What's more, at a time when the unemployment rate in Spain is hovering at 25%, at least one player is acutely aware of the role Barça plays in society. Messi may be Barcelona's resident genius, but the keeper of Cruyff's flame is Xavi, the figure who most clearly embodies the club's philosophy, now and in the future. Cruyff himself rarely visits anymore, the result of disagreements with Rosell, the club's president. But Xavi has lived the apotheosis of Cruyff's Barcelona, winning three Champions League titles—and, playing a similar style, a World Cup and the last two Euros with Spain. Xavi thinks the game more than any other Barça player. In the past two seasons he has nine of the top 15 Champions League performances in terms of completed passes in a match. He will almost surely coach Barcelona someday.
In an era in which athleticism, defense and brawn have threatened to take over the world's game, Xavi feels in his core that Barcelona is fighting for the soul of soccer. "I believe in this philosophy of ours," he says, "but years ago, because we weren't winning, people had doubts. Italy had won the World Cup; Greece had won the Euro. The Champions League was won by physical teams. And I thought, No, it can't be. Soccer is talent, you know. For the good of the fans, for the good of the game, talented players should always play the sport. But I'm a soccer romantic, and there are others who only want to win, win, compete, defend. Hell no. Soccer can be very beautiful."
If that sounds romantic, then so be it. Barcelona has taken the game to places it has never been, exceeding what we thought was possible, creating new fans in the process. "They've raised people's appreciation of what they do beyond simple sport, as all greats do," says Graham Hunter, author of Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. "I don't think it's false to say that in times of economic crisis, when a lot of people around the world are fearful for their daily existence, it's as if God sent this era at Barcelona."
In a sometimes ugly world the team of our time brings a simple joy. When Xavi ventures out into the city, older fans, the ones who know the history, stop him on the street, pulling him close. "They tell me, 'Thanks for playing soccer like that. You make me enjoy it,'" he says. "You can't top that for me."
He smiles. History matters. Beauty too.