Abel Xavier: 'I Can Look Evertonians In The Eye And Say I Always Gave My Best'

Abel Xavier counts his two-and-a-half years with Everton as one of the happiest periods of a colourful and much-travelled career.

When Xavier spoke to Everton's matchday programme in September 2018 the former Portugal international defender was investing his vast football and life experience into trying to unify Mozambique as manager of the country’s football team.

Football has made Abel Xavier a very rich man.

And now he is sharing his wealth in Mozambique, attempting to “unite a nation”.

We should explain early on that the currency Xavier possess in bucketloads is counted in knowledge and wisdom.

He is not driven by “material things in life”.

“I want to tell you one thing which I think is important,” says Xavier.

“I made my football career without an agent.

"People do not believe me… but I always felt, the only thing you are showing as a football player is yourself.

“Clubs will approach you if you do things right and are a great professional.”

Xavier is an avowed believer in the power of football.

He views the game from a serious standpoint, enabling him to see deep below its surface.

Xavier’s second start for Everton following his move from PSV Eindhoven in 1999 came in a Merseyside derby the Blues won 1-0 at Anfield.


Ask him about the match and he begins peeling back the layers.

“I played many derbies, in eight different countries,” says Xavier

“Football is a great school of life.

"You learn a lot; mentality, language, religion, culture. You become a very knowledgeable person.

“Derby games in Merseyside are unique and special, you need to feel them.

"If you have the chance to be involved as a player or coach, you will never forget it.”

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Abel Xavier bowls through his front door. It is a steamy late-August evening in Mozambique.

“You have called at the perfect time,” says Xavier. The Everton matchday programme's initial attempt to contact the Club’s former defender found him on a scouting mission, the most famous man in a crowded – and, if background noise is a fair gauge, excitable – football stadium in what he proudly calls “my birth country”.

Xavier has come home.

Back in the sanctuary of his family house, Xavier starts talking football unprompted.

“I am looking forward to speaking about Everton where I had such good times,” he says. “They have great fans and it was a family environment. There is a lot of progress now in their squad. “

"They have a strong view towards the future.”


Xavier’s own vision of what lies ahead is filled with aspiration.

It is a picture he has been crafting in his mind for more than a decade.

He is Mozambique’s national team manager and in two-and-a-half years since he accepted the job, has achieved a significant turnaround in on-field fortunes.

Should Xavier improve results without achieving his wider, more substantial, ambitions, however, he would have failed in his self-determined remit.

“When you are a coach, you are depending on results,” says Xavier.

“But this work is not about me, whether I win or lose.

"It is about leaving something other people can continue.

“If all you are thinking about is results, you do not grow or build anything.

“I am doing something different from any coach previously in this country.

“We are working with the youth development programme and trying to stabilise Mozambique’s football.

“There are a lot of problems in Africa with the lack of structures in its social and educational environments.

“Sport is important for integration into society. We have so many kids lacking direction.

“You are multi-tasking in this job. You need to be resilient, strong and persistent to make your mark.

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03:39

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“The Mozambique project has been in my locker for 10 years but you need to understand the moment when you can do what you believe must be done.

“When you see a change of mentality, then your work will be absorbed in the right way and understood.

“Football will unite the country, because this is the national team.

“With football, you can do so much for the well-being of people.

“I will fight and find a new generation of players.

“When you look back to Portuguese-African players, most of the big ones were from Mozambique.

“Eusebio, the great one.

“There are no big Mozambique players now. What happened?

"I want to discover that.”

To appreciate what drives Xavier we must dig into his past.

He left Mozambique, a country on the brink of civil war, in 1976, moving with his parents to Portugal where “integrating into society was very tough”.

“I played football in the streets and when I was eight I started in Sporting Lisbon’s academy,” says Xavier.

“I stayed for 10 years and became a teenager with rules and discipline.

“Football educated me.

“Everything I know is through football. The discipline and rules, how to be footballer and a father. Everything.”

Xavier’s professional breakthrough came elsewhere in the capital, with Estrela de Amadora.

He was promoted into Portugal’s Primeira Liga with the unheralded club in 1993 and the following season won the championship with Benfica.

Xavier was a pivotal figure with the country’s foremost club and a full international.

And then in 1995 he put it all on the line by transferring to Bari in Italy.

