How his passion for grass has earned him an extraordinary career. We spoke to Xavi about the finest moments.
Xavier Tordera, better known as Xavi, lived his dream and the one of many others in the turf industry. For 16 years he was responsible for the magical Camp Nou pitch, home of FC Barcelona. As a native Catalan with an innate passion for football and turf, there was no better place in the world for him to be. At least, that’s what he thought, until he made his move to SGL eight years ago to become area manager in Southern Europe and South America. In an in-depth interview, Xavi opens up about his career at FC Barcelona and SGL, in which he shares anecdotes about the most magical encounters with players like Lionel Messi and coaches like Pep Guardiola, and his first eventful years at SGL.
Barcelona 2012 – Xavi was pacing back and forth in his living room after leaving his post as Head Groundsman at FC Barcelona. He had worked there for 16 years and won everything with the club you can possibly think of: the UEFA Champions League, LaLiga and all cup competitions. He never missed a game played on his pitch. And now he stood there in his living room, missing a game of his club and desperately waiting to set foot on turf again. It was that passion, that enormous urge to always be on and around grass, that brought him to one of the world’s greatest football clubs and to an industry he’ll never leave.
It was no wonder that Xavi had a passion for grass. It was passed on to him by his father. Xavi’s father was shareholder and employee of a local gardening company that maintained parks, gardens and pitches in and around Barcelona. Remarkably, his father was also one of the very first to maintain the pitch of the Camp Nou stadium. “I remember as a kid when FC Barcelona played against Espanyol, the pitch was an absolute disaster. My father believed that he had the solution and could turn the tide. He wanted to maintain the club’s pitch with his company and finally got the opportunity to do so.” Xavi followed in his father’s footsteps and went to university to study Technical Agronomical Engineering. The choice to work for his father’s company after following the study was an easy one. He focussed on landscaping and park maintenance in the city of Barcelona first.
Years later, when Sir Bobby Robson was appointed as the new manager of FC Barcelona in 1996, rumours were spreading that the club was looking for an English speaking grounds manager. A groundsman who would be close to the coach and could maintain the pitch according to the team’s preferences. After Xavi had already gained some experience and had mastered the English language, he decided to show an interest in taking over the responsibility of FC Barcelona’s pitch from his father. “If you’re a Catalan, love grass and FC Barcelona, there was no better place on earth to be at.” Not much later, Xavi was given the position of head groundsman, officially called gardener at the time, in the Camp Nou stadium. First as under the employment of the gardening company and later at Turf Engineers RoyalVerd. “It was dream come true to take care of my favourite club’s pitch, and to come close to the players and coaches on a daily basis who were my idols.”
For generations of players, Xavi was head groundsman at FC Barcelona. Talking to the players on the pitch and about the pitch was part of his job. One time, after a morning training session in the Camp Nou stadium, just before an evening match, Xavi had a discussion with the players about the height of cut of the grass. And not just with anybody: world stars Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Xavi Hernández walked up to him. “The mowers were prepared at 21mm, but the players urged me to decrease the height of cut. Everyone wanted something different, Messi was thinking of 20mm, while Hernández felt more comfortable with 19mm. And there I was, having a discussion with three of the world’s biggest players, all three of whom wanted something different. I hardly even had the time to cut the grass anymore.” In the end, Hernández got his way, and Xavi managed to mow the pitch on 19mm just in time. “The team won 3-0 and the next morning Hernández was the first to arrive at my office. “You see I was right!” he said with a big smile on his face. One of the many moments I cherish.”
Everyone at the club expected Xavi to be at the top of his game week in and week out. Especially the coaches considered the pitch to be the foundation of the team’s play. That wasn’t easy and often caused a lot of pressure. Nevertheless, Xavi was respected and appreciated, and occasionally received a surprising gesture of appreciation. One day Xavi received dozens of messages about some article in the local sports magazine El Periódico de Catalunya. “I had no idea what that was about. I found the article and read that Pep Guardiola was very enthusiastic about ‘Xavi’s performances’. Of course, I thought he was talking about Xavi Hernández, the footballer. But when I continued reading, it turned out that it was not about Xavi Hernández, but about me! The article stated that I contributed to the club’s smooth play with my pitch, never letting Pep down. They suggested that I made the 1-0 for FC Barcelona before the ball had even rolled! I went to Assistant Coach Tito Vilanova the next morning and asked ‘what is this?”. He told me the article had been published at the request of Pep Guardiola and that it was a gift from him to me, for all the effort and good work I had delivered. I can’t put into words how I felt in that moment. Just.. wow! It were moments like those that kept me motivated through the tougher times”.
After 16 years at FC Barcelona, the club had seen and won everything there was to win and it was time for a new challenge. “During my time at FC Barcelona I had the opportunity to talk with the founder of SGL: Nico van Vuuren. FC Barcelona was the first club in Spain who invested in SGL’s monitoring system and grow lights. He told me that I was always welcome at SGL, should I ever stop at FC Barcelona.” After the investment in the system, Xavi became acquainted with SGL and integrated data into his pitch maintenance program. “I was impressed with SGL because of the revolution they were bringing to the Turf Maintenance business. Years later, when I decided to leave FC Barcelona, Nico was one of the first to call me and invited me to the SGL headquarters in Waddinxveen. He said had a very special task for me. That’s where it all began.”
In his first year at SGL, Xavi didn’t know what he was getting into. “The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was approaching. Nico and I visited several stadiums in Brazil to introduce them to our system, including Cuiaba, one of the cities hosting the World Cup. We nearly melted once we got there; that was by far the hottest stadium I have ever been to! And I am used to hot summers, imagine how Nico must have felt. But that wasn’t the most uncomfortable situation we found ourselves in that week. There was an unexpected medical summit in Sao Paulo. After searching for a hotel in Sao Paulo for hours, we finally found a half star hotel where we could stay the night. It was the only available room we could find in the whole of Sao Paulo. Not that big of a problem, but the room only had one bed, so during my first trip for SGL I had to share a bed with my boss. It was a crazy period to start off with, but it gave me some good stories!”
After a little while, Xavi switched focus and became SGL’s sales manager in the Latin countries. A real salesman, however, he is not: “I would certainly not define myself as a stereotype sales guy and I also wouldn’t want to be one. The fact that I had none experience in sales whatsoever, did make me think that it would make life difficult at first. But soon I realised that was not the most important thing. It is more about building sincere relationships than anything else. I’m fortunate to be able to speak the same language as groundsmen and stadium managers worldwide. With the experience and knowledge I have gained at FC Barcelona, as a consultant to FIFA, but also from other groundsmen, I think I can help clubs anywhere in the world. At least, that’s what I’m doing my absolute best for every day.”
After eight years, Xavi is still very happy in his role as SGL Area Manager. He visits the most beautiful clubs and meets the most inspiring people, from Argentina to Italy and from Spain to Mexico. “These people are the warmest, most passionate and dedicated people you can find. I have been lucky enough to speak to them on a daily basis and I can honestly say that many have become my friends. In the end we all share the same goals and want to work together to meet – and hopefully exceed the ever increasing expectations. The pressure is extremely high. To introduce them to technology that helps them feel a bit more comfortable to go home and sleep a bit better at night, that is what I love to do. Because that’s a feeling I know all too well.”
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