#3: Xavi, SPA

Though the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink” has been applied to countless mercurial footballing talents over the years, when one looks at the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, it has never seemed more appropriate. Packed into an incandescent club team with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, it can be easy to overlook the diminutive (Xavi stands, unassuming, at five foot seven) playmaker, but the quality and efficiency of his play always stands out.

His style is cerebral and full of intent; with the ball at his feet, Xavi thinks several moves ahead of the one that starts at his instep, forever looking for space in which to thread a pass and decimate a well-organized defense. (In a 2011 interview, Xavi outlined his thought process: “Think quickly, look for space ... I’m always looking.”) With Iniesta at his side and their on-field telepathy in full effect, the rampant, all-conquering Barcelona side of the late 2000s will never be forgotten.

Making him even more admirable is that in the modern era, a period of hundred-million-dollar transfers and club loyalty for a price, Xavi is a one-club player. Joining Barca’s vaunted La Masia youth academy at age 11, his 15-year professional career (began in 1997) is hard to match: six La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, two FIFA Club World Cups and a slew of individual honors.

But unlike other luminaries high up this list, Xavi has matched these exploits at the international level. The cool, metronomic midfielder was a vital part of La Furia Roja’s cruise to the 2008 European Championships – even named player of the tournament -- and repeating the feat in 2010 when Spain edged its way through a tightly-contested World Cup en route to the trophy. With no title or accolade left to collect and his age (32) betraying his extraordinary technical skill, the 2012 European Championships will likely be Xavi’s last international tournament. What will he do for his swansong?

Expert's Take: Xavi is the heartbeat of the Spanish side. His skill is in controlling the tempo of the game via his wonderful touch and control, dictating the pace at which both Spain and Barcelona (two of the best teams in the world) play. Now, in the twilight of his career, he's starting to get the credit he deserves. -- Steve McManaman

Stats That Matter:

• 19 titles with Barcelona, most in club history

• Third all-time in appearances with the Spanish national team with 108

• Has scored 11 goals with the national team, including two in Euro qualifying

• Won Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup with Spain, and was voted player of the tournament at Euro 2008

• Xavi led the 2011-12 La Liga in passes completed with 2,716

To comment, you must be a registered user. Please Sign In or Register