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Xavi Isn’t Leaving Barcelona After All

Xavi Hernandez, Head Coach of FC Barcelona reacts prior to the LaLiga EA Sports match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 21, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.
Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Xavi Hernández's January announcement, that he would leave his post as Barcelona manager at the end of the season, was always equal parts theater and office politics: It gave fans and the public a narrative his ego could live with at a time when his reputation was at its lowest, and it bought him at least a few extra months on the job. None of that is to suggest that Xavi didn't also, at least at the time, intend to leave the job: He probably did, at least in a heated fuck this shit sort of way. He'd been getting pantsed in front of the whole world for months by then.

Even so. The prospect of voluntarily walking away from what's still, even now, one of the more prestigious managerial jobs in all of professional sports, one that reportedly pays something on the order of €8 million a year ... well, let's just say that prospect might not always look so appealing. As to that: On Thursday, in a joint appearance with club president Joan Laporta, Xavi announced that, heh, well, you see, actually he will stay in the job after all, for at least another season.

It's a pretty funny development for a few different reasons, starting with Xavi's oft-repeated insistence, going back to even before he issued his now-retracted oath to resign, that he'd leave as soon as the club stopped winning trophies on his watch. Within the past nine days, Barcelona has both been eliminated from the Champions League in humiliating fashion—melting down at home and blowing a two-goal aggregate quarterfinal lead in a 4-1 second-leg annihilation by Paris Saint-Germain—and seen its already faint hope of contending for La Liga snuffed out in yet another El Clásico loss to Real Madrid. (For good measure, the Blaugrana blew two leads in that game.) There are no trophies left to contend for this season, and here Xavi is, not only not leaving, but un-leaving.

For all the attention the initial From where the sun stands on June 1, I will coach Barcelona no more forever declaration got, its reversal is distinctly unsurprising—and not only because, as the most disappointing and purgatory-flavored of the possible outcomes, it also necessarily was the likeliest in this, the Wet Fart Universe. Laporta has been open for weeks if not months in his intention to persuade Xavi to stay, and Xavi always had every reason to let himself be persuaded. As silly as the sequence of events may be, both parties' rationales are clear and legible.

For its part, the club remains broke. It can't responsibly afford the grade of big-time managers who'd represent safe and obvious upgrades on Xavi. Moreover, even if any of them came cheap, Barça couldn't offer them even halfway straight-faced promises of squad upgrades over the summer; the club will once again be in Everything Must Go mode as it continues its years-long death march toward Financial Fair Play compliance. By the same token, the dire financial situation militates against taking a chance on the grade of less-tested managerial candidate (Roberto De Zerbi, Thiago Motta) who'd be learning on the job under impossibly pressurized circumstances and with a near-existential mandate to replicate or surpass this season's Champions League run.

The likeliest scenario, had Xavi actually followed through on his promise to depart in June, would have had Barcelona dumping a season on Barça B coach Rafa Márquez, who has never managed a first-division team, with the all but explicit intent to replace him after a year—hopefully (but not very realistically) with Jürgen Klopp, who reportedly intends to take at least a year off after he leaves Liverpool this summer. The club has no reason to prefer that to another season of Xavi, who at the very least has demonstrated he can usher the team to a (somewhat discredited, but still) La Liga title and a (modest and ultimately embarrassing, but still) Champions League quarterfinal run.

As for Xavi, assuming the salary alone doesn't explain his reversal, there's simply this: His next appointment, had he left this summer, was all but guaranteed to be kind of humiliating, as a referendum on the managerial qualities he's shown at Barcelona—where virtually all his players have stagnated or regressed in dull, brainless, tactically incoherent setups; where gaudy (and outrageously reckless) summer transfer sprees have yielded a plodding, bad-to-watch outfit generally stuck in neutral wherever and whenever it isn't being bailed out by a 16-year-old wunderkind; where the club can waddle backward into guaranteed Champions League participation with its pants around its ankles even if none of its famous players come close to delivering on their abilities. He was not going to replace Klopp at Liverpool. Under no circumstances was Pep Guardiola going to anoint Xavi his successor at Manchester City.

This is what was funny about reports in the Spanish press, over the past two weeks, to the effect that Laporta's efforts at keeping Xavi had snagged on the latter's demanding meaningful squad upgrades over the summer. Sure, yes, absolutely: Xavi is known to have been frustrated by, for example, Barcelona's failure to acquire a legitimate defensive midfielder when Sergio Busquets left in summer 2023. All of the fans are likewise frustrated by this. On the other hand, if Xavi doesn't think Barcelona's squad measures up to the demands of his preferred playing style, what was he going to think of the players he inherited at Yverdon-Sport FC, in Switzerland? If Barcelona's inability to pluck Bernardo Silva and Joshua Kimmich off the gift tree drove him crazy, how was he going to feel about the summer upgrade plans at Paine Linnameeskond, in Estonia? You get the idea.

Xavi certainly was onto something real and worth calling attention to when he complained, at the January postgame press conference where he announced his intention to quit, about the unreasonable expectations and unbearable pressures inherent to managing Barcelona, and about his sense that it's an essentially unworkable position over any significant timeframe. But doing that frequently unfair and punishing job under constant threat of sudden dismissal is a lot different from doing it secure in the knowledge that the people with the power to fire you desperately need you not to leave. You'd take a year of that for €8 million, unless you are Pep Guardiola, which you are not.

And it very well might be just the one year. Whatever he says to the press about merely dutifully fulfilling his contractual promises, Xavi's ideal scenario here involves Barcelona stunning the world next season, winning a treble, and making him untouchable for at least the next five years. (Let's agree the odds are against that.) And whatever Laporta says to the press, he has to know that Xavi isn't good enough, that his ideas and limitations are too constricting to satisfy the demand for inspiring Barcelona performances at a time when the club simply can't dominate the world the way it once did. Though Laporta certainly wouldn't turn his nose up at Xavi's ideal scenario, he's likely envisioning something a little less cinematic: A season with a credible claim to success and at least one trophy; Xavi riding off into the sunset at the end of his contract with his reputation restored as the club great who came to its rescue in a crisis and then graciously stepped aside; and a new manager who won't cap the team's on-field product at Grudgingly Acceptable Given The Circumstances.

As for fans, and for a broader soccer culture that might hope for a restoration of fun and beauty in Barcelona's play—for any sense of play at all in Barcelona's soccer—well, shit. There's always the year after next year, I suppose.

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