Xavi: Messi is even better than Maradona

Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Xavi
© Getty Images

There is no doubt that the cerebral displays of Xavi Hernandez have been vital to the recent success of both Barcelona and Spain. And when lifting the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy in South Africa, the midfielder completed a victorious cycle he began in 1999, when part of his country's FIFA U-20 World Cup-conquering squad in Nigeria. Also a La Liga winner this calendar year with Barça, the 30-year-old would surely love to cap a wonderful 2010 with the FIFA Ballon d’Or award. brings you a full and frank chat with the Catalan genius, touching on such topics as the lessons learned from South Africa 2010, his current form and the coveted award to be presented on 10 January 2011 in Zurich. Xavi, can you picture yourself winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or?Xavi:I’ll repeat what I’ve been telling everybody: I hope that a Spanish player wins it and if not, I hope it goes to my friend Leo Messi. He’s undisputably the best player in the world, and he’s going to win the Ballon d’Or several more times. But in World Cup years the tournament is a big factor, and Andres [Iniesta] and I won it, while* La Albiceleste* didn’t hit the heights expected of them.

Just how good is Messi?A player like him only comes around once every 50 years. The only reason the rest of us have any chance of winning this year is because the World Cup didn’t turn out too well for Argentina, because if it had, then it (the FIFA Ballon d’Or) would be no contest. In my view, Leo is now even better than [Diego] Maradona was. He’s going to be at the very top for many years to come, there’s nobody like him. He loves taking responsibility, he never hides away. And I’ve known him since he was a kid, I’ve watched him develop and I can say that he’s tremendously professional and has good people around him. He’s got all the ingredients for success.

What about Andres Iniesta?He’s simply something else - he’s a phenomenon. Last year he had back luck with injuries but this season he’s going to give us plenty to celebrate, just like at the World Cup when he scored the winner in the Final. The two of us work perfectly together.

And on a personal note, how are you doing?Physically I’m at breaking point. I’ve had to take a break because my Achilles tendon was really hurting me. But the rest has done me good, I’ve recharged my batteries.

Has the fact you’re a world champion totally sunk in yet?Yes, of course. Spain aren’t used to winning major titles like these, but we managed it at EURO 2008 and now the World Cup. What’s more, I’d highlight the fact that we’ve done it while playing good football, a commitment that deserves global recognition in the shape of an award. I was particularly pleased to hear FIFA President Joseph Blatter when he said that, at last, a team playing good football became world champions. Fortunately in football, talent is still more important than brute force. And we’ve got talent, we’ve got a generation of good footballers both at Barça and with Spain.

I hope that a Spanish player wins it and if not, I hope it goes to my friend Leo Messi. A player like him only comes around once every 50 years. Leo is now even better than Maradona was.

What other positives did you take from South Africa 2010?Germany were the biggest positive of all - I loved their commitment to attacking football. I think that overcoming them in the semi-finals paved the way to us winning the World Cup. Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and experienced players like Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski were all a pleasant surprise. Their entire team was in fact. It was noticeable that, just like us, they had a clutch of players who all came from the same club; in their case Bayern Munich.

Can Ozil and Khedira transform the fortunes of Real Madrid?They’re both good players but Real Madrid already had the likes of Cristiano [Ronaldo], [Gonzalo] Higuain, [Iker] Casillas, Pepe and Marcelo. They’re good buys but it’s the team as a whole that counts. To me they look like two interesting signings.

Were you disappointed with Argentina?Yes and no. I thought they looked like a very strong team with great players, but they were tactically weak. They were really put through the mill by Germany. Seeing [Javier] Mascherano trying to cope with three or four opponents was uncomfortable viewing. Diego Armando Maradona is a genius and that’s how he behaves, but the team needed something more. That said, they had a good World Cup and if they hadn’t slipped up against Germany we’d have found them very tough opponents. That was proved in our recent friendly match in Buenos Aires, when we were well beaten.

Did you expect Brazil to bow out as early as the quarter-finals?That was just circumstantial. I’ve spoken about this time and again with my friend and team-mate [Dani] Alves. If they replayed that game against the Netherlands, I’m certain they wouldn’t lose. On that day a slew of unfortunate circumstances all came together, like Felipe Melo’s own goal (it went down as Wesley Sneijder's)* *and his sending off. That said, I’d have liked to see a Brazil team that showed more commitment to attack, playing the type of football that everybody always used to fall in love with. We all looked up to the way they used to play, which was spectacular and packed with skill.

