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Xavi, Who Once Went All “You Can’t Fire Me, Because I Quit!” Before Then Deciding To Stay, Is Maybe About To Get Fired

Xavi Hernandez, with Deco and Joan Laporta, during the press conference called by FC Barcelona to announce his continuity as coach of the club until June 2025, in Barcelona, Spain, on April 25, 2024.
Photo by Joan Gosa/Urbanandsport /NurPhoto

Four months ago, Xavi Hernández decided to fall on his retractable prop knife by announcing his intention to leave his post as Barcelona manager at the end of the season. Five weeks ago, an unexpected first-leg win over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarterfinals looked like it might be just the kind of flashy success Xavi had been waiting for to justify an about-face on his decision to leave. Four weeks ago, a pair of embarrassing losses to PSG and then Real Madrid seemed to erase all momentum for said about-face. Three weeks ago, club president Joan Laporta called a press conference where he sat next to Xavi and announced with pride, tears in his eyes, that he had convinced Xavi not to leave in spite of it all. On Thursday, as the team was about to take the field for a league match against Almería, the Spanish press was flooded with rumors that Laporta was irate with Xavi and was on the verge of firing him.

Barcelona has long been a clown show on a rollercoaster, but the twists and turns of the Xavi saga have been extreme, and extremely farcical, even by the club's lofty standards. What has changed from that triumphant press conference just three weeks ago, where it was all smiles and hugs and talk about belief and trust and a brighter future, to today, when by all reports the relationships at the heart of the matter have been burnt to a crisp? Would you believe it: not terribly much.

On its face, Laporta's rage stems from an interview Xavi gave in the lead-up to the Almería match. When asked whether he believes Barça can compete with the best clubs in Europe, and specifically with Real Madrid on the eve of yet another Champions League final and with Barça's rivals almost certainly adding Kylian Mbappé this summer, Xavi had this to say:

We are going to try. I think that the culé, the fan, the socio must understand that the situation is very difficult. The situation is complicated. Especially on an economic level to compete with the top competitors, both Madrid in Spain and in Europe. We have an economic situation that has nothing to do with 25 years ago when a coach said: I want this one, this one and this one and they brought him in without problems. Now it is not like that: Our rivals are in much better conditions than us, on the issue of [Financial] Fair Play.

So I understand it, I have spoken about it with the president, with [Barcelona sporting director] Deco, and we are going to adjust to that. That does not mean that we do not want to compete or fight for the titles. That is the situation and the culé must understand that here it is necessary stability, calm to continue growing. These are complicated times, but we will continue fighting.

At first blush, that looks like an unobjectionable description of a harsh but inarguable reality. Barcelona has major economic problems that will likely condition what it can and can't do in terms of adding new players who might shore up the team's evident flaws. Real Madrid's squad is considerably better at the moment, and the gap between the two will only grow once the Blancos sign the best player in the world in a month or two. It is good and right for Barça fans to be optimistic about the future, seeing as it's still one of the biggest clubs in the game, but it also makes sense to temper expectations in light of both the enduring financial problems and the Madrid juggernaut.

So why would Xavi's comments have Laporta so mad? The reports of the rift focus on the fact that Laporta felt like Xavi had gone back on his word. Apparently, part of the conversation between Xavi and Laporta that inspired the decision to continue together into next season was about the two of them getting on the same page about the state of the roster. Laporta wanted assurances that Xavi was happy with current squad, probably because he knew it wasn't likely to change too much due to the club's brokeness, and that Xavi would publicly communicate this happiness with and belief in the existing squad's title-contending potential. Xavi agreed to those terms then, only to a couple weeks later imply that the team as-is isn't good enough, and that fans shouldn't expect major improvements, both because the club doesn't have the money for it and because Real is too far ahead anyway. I'm not sure I'd characterize that as a "betrayal," but I can understand why an under-fire president would be annoyed when the manager agreed to one thing in private only to say something else—something that could potentially increase the heat on the president—in public.

But to really understand why the situation is so volatile, and why it seems to have come to a head so suddenly, you need to look at the greater context of Xavi's managerial tenure. Since his original announcement of his decision to leave, Xavi has talked a lot about the burdensome and unrealistic expectations for success his Barça has been subject to. The thing is, Xavi is at best complicit in, and at worst the very source of, much of those onerous expectations.

