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Roja and roll time

You won't be surprised to hear that Xavi Hernandez not only remembers his first football and first boots but who gave them to him and exactly where they are now.

Xavi on the ball at Spain's training base in Gniewino   Photograph: Getty
Xavi on the ball at Spain's training base in Gniewino Photograph: Getty

This man, who was player of the tournament when Spain won Euro 2008 and unleashed hell on the rest of the world, isn't just divinely gifted, he is fanatically in love with his sport.

No need for the Mikasa white football with the black triangles now or the silver Patricks, but Xavi is so "obsessed" by all things football that he recently had his agent organise a mass raiding of the Panini vaults to the extent that he now has a full sticker album for every Spanish season from 1973-74 onwards.

"When I was a kid I was totally nuts about football," he says. "I collected all the stickers for the World Cups because they were the tournaments I just loved. The one which really ignited my passion was 1994 and for some reason it was the Romanian side of Prunea, Raducioiu, Prodan, Hagi, Munteanu, Popescu and Ionescu plus the Bulgarians – Stoichkov, Letko, Iordanov, Balakov and Penev – who lit my candle."

His fixation extended to filling jotter after jotter with notes about "the best players in the world", dividing them into categories, countries, positions and so on. "I had a team which started Schmeichel, Cafu, Maldini, Baresi and so on -"

Xavi, now 32 was the football equivalent of a trainspotter. "I wonder if the kids today feel the same sort of passion for those things" is his worry.

He has no reason to fear. His achievements with Barcelona and the national team will have inspired fanaticism in the next generation.

Should he drive the reigning world and European champions to another tournament victory in Poland and Ukraine, and make them the only country to win three straight world or continental championships, then his already stellar career will reach what was once an unimaginable apex.

However, those who bet against La Roja right now (tiredness, ageing key players, no Villa or Puyol) will take force from the fact Spain start their campaign this evening against Italy.

Italy are to Spain what Iran, Costa Rica and Peru have been to Scotland in World Cups. It simply doesn't matter how much the odds say you should win, you don't. The Spanish haven't won a competitive match against Italy in 90 minutes since 1920. Last time out in a friendly match, in August, the Azzurri won 2-1.

In 2008 there was a Eureka moment for Spanish football when Iker Casillas saved penalties from Antonio Di Natale and Daniele De Rossi. Italy were eliminated but Spain should have won in normal time and failed to.

Within Vicente Del Bosque's current squad there are more than a dozen players who carry 4000-plus minutes from their domestic season into this campaign. Italy have only one, their reserve keeper.

Xavi admits that, unlike his team-mate Javi Martinez who "couldn't give a stuff", he would rather not have had the Azzurri as their opening opponents.

"It's true, I'd have preferred not to begin with Italy," he said. "It bugs me that every time there is a massive football scandal in their country they turn up and win the tournament.

"Italian football is so, so competitive. Still, they've thrown away the manual under [Cesare] Prandelli. Now they are less pragmatic and want to play football with Andrea Pirlo as their orchestra conductor. Everyone's trying to copy our style!"

All the better for the rest of us. But what would be a bitter irony is if Spain's batteries run flat just when the cattle prod they have applied to the rest of the world game gives us a plethora of fit, attacking, daring national teams such as Holland, Germany and, as Friday proved, Russia.

"We are confident, relaxed even, and we know we can win this tournament but that we won't regard it as a disaster if we don't," Xavi said. "I can't remember a more wide open field than this.

"There are eight countries, I'd say, who could win this. Some of them get here with urgency and some style: France, Holland, Italy and Germany and I'd not discount Portugal and England. What's great is that the great majority of the teams here have found our football contagious. Germany are always attacking, Italy no longer gift you half the pitch and then try to pick you off with one attack."

Xavi pauses to reflect on the man who set Spain on this path. He said: "Luis Aragones gave me control of the Spanish midfield when I didn't even have that responsibility with Barca. He set the attacking tone, trusted in the wee guys and asked us to set aside the furious football style and opt for passing, attacking, dominating the ball. He was a pioneer."

Aragones also helped achieve unity between the Real Madrid and Barca factions, a problem which, thanks to the Mourinho-Guardiola effect, has definitely raised its head again.

I've seen the atmosphere within the camp, both on the training ground and in the team hotel, and while the divisions still show themselves it's usually now with good, robust humour: potentially a team bonding effect rather than acidic.

However, Xavi admits some remedial work was required. "I've known Iker forever and, thanks be to God, he's just the right guy for this. He was suffering while we [Barca] were winning and then recently we've had our difficult moments but he and I knew we'd never really let problems overtake us – no chance.

"However, things weren't quite right overall and it's been useful, I think, to sit down with Del Bosque - the three of us and just chat it through a bit."

Union in the camp, good signs on the training pitch. Italy on the horizon. Don't miss it.

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