Tale of two masters

Football: Barca's Xavi and Juventus' Pirlo, playmakers non-pareil, have left a lasting legacy behind them

Tale of two masters

The last whistle in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium brought unbridled joy for Xavi Hernández and unabashed tears from Andrea Pirlo. Eventually, they found one another amid the bedlam on the field after Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Juventus in the Champions League final. Xavi wrapped his arms around Pirlo, and to many of us watching that embrace, it felt like losing two friends, knowing that we won’t see either of them at the top of their game again.

Midnight was fast approaching, and with it Xavi, the Catalan playmaker, and Pirlo, the Italian virtuoso, would say their goodbyes to players with whom they have shared their lives and their triumphs.

Allow me to correct that: They said their goodbyes to players -- some of them the greats of the game -- whom they have directed through life.

Xavi, 35, will next play for Al Sadd, the Qatari club where he will wind down his career at a far slower tempo than Barcelona’s. He will also start building his coaching credentials and serve as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar will host.

Pirlo, 36, will travel in the opposite direction, west. It isn’t yet official, but he is leaving Juventus to head to America and Major League Soccer to become the third “designated player” with New York City FC, alongside Frank Lampard and David Villa.

Both will still get to enjoy first-class travel and top-notch salaries, no doubt. But these are the first steps on the road to retirement for two men whose trophy collection includes everything a soccer player would want, including a World Cup title for Pirlo in 2006 and one for Xavi from 2010.

“I feel nostalgia,” Xavi said on Spanish television with the match ball his for keeps and the trophy barely out of his hands. “Knowing you are not going to play again for this club is hard, but I am content. This generation has made history. I am leaving, but they will keep making history. It is a fantastic team.”

Of course it is, with all the great talents it has. Barca’s Andres Iniesta was named the man of the match in Berlin. Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. And Ivan Rakitic has gradually filled Xavi’s role in midfield, though in a more robust way than the serene flow that Xavi has conducted for the team over the past decade and a half.

Winning is everything in sports, but from the perspective that Xavi and Pirlo are saying their goodbyes to European soccer, it doesn’t matter which of them won. The greater loss is ours.

They have been great sports as well as great sportsmen, two of the most compelling reasons to go to a soccer stadium. They made other players play, guiding and serving the passes to those who made the headlines.

But what they did goes beyond just a pass or a dribble or even a goal.
Put it this way: There is no excuse for any child in Qatar, the United States or anywhere else to conclude that soccer is for just bigger, stronger, more powerful athletes. Xavi is 5-foot-7. Pirlo is a little bit taller, but not much.

It is the size of their imagination, and their heart, that made them what they are. Xavi was surrounded by bigger boys, and then bigger men, as he grew up at Barca, but he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them all, once play began, as did the similar-size Iniesta and Messi.

Xavi knew what he wanted to be at age 11 when he enrolled at Barcelona’s academy, where he embraced the philosophy imbued by Johan Cruyff, the great Dutch player: Play with the mind, pass to the foot and move with imagination.

Pirlo, who was born into a sterner culture in northern Italy, willed himself to be different. As a youngster he studied the technique that Juninho Pernambucano, a Brazilian free-kick specialist, used to apply spin and deceptive movement to the ball as it was flying through the air.

In Pirlo’s autobiography, “Penso Quindi Gioco” (“I Think, Therefore I Play”) he described his fascination with what the Brazilian did, along with countless practices to replicate it -- and the Eureka moment when he found he could bend it as Juninho did with the French club Lyon from 2001 to 2009.

Italian scribes dubbed Pirlo the “Mozart” of soccer as he started from Brescia, matured at AC Milan, and finished up with Juventus. He could play deep in the field, yet turn defence into attack in a second. A fleeting glimpse of that came in the final in his 40-yard pass that hit Paul Pogba in full stride.

Fans had to wait until the final 15 minutes of that match at Berlin to see Xavi rise from the bench and take his part.

But Xavi always could play the waiting game. He didn’t just give the ball, he shared it around. Dani Alves, the Brazilian wing back for Barcelona, talks of “Xavi always playing the game in the future.”

That means thinking ahead and deciding which colleague is most likely to capitalise from receiving the ball. Obviously, it helps that Messi and Iniesta grew up in the same school as Xavi.

But just look at the way that Ronaldinho once thrilled the fans at Camp Nou in Barcelona long before Neymar emerged. Look at the way Barca integrated Luis Suarez after critics could not figure out why the club would pay so much for another striker.

The coach, Luis Enrique, knitted the ensemble together. But it was Xavi’s name that was on many of the passes that liberated Messi, Suarez and Neymar to score 122 goals this season.

“It’s 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, shared, even in defeat, by Pirlo. We wish them well on road to retirement.

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