Players from the Past

It takes plenty of courage to switch directly between rival clubs, as the likes of Sol Campbell and Carlos Tevez have discovered in their time. Another to have crossed enemy lines via the direct route is Portuguese defender Abel Xavier, he of the distinctive bleached blonde hairdo and beard, who transferred across Stanley Park from Everton to Liverpool in 2002. Mind you, his fearsome appearance would make anyone think twice about giving him dog’s abuse.

Born in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, Xavier’s family moved to its European ruling nation during his childhood and he began his professional career with Portuguese top flight club Estrela da Amadora. After three impressive seasons there, he earned a move to Lisbon giants Benfica in 1993 and won the league title in his first season at the capital club. He had one further year with Benfica before taking his chances abroad, joining a Bari side then playing in Serie A when Italian club football was at its peak. The move to the bel paese set in motion a European tour which, between 1995 and 1999, also took in Real Oviedo and PSV Eindhoven.

Xavier made England the fifth country in which he played professionally when, early in the 1999/2000 season, he signed for Everton. One of his first games in the Premier League was the Toffees’ fiery 1-0 Merseyside derby win at Anfield, which remains their most recent away victory against Liverpool. It was during his time with Everton that he played his way back into a rapidly improving Portugal team and he was one of the standout players at Euro 2000. However, an impressive tournament ended in disgrace for the defender after his handball gave France an extra time golden goal and, in vehemently protesting the decision, he received a nine-month ban that was later reduced to six months.

Xavier recovered from that setback, though, to become a mainstay of Everton’s defence and, when Liverpool were thin on the ground in that department midway during the 2001/02 campaign, the Portugal defender boldly crossed Stanley Park just as Nick Barmby had done a couple of years earlier. He netted on his Reds debut in February 2002, a 6-0 thrashing of Ipswich, and also scored in the 4-2 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen which ended Liverpool’s first foray into the Champions League a couple of months later.

He was expected to become a regular presence in Liverpool’s back four for the 2002/03 season but, a few weeks into the campaign, he fell out with Gerard Houllier and became a forgotten man at Anfield. A year after joining the Reds, he was loaned out to Galatasaray, who did not take up their option to sign him at the end of that season. Now into his 30s and with no future at Liverpool, Xavier’s career went back into wanderer mode as he took in Hannover 96 and Roma, barely featuring for either of those clubs.

He was given an unexpected last chance in England when, in 2005, he signed for Middlesbrough, who that season went on to reach the UEFA Cup final. Unfortunately for Xavier, his involvement in that continental foray ended in the group stage following a game against Xanthi, after which he failed a drugs test. He was banned for a year, although he did feature for ‘Boro intermittently during the 2006/07 season. His professional career took in an eighth different country when, in summer 2007, he crossed the Atlantic to sign for LA Galaxy. However, he only lasted a year in California and he later fell out with Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit, who accused the veteran defender of faking injury, a claim that Xavier stringently denied.

After finishing his playing career, Xavier converted to Islam and changed his first name to Faisal. In 2013, he was back in football as manager of Portuguese top flight club Olhanense, but he lasted just three months despite making a decent start working under a very restricted budget. He also managed Farense in the Primeira Liga before dropping down a division to take charge of Desportivo Aves, only to be sacked within two months after a poor start to the 2015/16 season. Since January 2016, Xavier has been in charge of Mozambique’s national team. They had already been eliminated from the World Cup qualifiers by then, although they are a respectable 106th in the FIFA rankings under his watch.

Xavier was a combustible character for sure, but he was also a fine defender in his prime and he did not look out of place in a Liverpool team that finished second in the 2001/02 Premier League, the Reds’ highest placing at the time and one they have matched just twice since then. It was a shame that his Anfield career fizzled out because of a difference of opinion with Houllier, especially as Liverpool had such a disappointing campaign in 2002/03.