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Adios, Xavier Hernandez Creus. Remember the wet night at Windsor Park

By Steven Beacom

Xavier Hernandez Creus, or Xavi to you and me, will play his final game for his beloved Barcelona on Saturday.

It is fitting that this magnificent footballer gets to say farewell on the big stage - a Champions League final against Italian giants Juventus - before jetting off to join Qatari side Al Sadd on a highly lucrative three-year deal.

What a player he has been.

There is an argument for Xavi to be considered the greatest midfielder of all time.

If you aren't willing to give him that accolade, surely you will admit he is the smartest midfielder to ever grace the game.

With his brain, he's football's Einstein.

In terms of passing, possession and positioning, Xavi has been darn near perfect since breaking into the Barca side way back in 1998.

His pressing to win the ball back through the years has been stunning to watch too. In or out of possession, Xavi has gained our respect.

Another quality to admire in the 35-year-old (pictured) has been how he has revelled in big games for club and country, never wilting under the pressure.

Even in a side containing the mesmerising Lionel Messi, over the past decade Xavi, more often than not, was the man who made Barca tick.

You may know he is Spain's most decorated footballer having won the World Cup, two European Championships, three Champions League crowns (with a possible fourth to come), eight La Liga titles and countless other trophies.

He was also voted World Player of the Year in 2010, though he's always deemed personal achievement way behind that of honours for the team.

What you may not know is that Xavi's career changed dramatically one wet night at Windsor Park nine years ago.

You might remember it: Northern Ireland 3 Spain 2. The evening David Healy stunned the star-studded visitors with a spectacular hat-trick in a Euro 2008 qualifier.

Sensational for Northern Ireland.

Shocking, though, for our Spanish friends who got it in the neck when they returned home.

There were calls for their then boss Luis Aragones to resign.

Daily newspaper El Mundo said that Spain had "made fools of themselves" and El Pais labelled the result as a "complete disaster".

Aragones accepted all the blame for the defeat but declared he would not resign. He did make hugely significant changes, however.

The most crucial of these was to drop Real Madrid superstar Raul, the number one footballer and figure in the Spanish game. Everything the team did revolved around him but it wasn't working.

For Spain, the great under achievers, to finally fulfil their potential, Aragones decided that he had to choose another general to build the team around.

Xavi (pictured), who scored in Belfast in his side's 2006 defeat, was that man. He would conduct the orchestra and boy did he make sweet music.

Already a serial trophy winner and regarded as a high class performer with Barcelona, Xavi took to being centre stage on the world stage like a duck to water.

It wasn't long before he was the King of Spain having inspired his country to Euro 2008 and 2012 success with World Cup glory in between when he provided more accurate passes (599) than anyone else in the tournament.

And all the while, loving the increased responsibility at national team level, the ultimate pass master's game for Barca moved to a whole new level in a side considered the best club team of them all.

Xavi was distraught in Belfast all those year ago, but from that Windsor woe he would go on to enjoy world domination. What a player.

Adios to one of the greats.

Belfast Telegraph


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