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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Barcelona fans react to Xavi’s departure with indifference, sympathy and resignation

When half-time arrived in Barcelona’s Wednesday night game against visitors Osasuna, the loudspeakers at the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium blared out All You Need Is Love by The Beatles.

Perhaps the chorus reached the home dressing room, where Xavi was giving instructions; perhaps not. But it seemed to fit the Barca coach perfectly after the events of the past week.

On Saturday night, Xavi announced he would be resigning as manager at the end of this season, in a dramatic twist after a 5-3 home defeat against Villarreal. The Athletic has reported extensively on the way that news was received by the club’s board and players — but how would the fans react at the team’s first game since the Barca playing legend’s decision to step down?

At first, they did not. There were no chants or banners last night during a goalless first half — it was as if the news had not happened. Xavi stood at the edge of the technical area and moved from one corner of it to the other depending on where the action was happening, zipped up in his black jacket.

That lack of a reception seemed strange given the emotions associated with Xavi and the farewell he received when he left the club as a player in 2015. The midfielder was one of the few icons of the club who was given a proper send-off around that time — remember Lionel Messi’s hasty goodbye and tears in summer 2021?

At his last game at the Camp Nou, a giant banner was unfurled with a picture of Xavi and the slogan #6raciesXavi — ‘Thank you, Xavi’ in Catalan, using his trademark No 6 as a ‘G’. Not 10 years have passed since then, and now Xavi is leaving again.

Xavi says farewell to Barcelona for the first time in 2015 (Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images).

He is a graduate of Barca’s famed La Masia academy and one they can be proud of. Over 17 years as a player, he made 767 appearances, which is behind only Messi’s 778 on their all-time list. He won 25 trophies — including eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues — and led the club to their only two trebles, in 2009 and 2015.

To this day, his performances alongside Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in an era-defining midfield mean he features in many fans’ all-time XIs. But his 27-month reign as Barcelona coach has been rather different.

“My goal is to return to this house, as coach or sporting director, but I want to remain linked to this house,” he said when he left in 2015.

On Tuesday, he sent a warning to his successor: “Enjoy the position, although it is impossible.”

The fans appeared to sense Xavi would be leaving long before his announcement at the weekend, given how this season was going — Barca are fourth in the table, eight points off the top, and already look all but certain to relinquish their La Liga crown — but they were still left in shock by the timing.

Queuing for a hot dog in the concourse at the Lluis Companys last night, one fan in his sixties sympathised with Xavi and blamed the players for Barcelona’s situation.

“After the defeat against Villarreal and the first half we are seeing, it’s clear that it’s not Xavi’s fault,” he said. “Look at them, the players are crawling on the pitch.”

“I get the feeling that Xavi is too nice a guy,” his friend replied. “And to be Barca coach, sometimes you can’t be that good a person.”

Ever since Xavi was a player he dreamed of one day being Barcelona coach. Several of his former team-mates said he was an extension of the manager in those days on the pitch: he regularly gave other players instructions and seemed to understand the game more quickly than others.

Fans had dreamed of that moment too, hoping he would return to produce another golden era in the style of Pep Guardiola, another former Barca midfielder, who led the club to some of their greatest moments as coach from 2008-12.

It has not been all bad, of course. When Xavi was appointed, in November 2021, the team were struggling even more than they are now. He led them to their first La Liga title since 2019 last season, and in this one they have reached the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in three years.

When the two friends queuing at the food stall were asked if they had expected more from Xavi and whether they thought his departure was the solution, they were philosophical.

Vitor Roque’s first Barca goal gave Xavi some respite on Wednesday (Siu Wu/picture alliance via Getty Images).

“I did expect more,” one of them said. “We’ve waited a long time for him and, suddenly, he’s gone. We burned that bullet too quickly.”

“We take it with resignation — that’s all we have left,” the other said.

As the second half got underway, Xavi had a look of someone who has yet to be wished a happy birthday by his family at 11pm and is beginning to suspect they have forgotten. Then, in the 60th minute, a chant started from the stands of the Gol Nord, the loudest section of Barca’s temporary home stadium.

“Xavi Hernandez!,” they repeated. There was some whistling from another part of the stand at that moment — was it because they disagreed with the chants or because they did not like what they were seeing on the pitch?

The chant got louder and louder until Xavi turned to the supporters’ stand and clapped gratefully. At last, they had remembered him.

The game also seemed to improve for Barcelona from that moment.

After an uninspired first half in which one of the only moments of note had been Ferran Torres’ seventh-minute injury, Xavi decided to send on his new Brazilian striker Vitor Roque in the 62nd minute. Seventy-two seconds later, he had headed home his first Barca goal since his arrival from Athletico Paranaense at New Year.

The 18-year-old’s ecstasy contrasted with a team who have not smiled for some time. Three minutes later, Vitor Roque provoked Unai Garcia’s sending-off for the visitors. So that’s two signs of his quality.

When the full-time whistle blew, Xavi quickly headed for the tunnel without greeting anyone other than opposite number Jagoba Arrasate. His decision did not seem to have taken the pressure off the players, as he thought it would, but the 1-0 win was a relief to those in attendance.

A woman was walking with her young son towards one of the exits at Montjuic. When the boy saw The Athletic’s press accreditation, he asked if we knew who was going to take over as coach.

“Is Guardiola coming? Or Luis Enrique?”.

A middle-aged man was watching the scene from behind and replied: “I would tell Pep and Luis not to do it, for their sake.”

(Top photo: Siu Wu/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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