The route to the top job at the Camp Nou so often goes through the Mini Estadi, until recently the home of Barcelona B. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique both cut their managerial teeth in charge of the Catalan club’s lower league sister team, with the two legends still expected to prove themselves in the dugout before their anointment as Barcelona boss.
Xavi Hernandez, however, has taken a different route. Long tipped as a future Barca manager, the former midfielder chose an alternative path, instead taking his first managerial opportunity in Qatar. Appointed as the head coach of Al-Sadd in May, Xavi has just led his side to the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League, showing the signs of managerial promise many saw in him years ago.
Some will argue that the Gulf is not the place for a future Barcelona manager to prove himself. Indeed, the quality of Qatari and even Asian football is nowhere close to the level Xavi would be expected to meet in Spain and Europe but taking over at Al-Sadd might prove to be the best thing the 39-year-old could have done to prepare for a homecoming.
In Qatar, Xavi has been allowed to grow and develop as a coach away from the spotlight. Early on, there were hints that the former midfielder wasn’t cut out for the responsibility and pressure that comes with management. There was a touchline incident just a few weeks ago which saw Xavi lose a shoe in rage at a refereeing decision.
However, more recently Xavi has demonstrated his worth as a tactician. The football mind that saw him earn a place in the pantheon of great midfielders is seemingly still as sharp as ever.
Glory in the AFC Champions League with Al-Sadd would be symbolic of this. It would also qualify him as a winner, validating him in the eyes of many as a potential option for Barcelona. And for any other elite club.
“Who doesn’t like the Premier League?” Xavi said in a recent interview with Sky Sports, when asked whether he could see himself managing in England.
“The football atmosphere, the packed stadiums and the people who play in the Premier League say it’s extraordinary. Obviously if I had to choose I would choose a big team… [Manchester] City or United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham.”
There is no denying where Xavi’s heart still lies, however.
“It would not be inconvenient,” he responded when asked whether he could re-enter a dressing room he knows so well as manager.
“I know how Leo [Messi], Luis [Suarez], Busi [Busquets], Jordi Alba, [Gerard] Pique and Sergi [Roberto] are, I know how they train, their capacity for leadership, if they are sad or angry. I hope as a coach I could have three, five, eight or 10 players that I already know and I have a good relationship with."
With Ernesto Valverde already under pressure after a patchy start to the season, Xavi’s name could soon be increasingly brought up over the coming months.
It seems inevitable that he will one day take charge at the Camp Nou, even if he decided against going down the Barca B route the club almost insists upon for former players looking to move into management. Qatar might not have been the most obvious place for Xavi to start out as a coach, but it might just work for him.