Xavi Hernandez: Louis van Gaal said I was superior to Zinedine Zidane

Departing Barcelona captain Xavi Hernandez says he was told by his former boss Louis van Gaal as a youngster that he was better than Zinedine Zidane.

Current Manchester United manager Van Gaal had two spells in charge at the Camp Nou -- from 1997 to 2000, when he won two La Liga titles, and a less successful spell from 2002 to 2003.

This was a period when a young Xavi was breaking into the Barca first team, and also when Real Madrid's Zidane was viewed by many as the world's most talented player.

Xavi, now 35 and leaving Barca this summer for Qatari club Al-Sadd, told El Pais that the Dutchman had been an important figure early on in his career.

"[Van Gaal] taught me a lot," Xavi said. "He told me 'you are better than Zidane.' I told him thanks, but not to get carried away. I have had a lot of good luck, have had great coaches. We were very unjust with him, he was a great coach."

After Van Gaal's second title win in 1999, Barca went five years without winning La Liga, and Xavi recalls that he personally received a lot of criticism during that time.

"Yes, when we were winning I got a lot of attention," he said. "But when we were losing, everything was doubted, beginning with me."

The problem was that those in charge of Barca had forgotten the club's "essence," according to Xavi, until Frank Rijkaard arrived in 2003 before bringing the La Liga trophy back to the Camp Nou in 2005.

"We lost our essence," Xavi said. "We changed coach all the time, we did not find any stability until Rijkaard arrived. And Ronaldinho. When we have won we have done it through possession, with the ball, attacking to defend ourselves. The only solution we have is to be ourselves.

"But sometimes, when we do not win, everything is doubted and nothing has any value. Here quickly they look for a six-footer who is very strong. And no, what is needed are players who understand the essence, the third man, the pass to create superiority."

Xavi singled out the contribution of home-grown players such as Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets, who lack the profile of Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta, but who are hugely important to the cause.

"Because [Pedro and Busquets] have exceptional talent and enormous commitment, but they are not recognised so much, that bugs me," he said. "I know how hard it is to get here, and they have done that. They have won everything and always been at the service of the team, like Jordi [Alba]. Always.

"The same for Andres and [Gerard] Pique, but they, like Leo and myself, we have had more praise. Pedro and Sergio are two enormous players. What Pedro has done is exceptional -- come through the youth system, to get where he has you have to applaud. And Busi -- I have never seen such an intelligent player on the pitch."

Xavi said he almost left the Camp Nou last summer, but the arrivals of Luis Suarez and Luis Enrique had persuaded him to stay for another season -- a season which is ending with the La Liga title already won, and Copa del Rey and Champions League finals still to come.

"I felt good, after the low of the World Cup had passed," the former Spain international said. "I knew Luis Suarez was coming, I spoke with Luis Enrique. Luis has been a 10 in his dealings with me. He was always honest and said things to my face.

"Some people might think I am upset at not playing so much, but just the opposite. I owe him one, as he was one of those who convinced me to stay. What a relief I did..."

Asked if it had been difficult to watch most of Barca's important games from the bench, Xavi said he has learned to deal with the situation, and is now delighted with how things are ending in style.

"It is tough, for sure," he said. "But I have learned from other teammates who did not play, who stayed quiet and helped the dressing room. One of my examples has always been the sub-keepers -- they never played and they were the first to celebrate. I thought a lot about Albert Jorquera, about Pepe Reina, people who worked more than anyone and never complained. I learned from them.

"Look, I was taken off at Valencia with just 10 minutes left, and I jumped back on the pitch to celebrate the [injury-time winning] goal from Busi. I hugged Luis Enrique. He had taken me off but I was not even angry. I have 'changed the chip.' I wanted to finish well, with a trophy, and look now.

"I spoke the other day to [Carles] Puyol, who could neither play nor win anything [when he retired]. Look at how I said goodbye to the Camp Nou, incredible. All the pieces of the puzzle came together. Scandalous. I could never have imagined an end like this, it is like a movie."