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Barcelona players hail Xavi after 700th appearance

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Lionel Messi and some of his Barcelona colleagues paid warm tribute to team mate Xavi on Friday after he extended his appearances record to 700 in the midweek King's Cup match at Getafe.

Spain playmaker Xavi, who will be 34 later this month, joined Barca's academy in 1991 at the age of 11 and made his debut for the first team under Dutch coach Louis van Gaal in August 1998.

He has since won 22 trophies in 16 seasons including three Champions Leagues and seven La Liga titles.

A consummate ball player, joint captain Xavi is the fulcrum of the team and fellow skipper Carles Puyol said there was no reason why the veteran midfielder could not reach 1,000 appearances for the club.

"He is a unique player who makes things very easy," said Argentina forward Messi on the club website (www.fcbarcelona.es). "He makes the whole team play.

"It's crazy the number of matches he has played and hopefully there will be many more."

Xavi's fellow midfielder and Spain colleague Andres Iniesta, another academy graduate who has been at the heart of Barca's success in recent years, called his team mate "a leader, a reference point".

"On a footballing level he is extraordinary because he is always ahead of the play," said Iniesta.

Sergio Busquets said Xavi, who has also scored 82 goals for the club, was the player he and the other academy players had looked up to when they were learning their trade.

"He is the brain of the team, he always provides balance and he never loses a ball," Busquets said.

Xavi has not always enjoyed success at Barca and Puyol recalled they had suffered "five very difficult years" of trophy drought at the start of the century.

"We talked from time to time and we told ourselves that it could not be that a team like FC Barcelona could go through so many years without winning anything," Puyol added.

"Luckily things changed and we were able to win a lot of titles. He (Xavi) is one of the best in the world, a key player both at Barca and in the national team."

Spain have also benefited from Xavi's talents and he was instrumental in their maiden World Cup title triumph in 2010 and back-to-back European crowns in 2008 and 2012.

He has played under nine coaches, including Van Gaal, Radomir Antic, Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and now Gerardo Martino.

(Writing by Iain Rogers in Madrid, editing by Tony Jimenez)

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