Xavi was more than happy to accept the boosted transfer budget when Laporta was mortgaging the club's future to inject the club with cash after Lionel Messi left. The express purpose of the infamous financial levers, which allowed Barça to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few transfer windows, was to put together a team capable of winning now. Xavi did in fact comply with that win-now mandate last season when the team won La Liga. The one person most responsible for the "trophies or bust" mentality that Xavi has complained about—a mentality at odds with the club's traditional outlook that defines success first and foremost by the quality of its play, finding there a stronger and more reliable indicator of good work and future tangible rewards—has been Xavi himself. All season Xavi has gone around saying "If we don't win a trophy this year I'll leave the job, because that is the standard Barça must set for its coaches." But now, in the final stretch of a trophy-less season, it's all about "realistic" expectations and "complicated" situations. It's not hard to read that as a justification for Xavi's failure to meet the criteria he himself imposed on his job, as well as a preemptive excuse for why any future failure will also not be his fault.

Finding fault in failure has been one of Xavi's main preoccupations as a manager, if his press conferences are anything to go by. To hear him tell it, it's mostly just a matter of rotten luck that Barça hasn't won every single game this season. The most common thing you'll hear from Xavi coming off a loss or draw is his belief that his team had been clearly the better side on the day, and it was only a bit of bad luck in the penalty boxes—errant shots by the Blaugrana, fluky goals from the opponent—that kept them away from a win. Sometimes, though, he will attribute a loss to something other than randomness. Referees are a frequent punching bag, as are his players' purported inability to "compete" (a vague catch-all that really just places blame on the players' individual characters) better and to execute the coaching staff's infallible strategy. Though Xavi often throws around the term "self-criticism," his own coaching miraculously never seems to find any fingers pointed its way when he explains what went wrong.

From the outside, though, it looks like Xavi's coaching is the precise cause of much of the team's struggles. It is true that Barcelona has money trouble. It is also true that it has nevertheless managed to spend a ton of money to substantially upgrade the squad each season Xavi has been in charge. Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan, Raphinha, Jules Koundé, João Cancelo, João Félix, Andreas Christensen, Ferran Torres, and Vitor Roque all came to the club either as players of proven, elite quality or as young players with great chances of becoming elite in the near future. All of them are still at the club. Not one of them has played their best soccer under Xavi, and the majority of them have seen their reputations shrink during the time they've spent with him—something that is also true of many of the Barça players Xavi inherited. By any objective measure, Barça's roster is pretty damn strong, and has only gotten stronger each of the past couple years. If you told me that Xavi will stay on as manager and Barça will fail to win titles or even to play particularly well over the next couple seasons, I'd be quicker to point the finger at Xavi than the players or the club's financial problems.

Xavi is right about one thing: Barcelona is no longer in a position to buy itself a can't-miss roster full of superstars. Armed with such a squad, I don't doubt that Xavi could fill a trophy case with silverware. Soccer does, after all, belong to the players. But it's not too much to demand that even this economically hamstrung Barça team plays better than it has throughout the duration of Xavi's tenure, regardless of whether or not that better play results in titles, and to demand from the club the signs of progress that are at the heart of every sports fan's aspirations. Broke or not, summer spending spree or not, Barça already has the talent to build something better. It's Xavi who seems to lack the skill to get them there.

So, will Xavi be the Barça coach next season? As with most everything with this club, it is impossible to predict. On one hand, it does seem like Laporta is angry enough to listen to the sizable contingent of his board that has been desperate to can Xavi for months now. If he does so, it won't be so much because of a single response to a pregame presser, but because of all the much deeper issues that response embodied. On the other hand, all the non-sporting reasons that made Xavi's continuance attractive to Laporta are still in play. Clearly Laporta wasn't fully sold on any of the market's available managerial replacements back when Xavi was supposedly leaving, and nothing there has changed. Similarly, it would cost a lot of money to pay Xavi and his whole staff to go away now, and to then invest even more on a new manager and coaching staff, which is of special importance here since, if you haven't heard, Barça is broke. The Xavi-Laporta union always looked like a marriage of convenience, even during the teary press conference last month, and convenience very well could keep them together even after all of this. The only thing you can really trust around here is that no matter what happens, it is sure to be appropriately ridiculous.

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