Xavi Hernández sat down to chat with AS about the factors which contributed to Spain's premature exit from the World Cup, whether the team's style is out of date and what lies ahead in the future for the team.
The World Cup has always been difficult
Spain is blessed with a wealth of wonderful talent, they enjoyed a superb qualifying campaign, then Lopetegui leaves and it all goes horribly wrong at the World Cup. What do you think was behind the team's downfall in Russia?
The first explanation is that, in pure football terms, it's very difficult to beat any national team regardless of what level they might be at. It's a real struggle to beat Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia... And after that, Spain started off well then faded at the World Cup. The team had a decent start against Portugal and the sensations were good. I was in the stands watching the game and I thought we dominated the game and even played some brilliant football for brief moments; a few players suffered a loss of self-confidence and that rubbed off on the rest of the lads. Another thing which affected them was Lopetegui leaving. That the coach was leaving to take the Real Madrid job just two days before the World Cup was about to start must have been difficult for the players to digest.
Were you disappointed by that?
Of course. I regularly saw Lopetegui in Las Rozas when we were doing the coaches' training course and I thought that he is a man who is well prepared for the job, he was full of hope and felt convinced that things would work out well - he knew the players well and also during the two years the team spent in the qualifying round, they hadn't lost a game... Spain played some really nice football in the qualifiers and you got the feeling that Spain were in control of their games and that Lopetegui had everything in order, he was a good leader - a lot of people tell me that; everyone was happy with him and then two days before the tournament starts, it turns out he is joining Real Madrid. I would think the same if it had been Barcelona or Betis. Sometimes, because a lot of people associate me with Barcelona it might seem that I am against Real Madrid. It's not that I am against Madrid, just that these kinds of things break the harmony within the squad. I'll repeat what I said the day after he left. It was a hasty decision, the wrong decision and the squad didn't take it very well.
Xavi: I'm not ready to take on the Spain job
Rubiales will be naming the new coach today. Your name was in the list of candidates. Have you ruled yourself out of the job completely?
First of all, I don't think I am ready to take on such a big role; secondly I don't have my license to coach at international level and thirdly, now's not the right moment. I don't see myself taking on that kind of responsibility yet, I need to gain practice and experience coaching, I would need to prepare properly, assemble my coaching staff... there would be so many things to sort out. It wouldn't make sense for me to take the job now. It's very nice that I have been considered, but it would be too hasty.
Whoever does take the job has to continue with the idea with what made Spain European and world champions?
Of course, absolutely.
No foolproof formulas in football
Was that what Lopetegui had in mind?
The whole thing about "possession for nothing" was just the Russia game - you can't apply that to all of the games we've played. For instance, against Portugal the famous tiqui-taca - as the media calls it, worked. We played well, we pressed well, we attacked Portugal, had control of the ball and created plenty of chances. The same idea was put into practice against Russia, but they'll be days when it works and days when it won't. You will always have days when your opponents make everything much more difficult and you can't find solutions, whether you are trying get a breakthrough by going through the middle or from the wings.
Do you think Spain are on the right path?
I'm in no doubt whatsoever that the tiqui-taca passing style is the right way to go for Spain; it's a style which we started 10 years ago - right at the beginning with Camacho, Iñaki Sáez and Del Bosque, but most of all with Luis Aragonés. That's the idea we must stick with. It would be a huge mistake to suddenly adopt a different idea and style of play. Spain have to follow a path which is determined by the players we have - Isco, Busquets, Thiago, Asensio… these are players who like having the ball at the feet, they press high, they enjoy being the protagonists. That's the way I see it, but I can understand there are other ways of looking at it.
Now that you mention Isco, you made a few comments about him playing pretty football but not good football. Some people didn't agree with you on that. Can you explain what you meant?
That goes for Isco and for every footballer on the planet. You can do a fancy roulette inside your own half and it doesn't serve for anything or help the team in any way at all; what I mean is, you have to perform those sorts of moves: roulettes, stepovers or dribbling in the final quarter of the pitch, close to your opponents' goal if it is going to give you some kind of advantage. I mentioned Isco because I was asked specifically about Isco and Asensio. It's not for me to give Isco any kind of advice at all; I simply said it generally speaking, so it applies for Messi, Iniesta… That's what I think. Footballers can pull out all of those fancy skills, nutmegs etc. in the final third of the pitch where you have more to gain - not in your own half. That's why I described it as fancy football versus good football, as Luis Aragonés used to call it. Which do you prefer - pretty football or good football? I prefer good football, football that gives me results. You can do all the pretty football you like, but there's no point if it gets you nowhere...
Brazil was your favourite before the World Cup started?
That's right. I saw them as being physically strong, well organized, a few insiders spoke wonders to me about Tite. But like I say, this World Cup has been very equal and Belgium played their cards well - Hazard was sensational, De Bruyne was very intelligent. For me, now it's France who have the best chance to win it.
Xavi: "I know exactly how Iniesta must be feeling"
Your last game with the national team was a sad moment - knocked out of the World Cup and out of the starting XI for Spain's final game at Brazil 2014, can you sympathize with what happened with Iniesta?
Yes, completely. Since I gained my coaching certificate I can understand a lot of different situations. I my case, I felt let down because I saw myself as being an important player for the national team - I don't even think I had such a bad game against Holland, which we lost 5-1. It's all water under the bridge now. I fully understand how it must have been for Iniesta, he's leaving the national team feeling hurt, with the sensation that he isn't important... I can understand why he feels bad…
Have you spoken to him?
Yes. We're friends. I understand perfectly how he feels because I went through the same thing. It's not something which is easy to take on board.
Do you think Neymar gone too far with his theatrics?
It's the way he plays, it's just the way he is and that's hard to change. I can understand that it causes problems, some people think he dives too much but what you cannot criticize him for is for lack of trying or for not having personality; he will always take on a player or carry the weight of the team on his shoulders and I would much rather have a player like that on my side than someone who hides, or is afraid to take risks.
Did anyone at Barcelona take Neymar to one side to give him some advice about his antics?
No. We're all old enough to know what we're doing. What we did have to do from time to time was defend him from rival players who were trying to wind him up.
Do you think Neymar is the player with the most talent, after Messi?
Right now, yes. He is the clear successor to Messi and Cristiano. He's the No.1.
On the subject of Messi, what did you think of Argentina's World Cup?
They tried, they didn't play bad football. But when you are trying to play with extra tension, it's very difficult. I've been through the same thing in Spain, playing with people who don't want the ball, and that creates and unnecessary tension. You can't go out onto the pitch and be suffering like that. You can tell that there is a certain anxiety with Argentina, that they haven't won the World Cup since 1986. You need a lot of personality to want to have the ball at your feet, to rid yourself of this sense of urgency.
You know Leo better than most, do you see him enjoying his football with Argentina?
I don't think he's quite as happy with Argentina as he is with Barcelona.
You can't win it all, all the time
Do you think Argentina's catastrophe could affect him with Barcelona?
Maybe, yes. But you don't always achieve each and every one of your objectives in life. Fortunately, most of us in that generation of players were lucky enough to win everything but that's not normal - the normal thing is that there's always something missing, something that you haven't won.