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02:27 Sat 11 Jul 2020

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“There are no regrets,” says Xavier.

“So many coaches and players have great careers but would still go back and change something.

“I always felt my career was lived in the right way and I would not change anything.

“Things happened naturally. It was not a question of me choosing where I wanted to go, it was about which clubs wanted me.

“I always wanted to be somewhere I felt important.”

After one year in Italy, Xavier was signed by Spanish team Real Oviedo where in his second season he was managed by venerated Uruguayan Oscar Tabarez.

He spent one season with Dutch powerhouse PSV under Bobby Robson before being lured to Everton by Walter Smith.

“All of my coaches are my references for me,” says Xavier, who had a testy relationship with his final club boss, Ruud Gullit at LA Galaxy.

“You must be able to understand the good things coaches have given you – and why other coaches have not worked so well.

"You learn from analysing everything. I had a great school in coaching.”

Xavier considers Smith one of his best tutors.

Everton among the finest of the 12 stopping points in his peripatetic playing career.

“I played in an amazing squad with a strong bond,” he says. “Walter Smith wanted players who had pride.

"I was a young player in a strong squad with different characters.

“At Everton, you feel so close to the supporters… you are playing for them.

"They made it a special time for me.

"Because of the fans, you felt, ‘I am in the right place’.

“I always felt welcome at Everton – as a person and player.

“I was happy to go to training every day. I felt important as an Everton player and I think I made an impact.”

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04:19 Sun 28 Jun 2020

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Xavier played 49 matches for the Club before leaving in January 2002.

His next destination was never going to sit well with Evertonians.

And Xavier knew it.

So, was joining Liverpool a complex decision?

“It was very, very difficult,” says Xavier. “I wanted to stay longer but it was not possible. Everton were not as economically strong as they are today and I was not able to extend my contract, which had six months remaining.

“When we decided I would leave, I think everything was done correctly.

“Liverpool wanted me so much and I was a professional.

"But you must always respect the fans’ opinions.

“I can look Evertonians in the eye and say I did my best until my last day at the Club.

“I can go to the city and walk round with my head up.

"I am very proud that both clubs, I hope, respect me and people have good memories of me. That does not happen often.”

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04:09

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When he reflects more broadly, considering the ‘have boots, will travel’ nature of his 18 years as a professional footballer, Xavier cuts through his career’s exterior.

“I played with five clubs in the Champions League: Benfica, PSV, Liverpool, Galatasaray and Roma,” says Xavier, who also represented Hannover 96 in Germany and Premier League Middlesbrough before finishing in Los Angeles.

“But you do not frame your career by the competitions you are involved in, you frame it with how you started and finished with all your clubs.

“Everything was relevant and important.

“And now I am able to help my country – and help football grow in my country.

“That means football can be an educational process and about more than winning trophies.

“I did not go to university or study for a degree but football gave me a lot of knowledge about a lot of things in the world.

“I was able to raise a family because of football.

"I can educate my kids and speak eight languages because of football.

“I do not feel rich through material things in life.

“There is no price you can put on attachments to people and feelings. You cannot buy those things."

Xavier’s wider perspective should not be mistaken for an absence of competitive edge.

He confesses Portugal’s European Championship success in France in 2016 erased the hurt his ‘golden generation’ had carried for 16 years following their controversial semi-final defeat against the French in the 2000 tournament.

Xavier conceded the decisive penalty in Portugal’s 2-1 defeat and was banned from playing in UEFA competitions for six months following his reaction to the referee’s decision.

“You need to leave the past in the right place but it was an amazing relief when Portugal won the European Championship,” says Xavier.

“We were the best team in the tournament in 2000 and felt we deserved to win it.

“Revenge is not the right word… but winning with another generation, for everyone in our team, we were very happy.”

Xavier’s next international target is to lead Mozambique to their first Africa Cup of Nationals finals since 2010.

They won their opening qualifier 1-0 in Namibia, courtesy of a 90th-minute goal.

Such drama, though, is a small element in a much bigger story.

“I am developing my career and building something which is very special because of my roots,” says Xavier.

“I left Mozambique when I was a boy and came back a man.

“I started in a poor country, in the neighbourhoods, then I made my international career, and now I am back in the neighbourhoods, in a country which needs help. It is great.

“I am building a great house.

"But now I am making the base solid – and hoping the ceiling will not fall on my head.”