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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Xavi’s Barcelona resignation a shock only for the timing

Barcelona fans had long since left the stadium after witnessing their team fall apart in a shameful 5-3 loss to Villarreal. But even taking into account how low the fabled club’s standards had dropped this season, those left milling around the Montjuic could sense there would be ramifications of some kind.

“Hey, where is Xavi? Is there something going on?” asked a member of the security team in the stadium to a couple of journalists in the media area, almost an hour and a half after the end of the match. The Catalan manager was way behind schedule for his post-match duties, and yet to make an appearance in the press room.

“He’s never normally this late and we need to close the stadium at some point,” the security guards added, hinting at a hope their work shift would soon be done. Very few knew the bombshell of the night was about to be dropped.

When Xavi finally stepped into the press room at Montjuic, he did so flanked by one of Barcelona’s press officers, the personal media consultant he had hired earlier this season (Edu Polo), wife Nuria Cunillera, and his brother and assistant manager, Oscar Hernandez.

It was the first time during his tenure at the club that his family attended a post-match press conference.

Xavi took the central seat and asked for a moment to talk before fielding any questions — it was then that he announced his decision to step down as manager at the end of the season.

This was a bombshell for Barcelona not because it was an unexpected turn of events — it was hardly a surprise by now to hear that Xavi won’t be the manager next season — the shock came from the timing, with a series of dramatic Saturday night meetings resulting in this announcement four months before the end of the campaign.

“If there are no trophies this season, you are going to kill me,” Xavi conceded during another press conference two weeks ago. Since then, Barcelona have been knocked out of the Copa del Rey — arguably their best shot at a trophy this season — and last night suffered a defeat that all but removed them from the title race. They live to fight another day in the Champions League, but winning that competition this season is surely little more than a fantasy.

The ‘killing’ Xavi predicted seemed inevitable, but a Barca manager announcing he will leave at the end of a season because he was unable to make the team function is an unprecedented scenario.

But so too is losing 5-3 to a side battling relegation. Villarreal had led Barca 2-0, only for Xavi’s team to turn the game around to lead 3-2 going into the final few minutes of the game. Yet, somehow, by the final whistle they had lost by two clear goals.

Barcelona’s players were left stunned by their dramatic defeat (David S.Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

It was the nadir of a difficult season so far, the most tense night Montjuic has seen since becoming Barca’s new home this season. The nerve-shredding atmosphere turned to rage when Jose Luis Morales scored Villareal’s fifth, with Barcelona’s official supporters group — traditionally located behind one of the goals — channelling their anger by chanting “Barca yes, Laporta no”.

The players walked down the tunnel to the soundtrack of booing from the stands. Xavi was also the picture of fury at the end of the game, infuriated by VAR overturning a penalty his side had been awarded at 3-3: “This is a disgrace!”, he shouted down the nearest television camera.

Frenkie de Jong spoke to broadcasters DAZN after the game and put the on the players: “There is full faith in the mister, the coaching staff are doing good work, we players are to blame, we have the talent. If people cannot see that, then it is our fault.”

Joao Cancelo and Ronald Araujo, speaking to local TV3 later on, joined De Jong in defending their manager.

Inside the executive boxes, though, Xavi was running out of allies. While the manager was carrying out his post-match interviews with broadcasters — where he offered no hint of the announcement that was to come — Barcelona’s most senior executives held an urgent meeting.

President Joan Laporta, sporting director Deco, and executives Rafa Yuste and Enric Masip were among the key figures understood to be in that first meeting. Xavi’s position and future at the club were the main subject of discussion.

According to well placed sources close to club executives, speaking anonymously to protect relationships, Joan Laporta left that meeting insisting that he was still keeping his faith in Xavi, despite some of his closest boardroom confidants suggesting a more interventionist approach.

What Laporta wasn’t expecting was that, as soon as that meeting finished, he was informed that Xavi himself had requested a one-on-one chat.

Joan Laporte met with Xavi one-on-one after Saturday’s defeat (Javier Borrego/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Catalan radio station RAC1 reported that the meeting between the manager and the president was taking place while the media sat waiting in the press room. At that point, with an hour having passed without the Barcelona manager appearing, it began to feel like a big decision could be in the making.

It was 10pm local time, 90 minutes after the final whistle, when Xavi confirmed the news. He spent more than 20 minutes responding to every question Barcelona journalists had for him, and left as a liberated man.

“I had my mind made up for days, a decision had already been made and it was just a matter of timing and finding the right time to reveal it. I told the president Laporta just today,” he explained.

“I think I’m doing the right thing. I’m using common sense. The club needs a change. Right now, the dynamic we’re in, at all levels, is too negative.”

The lack of progress on the pitch had led to a level of tension that not even his status of club legend could quell.

“It’s a cruel job. It wears you down. In Barcelona you always feel like you’re not valued, you’re mistreated… that’s how the club works. From a mental health perspective, it’s tough too. I’m a positive guy but the battery levels keep running out… and at some point, you realize there’s no point in staying.”

Although publicly the players had defending him until the minutes before that announcement, privately, there was not always such a united front. Multiple dressing room heavyweights — such as Robert Lewandowski — have not always maintained as positive a relationship with the manager, as previously reported at The Athletic.

But whatever the background, last night Xavi stuck to his words at the start of this year.

“I can tell you that as soon as a part of me thinks I am some sort of a problem for Barcelona, that day I’m already gone.”

Now the pressure is on the club’s hierarchy to be as accurate and honest when diagnosing the rest of the club’s problems.

(Top image: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

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