Having lifted the FIFA Club World Cup twice while wearing the colours of Barcelona, Xavi makes his return in an altogether fresh guise. Now coach of Qatar 2019’s host champions Al Sadd, the Catalan pass master will be orchestrating from the touchline.
That Barca DNA is set to be very present, too, with possession and a selfish desire to hoard the ball key to his coaching ethos.
With the Club World Cup starting today, Xavi talks about past glories, his switch to the dugout and the future Qatar has in store with the FIFA World Cup on the horizon.
You hung up your boots in May and within a few months you were on the touchline. Have you enjoyed the transition and how do you reflect on your first few months of coaching?
I’ve had a very fast transition from player to coach. I’ve hardly had any time to think about it. Obviously I had a footballing vision in mind, because as pretty much everyone knows, I grew up at Barca and in the national team. It’s still football but the fact is you have a lot more responsibility. I’m always asking myself if I miss playing. Well, the fact is that I don’t because I’m involved in the whole competitive thing in a different way and I feel even more responsible as a coach. So, yes, I’m enjoying it.
How would you describe yourself as a coach?
I’d describe myself as someone who likes to have the ball. I’m there in the dugout suffering if my team doesn’t have the ball. It was the same when I played: I loved being on the ball. What I want is for my team to have control and I think you have that when you have the ball. That’s the way I was brought up at Barca and in the national team. I make sure we work on possession in every training session and I have the players trying to win the ball back as soon as they can.
That’s my philosophy: to have possession high up the pitch – not just sitting and waiting – and to go on the attack, because the more chances you create, the more chances you have to win. Where I have surprised myself is that when I started out as a coach I didn’t think so much about the defensive side of the game. But now you suffer. You suffer when you don’t have the ball. That 30-40 per cent of possession that you don’t have is when you have to work hardest.
Is there any coach whose method and tactics greatly differ to yours, but you particularly admire all the same?
Now that I’ve seen how difficult this job is, I’ve obviously got admiration for every coach that’s gone in and changed a club. It’s pretty clear that [Diego] Simeone’s coaching style is not the same as mine, but I’ve got nothing but admiration for him for everything he’s achieved at Atletico Madrid and what he’s done at that club. The likes of [Pep] Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have made their mark as coaches too, and Luis Aragones, Vicente del Bosque and Luis Enrique are also great coaches. In some ways, a team is a reflection of its coach. And the hallmark of coaches like Klopp, Simeone and Guardiola, each of whom have their own style and way of playing, is really important. They’ve managed to get their philosophies and their playing styles across to their players.
How do you aim to tackle the challenge of being the host side here at the Club World Cup?
What we’ll try to do is make sure the players don’t feel the extra pressure that comes with playing at home, which happens a lot – that pressure of having to prove yourself. This is a special prize for us. What I’ll try to say to the team is that they forget about the pressure and show what they can do. Pressure is something for me to deal with as the coach. We’ve looked at Hienghene and we understand that we’re the favourites. In football, though, you have to go out and do it on the pitch. What I won’t take from my teams is a lack of effort. I want them to try. They might fail 200 times, but I want them to try.
This is a tournament where surprises can happen, with host teams having reached the final in recent years. What strengths could see Al Sadd do the same?
Al Sadd is a team with just the right mix of experience and youth. We’ve got the best ever generation of Qatari players the team’s ever had and we have eight or ten national team players with a lot of talent: Akram Afif, Saad al-Sheeb, the goalkeeper, Hassan al-Haydos, who’s the national team captain, Tarek Salman, Boualem Khoukhi, and Salem. There are a lot of excellent young players. And then we have the experience of Gabi, the team captain. We have two good Korean internationals, and Baghdad Bounedjah was the player of the tournament at the Africa Cup of Nations and scored the winner in the final. We have a team that can play good football. It’s all going to come down to what happens on the day and our mindset, which I think will be just right. We’re going to compete, though.
You’ve been living here in Qatar for a few years and are the Generation Amazing Program Ambassador. How is Qatar getting in gear for the FIFA World Cup 2022?
I’ve spent the last four years playing for Al Sadd, but I’ve also had very close ties to the national football association and the Aspire Academy, trying to improve the standard of the new generation of players. The team’s pretty much ready for the World Cup and they’re competing very well because they have a great coach in Felix Sanchez, who works so well.
The family’s very happy because they’ve given us everything. It’s a very easy country to live in, very comfortable, welcoming and safe. And then you’ve got the whole focus on football here with the World Cup. Qatar wants to do a good job and I think it’s doing really, really well. They’ve won the Asian Cup and taken part in the Copa America. They have a great generation of players and are really in a position to compete.
Everything they’re doing in terms of construction is focused on staging a great World Cup. There are so many stadiums and people are going to be amazed. Qatar has also been lucky enough to have nearly ten years to prepare for this World Cup. They’re going to make such a good job of it.
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