My internet behavior tends to be positive. I try to contribute to discussions rather than attack people. I even avoid trolling.
Most of the time.
But there’s something about the “best player ever” discussion in sports which brings out the worst in me. I suspect that it’s the myopic fanboy nature of the arguments where they degenerate into trying to tear down players as “not being that great” rather than making a case for which player is actually greater.
Recently, I was reading* a “Messi is the best ever” thread which degenerated into a Messi vs. Maradona showdown. Since the thread was in a Barça forum, I decided to troll with a “you’re all wrong, Xavi is the best player ever” comment.
Yes, this counts as trolling for me. Any time I make a comment which is intended to provoke rather than be an accurate reflection of my opinions? One step toward the dark side of the internet. Only in this case, I surprised myself by posting a disingenuous comment which ended up being so convincing that I ended up believing it.
Soccer is a team sport. In many ways, it’s the team sport since it can’t be distilled into stats which show what individual players contribute. You have to really watch and see how the teams play and there’s still a sense of connoisseurship in recognizing brilliance and quality. At the same time, results do matter. And sustaining results over years make a statement.
In 2006, after coming back from his injury, Xavi became the key player for both FC Barcelona and the Spanish National Team. He had already been a very good player* but he was always playing on someone else’s team. Between 2006 and 2008, both teams became indelibly his—despite the fact that he was not the marquee star of either of them.
*I remember at the time being ecstatic that he’d make it to the 2006 World Cup. Yes, this is me being a hipster.
It’s easy to focus on the star goalscorers in soccer. It’s the only stat we really have and it is important. But it’s the rare player who can actually take control of a game and dictate the way it’s played. Xavi is such a player. Barça and Spain both made the commitment to play games centered on him, his playing style, and his philosophy. He, and his ethos, embodies both teams and he remains the player which both teams need right now in order to play their best.
We forget this now, but in Euro 2008, the only Barça players getting regular minutes were Xavi, Puyol, and Iniesta. Spain looks like a Messi-less Barça now, but the similarities started when both teams built around Xavi.
As a fan, I’m most concerned when Xavi is not available since I don’t have the confidence that the team will be able to control the match without him.
So if we’re talking about players who take over matches and embody/espouse the philosophy of their teams, we have to look at the teams and how they play. And what they’ve done.
Xavi’s teams? Since 2006? He has won every team competition possible. Twice. Except for the World Cup—a competition only two men have ever won more than once.
Not only that, but Xavi’s Barça is arguably the best team of all time. And Xavi’s Spain is arguably the best national team of all time. Not just because they’ve both won, but because of how they’ve won and the fact that the style in which they play and win is both ruthless in how it get imposed on opponents and astoundingly beautiful to watch.
At the center of all the success is Xavi.* Dictating play. Demanding the ball. Holding the ball. Sending passes into spaces players—and the rest of us—never realized they should be running into.
The sad thing that that we’ll only realize how great he was when he retires and his teams have to figure out how to play without him. I do not look forward to that day.
The only silver lining is that Xavi’s retirement will allow us to see how truly great Messi and Iniesta are. As Spain and Barça have to re-invent themselves, we’ll see two great players have the opportunity to stamp their own philosophies on the teams. Right now, both players are playing on Xavi’s team. I hope Iniesta’s team and Messi’s team bring me the same joy. But matching Xavi’s teams is an extraordinarily high standard.
Playing his style, his philosophy of soccer.
If I get to build a team around one player? Xavi. How is that NOT the definition of best player ever?