A HOBBIT-SIZED MIDFIELDER, THE NEW YORK TIMES ONCE CALLED HIM; AND INDEED XAVIER HERNANDEZ, BETTER KNOWN TO THE WORLD AS XAVI, IS ONLY ABOUT 5' 7" ON HIS TALLEST DAY. BUT FEW PLAYERS POSE A BIGGER CHALLENGE to opponents than the Barcelona playmaker, who is the fulcrum of La Furia Roja. "He has vision, touch and the skill to beat you one-on-one," said U.S. assistant Mike Sorber. "Xavi has a great ability to operate in tight spaces—that's what makes him special. He has great awareness of his teammates, of his opponents, and he's able to create room for himself."
No Spanish side has ever reached a World Cup final—Spain's best finish was fourth place, in 1950—but expectations are soaring for this year's team, thanks to its daunting talent and its run of success over the past 24 months. Two years ago Spain beat Germany in the final of Euro 2008, and under the harshest spotlight, it was Xavi (pronounced SHAH-vee) who led the way. He was voted the best player of the tournament for his unparalleled efficiency: He played 254 passes with an 89% success rate.
"At Barcelona the physical aspect has never been the most important thing," Xavi explained last year to the BBC. "The emphasis is always on technique. That's why every footballer wants to play for this team. That's why people go to the Camp Nou, why people take their children, their wives—because it's enjoyment for everyone. It means so much more when you win playing beautiful football."
Catalonian by birth, Xavi started training with Barcelona's youth academy when he was 11. He was part of the Spanish team that won the FIFA U-20 championship in Nigeria in 1999, and he added an Olympic silver medal in Sydney in 2000. He was called up to Barcelona's first team in 1998 and had appeared in 517 games for the team through April 4, second only to famed central defender Migueli (553 appearances, from 1973 to 1989). Xavi has helped Barça win four La Liga crowns and two Champions League titles. He was voted the best midfielder in Champions League play in 2009, and he placed third in voting for FIFA World Player of the Year.
South Africa will be the ultimate test for Xavi and Spain's greatest generation of footballers. Remarkably, the U.S. is one of the few teams to have solved Xavi, at least for a single game. Last June the Americans stunned Spain 2-0 in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup and ended La Furia Roja's 35-game winning streak by forcing Xavi to play the ball square or to the back, so he couldn't make any of the penetrating passes at which he excels. "The approach was not to give him time and space," said Sorber. "He is the quarterback, and you need to make life difficult for him." Given the success of the U.S. strategy, the other teams in Group H will likely try to emulate it. Which means Xavi might be pressed like never before.
And so might Spain, which already has a tortured World Cup history working against it. In 2002 cohost South Korea defeated La Furia Roja on penalty kicks in a game in which three Spanish goals were disallowed. (Xavi, then 22, entered the game only in the 93rd minute.) Four years later France struck twice in the last 10 minutes to see off Spain 3-1 in the round of 16.
Xavi is uncomfortable with Spain's tag of World Cup favorite, he recently told reporters, but that is what he and his team will be in South Africa. "This World Cup arrives at a good time for our generation," Xavi said. "We are champions of Europe, we are playing good football, but we still don't have this something 'extra' of teams such as Argentina, Germany, Italy or Brazil, this winner gene. But this doesn't mean that we don't think we can go far and be champions."