DURBAN, South Africa — Perhaps it’s just as well that Lionel Messi has gone back to Argentina already. That way he doesn’t have to watch his status as the world’s best player get ripped away by one of his closest friends.
Non-soccer fans probably haven’t heard of Xavi Hernandez. The Spain midfielder doesn’t lead a celebrity lifestyle or follow the underwear-modeling path of soccer superstars Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham.
He won’t be the most high-profile player in Sunday’s World Cup final against the Netherlands after helping Spain sink Germany in Wednesday’s 1-0 semifinal victory. He won’t even be the most famous player on his own team.
And yet, the man simply known as Xavi is the finest soccer player on the planet right now and the most accomplished performer at this World Cup. Ahead of Messi. Ahead of Ronaldo. Even ahead of his Spain teammate David Villa, who has scored five goals to Xavi’s none in South Africa.
Xavi and Messi are club teammates at Barcelona in the Spanish league, and it’s the little Argentinean who is routinely afforded the lion’s share of attention. Messi’s tricks, flicks and lightning feet grasp the focus of fans and opposition alike.
But at this tournament, Xavi has raised his game to another level while still showing all of the facets that have made him Europe’s most productive midfielder over the past few seasons.
With Messi, and especially Ronaldo, the brilliance is there. It’s right in your face, and you can’t miss it, not with the jukes and turns and permanent reminders of their soccer artistry.
With Xavi, you have to look more closely.
He enjoys a bit of fleet-footed trickery too, but only when it serves a purpose. Much of what he does is simple. All of it is ruthlessly effective and beautiful in its own way.
Like with the corner kick from the left that produced the only goal of a cagey semifinal. Some players hit and hope or aim for an area. Xavi drops it in on a dime. Or, on this occasion, the advancing head of Carles Puyol.
Then there was the move Xavi pulled off late in the second half when he leaped into the air and redirected a firmly struck ball through his own legs with his instep. An untrained onlooker could be forgiven for thinking he had started showboating, especially with his team a goal ahead. At least until they noticed that he had sent the ball straight into the path of Villa, who should have gone on to score.
Award-winning British soccer writer Ian Chadband called Xavi the “most under-appreciated genius in world sport” this week. But maybe, just maybe, the world is starting to catch on.
Xavi was given the man-of-the-match award on Wednesday night, an honor voted by fans around the world. Such awards have sometimes been unpredictable — Ronaldo won a couple of times during the tournament, even when he was far from the best player on the field.
The fact that Xavi was given the award, despite not scoring or doing anything flashy, could mean he is starting to become appreciated at last. The fans are starting to get his genius.
Germany certainly knows all about him now, after his midfield endeavors ruined its hopes of reaching the final.
“Xavi is the center of Spain’s perfect spine,” said German coach Joachim Loew in the lead-up to the semifinal, while reflecting that it had been Xavi whose pass had set up Spain’s victory in the 2008 European Championship final.
It was a spine that Germany could not break. It is a spine that facilitates Spain’s pretty face. And a spine that looks strong enough to support the World Cup trophy in a few days’ time.