Xavi poised to go where Cruyff never ventured
He cried his eyes out at the time and some hurts never do quite evaporate. Xavier Hernandez is standing in the Nou Camp, being asked to think back to the first time his beloved Barcelona won the European Cup and still sounds pained that he could not be there to witness history.
"I was too young to go to Wembley in 1992. My parents wouldn't let me. My brother was allowed to go, but not me," he ponders. "So, you can see why it's important for me to go this time," said the Barcelona midfielder.
Important? Absolutely critical, more like. This great 21st century Barcelona now revolve on a Xavi axis, dance to a Xavi beat, make music to a Xavi baton. On Saturday, the little fellow will be to Pep Guardiola what Guardiola himself was to Johan Cruyff in '92: chief lieutenant, choreographer, conductor.
"You're going to retire me," Guardiola once joked when he saw this kid Xavi knocking the ball around outside the club's La Masia academy with such eerie accuracy and precision that they called him 'La Maquina' -- The Machine. Actually, what he should have said was 'one day you're going to help fashion a dynasty for me'.
It is the unspoken gospel at Barcelona; no FCB outfit were greater than Cruyff's 1992 Dream Team. Even Guardiola only calls his mob 'Sons of the Dream Team'.
Xavi sounds almost reverential when he says of the Dutchman: "He changed the idiosyncrasy of the club. He introduced the philosophy to keep the ball, to play in triangles, to attack, the philosophy that remains true to this day. We're all students of Cruyff and his school of thought."
Except the students are on the verge of achieving something the master never could. Cruyff's Dream Team reigned supreme in Spain for four years at the start of the 90s, but, after the Wembley victory over Sampdoria, they could not repeat the dose in Europe, the nearest being their hammering by Fabio Capello's AC Milan in the '94 final.
But Xavi believes Guardiola's side are now poised to go where Cruyff's team never ventured by establishing a footballing dynasty in Europe to match some of the sport's most fabled.
"This is our third final in six years. For us, this is historic. There are 10 or 15 teams who can win the Champions League any season, so to reach the final again is fantastic.
"We intend to carry on and to be like Ajax and Bayern (in the 1970s), Milan (1990s), Liverpool (late 1970s, early 1980s), those teams that built dynasties. We see no reason why not. We have a great team and coach here."
It is quickly evident that Xavi is as thoughtful and eloquent off the field as he is with the ball at his feet. It is easy to imagine Guardiola might have been the same at 31, even if by all accounts he was rather more fiery.
Xavi calls himself a romantic and he sounds like it as he rattles off his admiration for Alex Ferguson and United with that deep, sonorous voice which seems incongruous with his almost boyish enthusiasm.
Asked which of their players would get into Barcelona's side, he booms: "Many of them. Rooney, Chicharito, Evra, Ferdinand." He then laughs when the mischievous follow-up question "instead of who?" arrives.
"All I'm saying is that they would be good enough to play in any team in the world. If you are good enough for Manchester United, then you're good enough for any team. Because for me, Manchester is the reference point -- not just now, but over many years.
"Ferguson, Scholes, Giggs. References for everyone in football throughout the world. They have been at the top for many years playing at an extraordinary level.
"But United are not only about individuals. They're a great team who can play with many different tactical combinations too."
Xavi had previously hailed Paul Scholes as Europe's finest midfielder -- the accolade more familiarly bestowed on him.
But as Scholes fades, Xavi just seems to shine ever brighter. He does not turn a hair when reminded that his unique ability to control games like some master puppeteer once went so unrecognised in England that one newspaper headline infamously headlined a photograph thus: 'The best players of the world (and Xavi).' Actually, maybe they were right; he does belong in a completely different bracket.
"I find that more people appreciate my play now," he shrugs. "Maybe that comes from winning the World Cup and Champions League twice, but I actually did change the way I play. I started playing 10 metres further forward two or three years ago and then what people said about me changed too."
Ferguson, though, never changed his opinion. Two years ago, when Guardiola perfected that advanced Xavi central role, he, not Lionel Messi, was the most influential figure in Barca's Rome triumph, laying on the Argentinian's goal, hitting a post, creating numerous chances and leaving Ferguson grumbling about a bloke who could "keep the ball all night long", a player whose real greatness with that visionary passing lies in his ability to make those around him greater. Yes, even Messi.
And now he has that long overdue "romantic" evening at Wembley, and another opportunity to keep the ball all night long, one suspects the tears of despondency this time will not be shed by Xavi. (© Daily Telegraph, London)