Xavi doesn’t look like your traditional athlete, Elliot Turner writes, but that doesn’t make him any less of one. Sounds familiar, no?
This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, Salon, HyperVocal, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psycholog
Sometimes you only need one glance to recognize genius. In the painting, a landscape will surround you. In writing, a sentence jumps off the page. Sport is no different, yet the physical component clouds the view. Yes, sport requires athleticism. But our own societal prejudices—classifying a gender’s physical trait as desirable or discard-able—also cast a fog over our own eyes. Broad shoulders, bulging biceps, thunder thighs, Xavi Hernandez has none of these. He would never be confused with Mark McGuire or another juiced-up home-run hitter from baseball’s Steroid Era. He’s just the essential soccer player to Spain’s dominance of Europe and the World.
Xavi, actually Xavi Hernandez Creus, has been called a pocket dynamo. He is 5-feet-7-inches tall and weighs about 68 kilograms, roughly 150 pounds. He started his career with Barcelona at age 11, with the club’s famed La Masia academy. Xavi has been a bastion of dependability for his team—in his 13 years in the first team, he has played 383 games. During that time, he has suffered only one serious injury, in December 2005, but even then he recovered by April 2006. However, in those 383 games, he’s only scored a meager 58 goals. That’s a goal every 6.6 games. So what’s the big deal?
Just as baseball has gone nuts for nerdy and obscure statistics since Moneyball, soccer has experienced a surge in interest in stats, even in MLS. Yet not all stats are equal. And not all stat-counters are equal. For example, the UEFA site only focuses on goals, assists, shots, fouls, and discipline. Barcelona’s own site does little better, combining those stats with games started, minutes played, and balls won. One of the better sites is FIFA’s Castrol Index because it mines the key stat for Xavi: passes.
Xavi is, simply put, the pass master. In the last World Cup, he completed over 544 passes in only 7 games. That is 77.7 completed passes per game. A game is only 90 minutes. Thus, Xavi came pretty close to completing a pass-per-minute. In the 1992 European Championships, the average number of passes-per-player-per game was only 35. His numbers are the same for his club, Barcelona. In a preview for last season’s quarterfinal, Soccerlens reported that Xavi had completed 94% of his passes, a whopping 1,920 passes in 1,539 minutes. Based on stats, the temptation is to hail Xavi as a floating brain on the field, a perception fed by his own Playstation explanation for his approach. Partly true, this only explains half the story.
Soccer, like American football and baseball, has different ethos for attack. In American football, some teams prefer a physical and methodical running game, others a 2000’s-era St. Louis Rams vertical long-ball attack, and others a West Coast offense. In baseball, some teams swing for the fences, while others play small ball. Barcelona and Spain, Xavi’s country and club, play tiki-taka, the soccer equivalent of the West Coast offense or small ball. They prefer short, safe passes to a teammate as opposed to hopeful aerial passes or excessive dribbling. As they slowly advance the ball to the offensive third, they pass sideways and search for an opening, usually in the form of an individual defensive miscue. If you’re a Barcelona fan, then you regularly watch a symphony full of gorgeous crescendos. If Barcelona is playing your team, then it’s trench warfare and you live in the besieged town running out of food.
And this is where we get to the chicken-and-egg question. A club’s approach obviously affects and reflects statistics. Is Xavi a great passer because of the system, or does the system work because of Xavi’s greatness? The answer is probably both. Barcelona has attempted tiki-taka since Dutch legend Johan Cruyff played for them in the 1970’s, but they have reached new heights in the Xavi era. Spain, perennial underachievers, are now the Champions of Europe and the World. Joe Montana would probably have flopped in the St. Louis Rams’ offense of the mid-2000’s. But Ryan Leaf could tank any West Coast offense into a turnover machine, even with Jerry Rice in his prime, running slants.
Or at least that’s the easiest pro-stat nerd explanation. The reality is that Barcelona and Spain pass slowly with the ball at their own feet, but converge like banshees to win it back. Both teams regularly let loose three forwards to chase down the ball, the equivalent of a zone blitz in American football. During the 2010 World Cup semifinal, German defender Per Mertesacker stood almost a foot taller than Andres Iniesta, David Villa, and Pedro. Yet they harassed him into countless miscued passes, the tiny townsfolk neutralizing Gulliver with tenacity, coordination, and numbers. Rick Pitino couldn’t have coached a more ruthless full-court press.
Additionally, to receive a pass, you generally have to be near a teammate, which requires lots of running. Xavi led the last World Cup in passes, but he also covered the most ground—about 50 miles over 7 games. Out of the top 10 in distance covered, four played for Spain. And thus we see how athleticism deceives us—big, tall, broad-shouldered guys can lift heavy loads, but are poorly suited to running long distances. Marathon record-holder Samuel Wanjiru was 5-feet-4-inches and Paula Radcliffe is 5-feet-8-inches. Short and lean can also be prototypes of athleticism, albeit not as widely accepted.
And, of course, among decision-making, attacking ethos, and athleticism redefined, another factor comes into play: the actual skill at playing the sport. In soccer, you have to be able to kick a ball. But some people have feathers for feet. Xavi has a lovely first touch, meaning he can trap long and short passes. He guides the ball with his feet like a mother rocks her baby to sleep. And Xavi’s pivot is as graceful as any side-stepping torero. His skill magnifies his decision-making because his first touch gives him more milliseconds on the ball to make the right pass. His skill also aids in his athleticism—he seldom has to run down his own mishit pass. If Joe Montana tossed footballs through tires, then Xavi probably juggled bowling balls with his feet and kicked beach balls through mouse holes. At a single glance, you can see the ball melt into his foot, no graphing calculator needed.
The great irony of statistics is the dubious appearance of objectivity. In reality, we often look for supporting stats after we’ve drawn our conclusions, not before. Stats can be just as superficially hollow as snap judgments based on societal assumptions. Just as an obsession with height and weight can lead coaches to pile stacks of rocks while discarding diamonds, the nerd’s revenge via statistics has swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Reading between the lines, the success of Barcelona, Spain, and Xavi has shown that, at second glance, nerds are more athletic than they thought. Or would like to admit.
—Photo AP/Daniel Ochoa de Olza