KEEP THE BALL. IT IS THE OLDEST PRINCIPLE IN soccer, and it is the one thing Xavi Hernández does better than anyone else in the world. Since 2008 the 31-year-old midfielder has won every conceivable trophy for FC Barcelona and Spain, emerging as the world's finest playmaker. The way he collects a pass with a magnetic first touch, glides and accelerates and changes direction, measures the distance between the ball and his marker, sees the killer pass and threads it through impossibly tight spaces—all are attributes of a visionary genius who is so calm on the surface that he makes the remarkable look routine.
But to fully appreciate the why of Xavi's body of work—the stack of titles for club and country, the abundance of beautiful football he's orchestrated—you have to go back: past Spain's historic 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008 triumphs and the 35-match unbeaten streak between November '06 and June '09; past Barcelona's unprecedented sextuple in '09 and Xavi's six La Liga titles; beyond even the beginnings of his senior-team career with the Blaugrana, which has spanned 13 years and a record 525 appearances through May 15; back to a place called La Masía.
For it's there, at Barcelona's bucolic training compound, a country farmhouse where youth players sleep in dorms and awaken to see their heroes practicing outside, that the 11-year-old Xavi entered a fellowship with other boys—among them Carles Puyol, Víctor Valdés and Andrés Iniesta—with whom he'd one day redirect the course of modern soccer.
Barça, of course, is more than a club. Owned and operated by its supporters, it is a social, political and cultural phenomenon. Nowhere is this exceptionalism more evident than on the pitch: Seven regular starters came up through La Masía, five of whom are Catalan. No other major club depends so heavily on locally reared players.
And they don't get much more local than Xavi, whose communion with the ball started on the concrete-covered Plaza del Progreso in Terrassa, the small coastal suburb of Barcelona where he was born and still resides today. Although he's one of the world's richest and most idolized footballers, he remains uncommonly grounded, choosing to live with his large family (and dog, Trux) in a modest house where the winner's medals from so many club and international competitions hang above the single bed in his upstairs bedroom. Steady overtures through the years from big foreign clubs such as Chelsea, Juventus and AC Milan have fallen on deaf ears.
The stratospheric success of Barcelona and the national team during Xavi's tenure has made Spain "the reference point for world football," as he puts it. Possession is the central tenet, and Xavi is its proselytizer. He is the most visible exponent of soccer's modern emphasis on skill and guile over physicality. Less than a decade ago, slight footballers such as the 5' 7" Xavi were an endangered species as the game trended toward linebacker-sized midfielders who could capitalize on knockdowns and set pieces. Yet both Barça and Spain draw strength from Xavi's ability to keep the ball until the right moment to exploit a weakness in the defense. Both teams are content to play simple passes and keep the ball moving, since without the ball you can't score.
Simply put, Xavi's teams pass opponents to death. He is the metronome that sets the pace. His economy of movement and his 360-degree awareness (Gol TV commentator Ray Hudson calls him Chameleon Eyes) evoke the greatness of Michel Platini and Zinédine Zidane and have generated countless scoring opportunities: Xavi has assisted on more goals than any other player in the past two La Liga and Champions League seasons. He is constantly hunting for spaces rather than playing to the man. "Xavi," says his Barcelona teammate Dani Alves, "plays in the future."
Barça's meticulous approach is a product of the chemistry that its players have developed over years of training together. The club's now emblematic pass-and-move style is attributed to Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who developed the elegant attacking style called Total Football at Ajax in the late 1960s and brought it to Barcelona as a player, manager and adviser. In training, Cruyff heavily stressed rondos, a drill akin to keepaway that teaches responsibility and quick thinking and is reflected in Barça's swift, fluid passes. Xavi's description of it is as rapid-fire as Spain's frenetic back-and-forth: "Quick touches, slipping your marker, triangular interplays, one-twos, depth, pauses, rhythm, touch-and-go, I help you, I look for you, I stop, I look up, and above all I open up the pitch."
Iniesta, Xavi's partner in the central midfield with both Spain and Barcelona, offers a more sedate explanation: "We've just come through the same system and were taught to play the same way by the same people, so we can sense what we are going to do next."
The most illuminating foil to this homegrown approach can be found several hundred miles to the west, where Barcelona's archrival, Real Madrid, has spared no expense in its effort to close the gap between the two teams. In 2009, after Barça became the first team to win La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League in a single season (not to mention the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup), Los Blancos responded by signing Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro (from Portugal), Kaká (Brazil) and Karim Benzema (France) as part of an extravagant spending spree. When Barcelona won La Liga again in 2010, Madrid canned its manager and plucked José Mourinho—the high-priced svengali who's been called the best coach in any sport anywhere—from reigning European champ Inter Milan.