players, developing them within the system. (Krkic and Messi are the two youngest Barca players to have scored in a league game—both were 17 at the time.) Their skills thus include not only a perfect understanding of Barca’s soccer philosophy—in one word: passing—but also an absolute devotion to the team ethic as well. And when Barcelona splashes some cash to get a big name (Ronaldihno, Henry, Ibrahimovic), the new arrivals are fully expected to fit into and contribute to the system and unconditionally accept the team ethic. At the beginning of the 2008/09 season, Guardiola’s first as the head coach, he offloaded to Milan the great Ronaldihno, who had become prone to all-night partying and skipping training sessions--by the end of the season, Guardiola added both La Liga and Champions League trophies to Barca’s collection. Though Messi, Xavi, and co., have salaries entirely comparable to those of galacticos, their humility and loyalty to the team is glaringly opposite to the locker-room shenanigans that every unfortunate coach of Real Madrid has to confront before he’s inevitably fired.
This column was supposed to be about Messi, as he seems to be having a perfect season. He has scored 40 goals for Barca in his 45 appearances, 27 in La Liga alone. He has had a number of classic performances—say, all four goals in Barcelona’s demolition of Arsenal, or the week in March when he scored eight goals in three games. But as great as he is, as memorable as his season has been, he owes so much to his team—which he knows and shows—that it is impossible to talk about him without talking about Xavi and Barcelona’s philosophy of soccer. Even if Messi’s ability to run at defenders and change direction at fantastic speed is unearthly—after jetting from the halfway line past the entire Zaragoza defense to score a goal, he said: “I don’t know if that … was the nicest goal I ever scored, it happened so fast”)—his prolific scoring is entirely dependent on the acres of running space that Barca habitually carves out on the pitch with their passing. Xavi is a perfect passer because at any given time he has at least two players in a good position to receive the ball, which allows them to patiently wait for an opportunity to cut through the defense, all the while controlling the rhythm; Barcelona is the only team that can rest while in possession. Man-to-man marking does not work on Messi, because he can hold ball away from his marker and pass it on before he immediately moves to a new position. Messi’s constant movement creates passing space for Xavi and Barca’s midfield, and from this space they feed immaculately his scoring appetite. Messi is, in other words, made for Barcelona, and Barcelona was made for him. So when Maradona said, after Messi’s four goals against Arsenal, that he “plays kick-about with Jesus” he was, as often has been the case in recent years, entirely wrong. Who needs Jesus when you have Xavi on your team? Jesus is but a galactico.
It will thus be interesting to see what Jose Mourihno and his Inter Milan will do to stop Messi, Xavi, and their teammates this evening. One would expect Inter to clog the midfield and narrow the space for Xavi, while preventing Messi with a man-to-man marker from making runs or turning inward, restricting him to a flank position. It has been said that the only man who stopped Messi this season was Maradona—Messi’s continuous underperforming on the Argentine national team makes Barcelona’s tactical accomplishment even more impressive—but if Mourihno manages to find the formula for victory against the Catalan club, his reputation as the genius tactician (“the special one”) will be well preserved. And, of course, Real Madrid will want him to be their next coach.
It is hard to see, however, how Messi, Xavi, and their teammates can be stopped. They are ineffably good at what they do, simply because it is what they have been doing for Barcelona for a very long time. Transcendence is all about practice.
*Correction: This piece originally stated that Van der Vaart was defending Messi at the time of the goal, when the defeder was Raul Albiol. We regret the error.
Aleksander Hemon is the author, most recently, of The Book of My Lives and The Matters of Life, Death, and More: Writing on Soccer.