Thursday 17 December 2020, 23:33

Xavi: When you win the World Cup you are a champion forever

  • Spain legend Xavi talks Qatar 2022, South Africa 2010 memories and more

  • Xavi has lived, coached and played in Qatar for several years

  • “Football culture is growing at a tremendous speed in Qatar”

Xavi sits among the pantheon of great football technicians in the modern era. The midfield maestro was an integral figure as Spain won an unprecedented treble crowned by a maiden FIFA World Cup™ win in 2010, sandwiched either side of UEFA EURO triumphs.

After a glorious career with Barcelona, Xavi successfully transitioned to coaching with a successful spell at Qatar heavyweights Al Sadd.

Having lived in Qatar for several years, Xavi talks exclusively about why the 2022 World Cup will be a memorable experience on and off the field, his memories of South Africa 2010, the main contenders to win Qatar 2022 and much more.

Who do you see as the current favourites for the tournament in 2022? Are there any teams under the radar that could have a big impact?

Xavi: I’m really looking forward to the World Cup in Qatar in two years’ time. It is shaping up to be a really exciting tournament and lots of teams will go there with the belief that they can win it. It was great to see Spain play really well again in recent internationals – I think the team has returned to a high level and will go to the EUROs and then the World Cup in 2022 with lots of confidence.

The European nations are looking very strong at the moment. It is impossible to pick a favourite, but France will be going to Qatar as the reigning champions and will believe their squad is strong enough to defend the title – they have so many exciting players, including match-winners like Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.

Germany, Italy, Belgium, Portugal and Croatia should all be very competitive too and will be very difficult teams to beat – so I wouldn’t write any of them off at this stage. When you look at South America, Brazil and Argentina always go into the competition thinking they can win and both will have strong squads, with players like Neymar and Lionel Messi leading the way for some of the younger players coming through. Uruguay, Colombia and Chile are also more than capable of competing with the best teams in the world and getting a result. Let’s see who qualifies but I think it will be a very open tournament which will make it a great spectacle.

Having lived in Qatar for the last few years, and seeing the progress here first-hand, I’m really excited to see the host country compete at the tournament. Not only has a huge amount of investment gone towards developing top-class facilities and stadiums to host the tournament, but a huge amount of work has gone into developing a national team capable of competing on the biggest stage with the world’s best teams. The new generation of players coming through in Qatar are improving a lot and with the current rate of development and having recently won the Asian Cup, I think Qatar can compete very well at their first World Cup. Football culture is growing at a tremendous speed here and I think the World Cup will help take the sport to the next level, not only in Qatar but in the whole Arab region.

Al-Sadd Sports Club head coach Xavi Hernandez reacts

You moved to Qatar back in 2015 to play for Al Sadd. From your experience, what can fans travelling to the FIFA World Cup in 2022 expect when they reach the host country?

Excitement is really starting to build here in Qatar for 2022. The country has promised to put on a spectacular show for football fans and having seen the progress since I moved here in 2015 on everything from the stadiums to accommodation, I’ve every confidence that it will be an incredible tournament for both players and fans.

When you walk around Doha and meet the locals, it is clear that people here are really passionate about football. I didn’t really know what to expect when I first moved here as it was a completely new experience for me, leaving Barça after 25 years, to go to a new part of the world with a different culture and traditions that I was accustomed to in Catalonia. But I must admit that I like practically everything about living in Qatar. The weather is amazing with sunshine almost every day and it is a very relaxing place to work as the people are really respectful and friendly. It’s also a very safe country with very little crime so is a great place to raise a young family.

I think fans will have a great experience here. The stadiums are super impressive and have been built to ensure the best possible fan experience, so the atmosphere inside the grounds should be incredible.

Away from the football it will be a chance for fans to experience a whole new part of the world and culture. It has amazing beach hotels, lots of lovely restaurants and shopping malls, and the fan zones will be a great place for fans from all over the world to gather for a drink and soak in the atmosphere, so I think fans travelling to Qatar will have a great experience in 2022.

Spain’s World Cup winning team in 2010 was unique. What are the key characteristics that made that group of players so special?

I was very lucky to be part of a special generation of players. Not only did we win the World Cup, but we also won the European Championship twice in a row. I think the main characteristics that defined those winning teams was that we had a very humble and honest group of players that worked very hard for each other. Everyone was there for the group and did everything they could for the greater good of the team. It was also a winning team on an amazing run which meant we played with the confidence that we could win every game.

The coaches also did a lot for us. Luis Aragones brought the core group together initially, and Vincente del Bosque continued his work, and was someone who really got the best from the talent we had in Spain at that time. It was a generation with a lot of talent and Del Bosque gave us the confidence to go out and play a style of football that allowed us to dominate games and was exciting to watch. I think that is what people will remember about that era.

2020 is the tenth anniversary of Spain’s victory in South Africa. What’s the first memory or image that comes to mind, whenever anybody mentions that World Cup?

Many spectacular memories come to mind. It's been ten years since the victory in South Africa, but it seems like yesterday. That feeling of knowing you have made history is incredible. I remember the celebrations vividly, having the cup in our possession and travelling on a convertible bus through Madrid. The joy that the victory brought to everyone in Spain was immense and it is something that will live in my memory for the rest of my life. After you win the World Cup, you are a world champion forever, nobody can take that away from you. It is spectacular what we were able to achieve, so it makes me very happy and proud to remember those moments.

Perfect matches probably don’t exist as there’s always something to improve. However, if you had to choose a match in the 2010 World Cup when Spain’s performance was at its best, which one would it be, and why?

I think the best game we played in 2010 was the semi-final against Germany. Germany had a very similar philosophy to ours, of wanting the ball, of dominating the game, of going on the attack. I think we both played a similar style in that game and on the day, we were better than them. In the final we suffered a bit more because we came up against a very tough and aggressive Dutch team that wouldn't let us play. On the other hand, Germany wanted to play us at our own game and on the day, we were the superior team.

Spain based its domination on ball possession. Football is evolving to a game where physical strength and speed in transitions are crucial. Could a team playing the way Spain did in 2010, in your opinion, win the World Cup in 2022?

I’m convinced that the team that has more possession of the ball and goes on the attack more often has a better chance of winning than a team that defends. I’m convinced because I lived it that way as a player and achieved success in the game following that model. In the end, the team that goes on the attack, the one who shoots the most, the one who is closest to the opposition’s goal, is the one with the best chance of winning. It doesn't guarantee it, but I think the statistics are in their favour. So yes, I believe a team could win the 2022 World Cup by playing a possession-based game at a high tempo.

In football, I believe there are two types of coaches, those who want to defend and those who want to attack. For me it is clear which is my preferred philosophy. As a coach, I want my team to have the ball, I want to attack. I want to play in the opposition’s half of the pitch. I want my players to put a lot of pressure on the opposition to ensure the ball is in our possession the majority of the time. I believe lots of things have improved in the modern game and of course there is a big emphasis on things like the speed ​​of transitions and the physical strength of players, but in the end, I believe it is the most talented and skilful team that will prevail in the game.

Xavi in Qatar