Football is old, sometimes seeming timeless. Then as now, pam-pam-pam-pam, ball to boot. The leather boots of the past have been replaced by space-age microfiber things, but football is the same.
Another timeless aspect of the game is hope. Supporters, even as they know their team is set for another season of … not success, gird themselves with anticipation, get ready for match after match, ignore the inevitable until it is absolutely unavoidable.
When you read the reports of Xavi, the behind-the-scenes turmoil and his ultimate decision to step down, even foregoing any monies owed him after the end of this season, it all feels the same. Luis Enrique, Setien, Koeman, Valverde, and now Xavi.
There are some fantastic reads out there on the matter, but a favorite is this one from Graham Hunter. It’s the voice of a romantic and a realist, head and heart coming together in an interesting way.
Hunter has been covering the club for seeming eons, has seen so much, and is outraged at the treatment of Xavi by the club’s entorno, a vicious beast that is legendary for all of the wrong reasons. Any culer knows about its ugliness, anyone anticipating coming to the club should be warned about it. Anyone returning to the club should be doing so with eyes open.
Failure is sad. There will be people reveling in it, lining up to kick the bones. But it’s every bit as sad as the supporters who gather after the failure of another season. You know. They knew. But it’s sad nonetheless because hope is beautiful. And no matter what anyone thinks of Xavi and his suitability for the job, the demise of hope always leaves the heart just a little bit empty.
My views on his taking the job were no secret. I thought him ill-suited and underprepared. But like any proper supporter, my most fervent wishes were to be wrong. That’s how it is supposed to be. We all lined up to celebrate that Liga title last season, even as we also dug into how it happened, its improbability and the strong likelihood of its being a one-off.
Hope makes you ignore all of that.
That a line from a cartoon theme song pops to mind at a time such as this is deeply weird but the late, great “Super Chicken” had a title song with a line: “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” Xavi had to know. He has had experience with that nasty beast called the entorno before. He has seen what it did to the likes of Johan Cruijff, had a sniff of it rearing up to smite Pep Guardiola after an opening loss and draw, before the magic began. It’s a bitter, toxic, unrelentingly nasty environment that gives no quarter.
Some of it is related to the intramural quality of FC Barcelona. Catalan institution in a Catalan media world where speculation and negativity are rife. And it’s worth pausing here to separate analysis and criticism from what the entorno does. You can pick apart a game, a performance, a tenure and find them wanting. But the meanness, the personal, almost gleeful quality of the destruction that the entono wreaks is different.
Social media exacerbates the effect of the ugliness, makes it immediate. Back in the day you had to wait for Mundo Deportivo or Sport to print, then find its way onto trucks that dropped them at newsstands. There was time to breathe. Now, with a negative result the lashing is immediate — Twitter, Instagram, hastily written things posted in the echoes of the final whistle. There is no longer a respite, no longer any possibility of relief or a moment’s abeyance.
Barça is hooked on crisis, sips turmoil from a gaudy pimp cup. The success of the Guardiola years, for longtime followers of the club, felt aberrant because of their (relative) lack of spiteful, bitter ugliness. The entorno tried, but even those efforts were half-hearted. Iniesta, Messi, Xavi, Busquets, Puyol, Pique, Masia talents laying waste to football with a man who learned the game in the vaunted midfield of FC Barcelona. If ever there was a repellent, that success was it.
But the beast spares no one. It was revving up for Guardiola as trebles became doubles. He took a hiatus from managing, as if needing to cleanse his psyche. That he moved to Bayern, a club with a toxic backdrop as a seeming relief should give some insight into the savageness of the Barça landscape.
That someone should know doesn’t excuse it. That someone should know doesn’t mean they won’t expect something different. What is life without hope? Every year I would go to the U.S. Grand Prix and see a fan with a huge Minardi flag. He would run around, waving his flag and cheering. Minardi was last. Butt-nekkid last, but that didn’t stop him from hoping, craving for a peculiar set of circumstances that would somehow make the team he loved pull out something magical.
Xavi came to FC Barcelona fresh off success. The president wanted him, backed him with pulled levers, glad-handing and support. The club brought in players. A new manager hasn’t seen that kind of support in transfers since the last new manager installed by club president Joan Laporta. And a league title ensued, even as focus was on European failure. Anticipation built because success wants only more success, coiling like a spring that snaps cruelly at the first sign of failure, the impact of all that stored energy making the snapback seem harsher, harder, uglier.
Did Xavi think he would somehow be different? As we read media reports of him obsessing over the very media reports that he likely cautioned others to ignore when he was dominating midfields everywhere, explaining to them that is what the entorno does, it makes you wonder.
In the wake of all of this, there is sadness. Or there should be. Yes, Xavi wasn’t up for it. Yes, there was the typical Laporta turmoil in the boardroom, meddling, resignations, a seeming diminution of the professionalism that flowed from Jordi Cruijff and Mateu Alemany. Yes, there was failure, and is likely to be more failure. “Win one for the Gipper” only works on TV. In football, reality is a savage force.
There is sadness because hope is gone. There is sadness because Xavi, a player whose purity of task and effectiveness of mission embodied the kind of football culers want to see played, like few players before or since. There is sadness because even all of that glory, all of that success didn’t, doesn’t spare him. Xavi deserved better even if he didn’t really DO better. That’s the thing.
You can feel bad for Xavi, feel that he wasn’t up to the task. You can feel relief for him that he is free of that, and feel relief that you can have hope again that a different manager will be more successful. Life and football are never, ever binary. You can even hope that the entorno will have learned something as it licks the blood of a legend from its claws.
We’re supposed to have hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?