Xavi’s 89% Passing Rate Drives Coaches to Study Spanish Soccer

Xavi Dribbles Through Opposition
Xavi Hernandez (#8) of Spain dribbles the ball past Zheng Zhi (#10) of China during the International Friendly match between Spain and China at La Cartuja stadium on June 3, 2012 in Seville, Spain. Photographer: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Xavi Hernandez, one of soccer’s most accurate passers, will display his technique in Spain’s European Championship title defense starting this weekend. Foreign coaches are signing up to discover how he got so good.

Enrollments for coaching courses at the Spanish soccer federation’s Ciudad del Futbol, or Soccer City, near Madrid rose 15 percent since Spain won the 2010 World Cup, said Inigo de Zayas Mariscal, a member of the federation’s finance department. A six-day course costs 1,200 euros ($1,500) per person and students have come from as far as Australia and Saudi Arabia.

Barcelona’s Xavi completed a tournament-high 89 percent of passes at the World Cup in South Africa. That rate of success by the 32-year-old is down to grassroots coaching in Spain that’s unmatched in most other countries, according to Andy Roxburgh, technical director at Nyon, Switzerland-based European soccer governing body UEFA.

“The way the style has evolved is from the way the youth teams were trained,” Roxburgh said in an interview. “It has taken a long, long time to come to fruition.”

Spain’s style is based on a short-passing, technical game that favors finesse over physicality and has been instilled by federation coaches since 1995, according to technical director Gines Melendez. Its 3,547 passes in seven matches at the 2010 World Cup were the most by any team since tracking began in 1966, according to statistician Opta Ltd.

At the European Championship two years earlier, Xavi was selected as the tournament’s best player by UEFA’s nine-man technical team as Spain secured its first major title since

1964. The country’s national squads from juniors upward have used the $55 million Soccer City complex in the upscale Madrid suburb of Las Rozas since 2003.

Italy Opener

Spain opens its championship defense June 10 against Italy in Gdansk, Poland, before facing the Republic of Ireland and Croatia in the same city. Spain is the 11-4 favorite to win Euro 2012 according to bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc, meaning a successful $4 bet would yield an $11 return plus the original stake. No team has so far managed to retain the trophy.

The Spanish approach has had success at youth level. The nation won the Under-20 World Cup in 1999, was runner-up in the Under-17 category in 2003 and 2007, and won the last European Under-21 championship in 2011. The Iberian nation has almost 30,000 qualified soccer coaches, about 10 times the number in England. With the national team ranked No. 1 by world governing body FIFA, foreign coaches are beating a trail to Soccer City.

“People come from everywhere just to look at our facilities,” De Zayas Mariscal said. “They are looking to learn our way.”

‘Every Corner’

Less than 2 percent of the Spanish federation’s 131.3 million euro sales in 2010 came from hosting coaching courses, according to its latest published accounts.

Most of the income came from selling TV rights to Spain’s games, World Cup prize money and sponsorship from companies including Adidas AG -- which paid a 10 million euro win bonus, the accounts show.

The not-for-profit federation’s 6 million euro net income for the year will be used to further develop Spanish soccer, according to the filings.

Spanish soccer federation president Angel Maria Villar said that while the organization relies on clubs like Barcelona to mold players, it has improved the selection process with a pyramid of competitions at all age groups.

Long Process

“Every weekend, there are games at every age group in every corner of Spain,” Villar told UEFA’s website in May last year. “This allows a compilation of data that isn’t available in some other countries.”

To be sure, while coaches may take away some useful tips from Soccer City, they won’t be able to copy Spain’s success anytime soon, Roxburgh says.

AS Roma fired Luis Enrique Martinez last month after Xavi’s former Barcelona teammate couldn’t replicate the Spanish club’s winning model in Italy’s Serie A championship in under a year. Roma finished seventh, one place lower than the previous campaign.

“The idea you can suddenly say, ‘Right, we’re going to play like Spain,’ I don’t think that works,” Roxburgh said. “You don’t do what they have done overnight.”

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