Your friend Dani Alves is in flying form at the moment...Dani is the best player in the world in his position. I say that honestly, not because he’s my team-mate. Not even Maicon could perform as well as him in a team like* Barça *or Brazil, as long as they play a different way under Mano Menezes than they did under Dunga.

You’ve watched and played alongside some true Brazilian greats at Barça. Who were the best?I’d single out Rivaldo, who didn’t receive the recognition he deserved. He joined during a tough period for the club but was a genuine superstar. Later I was fortunate enough to play with two phenomenal players in Ronaldinho and Deco, while I also saw Ronaldo at his peak at close quarters and as a kid had the chance to enjoy watching Romario. They’re all exceptional players, but I repeat that Rivaldo was special.

What’s your verdict on France’s poor display on South African soil?I don’t agree that France’s showing was all bad. I’ve chatted to Eric Abidal about this several times. Look, they didn’t play too badly against Uruguay in their opening game and if they’d have won that match it could have changed everything. But to be honest, from the outside looking in, it seemed like there were a lot of problems in the dressing room. But he (Abidal) tells me that the players had a really tough time of it and that it still haunts them.

Do you think Laurent Blanc will turn things around?I honestly think that he will. I know him from his time as a *Barça *player, though I was still in the youth team back then. I know that he likes his teams to play good football, as he showed at Bordeaux. I’m convinced France will start playing well again once they get over the hangover of everything that happened in South Africa. They’ve got quality players and Laurent is going to give them the chance to prove that. But I also wouldn’t want him to push all the former internationals to one side, though it is a tricky situation.

Were you disappointed with the Netherlands too?In the World Cup Final, yes I was, because they’re a team with great players and I don’t understand why they played in such a violent manner. When they tried to play football they caused us problems, so I don’t understand their approach. If they’re capable of playing as well as they did in the second half against Brazil, why did they try to kick us off the park?

Staying on the subject of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I’d like to ask your opinion on Africa, its people and its football...We already knew about the South African people from having taken part in the Confederations Cup (in 2009). They were sensational, particularly how well they supported the tournament, even after Bafana Bafana were knocked out. In my opinion that support was the best thing about the World Cup, because they ended up really getting behind Spain in every game and cheering everything we did.

We want to win by playing good football and he just wants to win any which way. Sometimes we Barcelona players need extra motivational factors to really perform, and Mourinho gives us one.

Let us talk about Josep Guardiola. Would you give him the FIFA Men’s Football Coach of the Year award?Yes, without a doubt. Even putting aside all the titles he’s already won as Barça coach, Pep has already created a legacy. There are coaches that are successful but don’t leave a legacy, then there are others who win titles and also leave their mark on football. Pep is doing that, just like Arrigo Sacchi or Johan Cruyff did. They’re coaches who’ve changed things, whether it be the use of a three-man defence, employing tactics to gain midfield superiority, playing with a withdrawn centre-forward. Just as there are players who are born to play football, there are coaches like that too. In my opinion Sir Alex Ferguson could also be included in that list.

You get on well with Jose Mourinho, so does it surprise you to see him stir up so much controversy?That’s the way he is and you’ve got to accept it. There are two Mourinhos: the man and the coach. We have to take the positive side of this and use him to motivate us. He feels good in the thick of controversy - he’s comfortable with it. We want to win by playing good football and he just wants to win any which way. Sometimes we Barcelona players need extra motivational factors to really perform, and Mourinho gives us one. The fact that they (Real Madrid) went looking for him, that they paid a release clause, that he used to work for Barça and knows us all and wants to get one over us, in that sense, Mourinho’s presence works in our favour.

Turning back to yourself, you must be pretty happy with your lot after winning everything at club level with Barcelona and being a reigning European and world champion with Spain...Let me say one thing: I depend on my team-mates. My football and my passing would be worthless without my team’s help. That’s something which is very clear to me. Sometimes I start thinking and I look at Madrid for example, who have truly great players, but I’d struggle with them. They play through the middle and I need players who open the play down the flanks, who make diagonal runs, who leave space for me in the centre and who never stop moving.

But surely you can’t deny that with you providing the ammunition, Cristiano Ronaldo would score goals by the bucket load…Cristiano is an incredible player. That’s something you realise when you come up against him and see his speed, strength and his shooting. At the moment he and Messi are on another planet, a notch above everybody else, and Leo’s a step above the Portuguese. Messi is undeniably the best player in the world.

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