Andrés Iniesta is a genius, watching him play is pure pleasure and his autobiography is perfectly entitled: “The Artist” – a fitting summation of one of the greatest players of a generation.
In this era of placing players on pedestals as though they are superheroes out of a comic book, with a media that obsesses over the rivalry of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the footballing master is truly underappreciated.
Iniesta is not free scoring, not particularly quick or a tough tackling rottweiler in the middle of the pitch. But playing in an attacking midfield role he has had such an influence in the way his teams play. Of course playing alongside other great players for club and country helps, but all those players are quick to credit him with improving them as footballers. He understands space with an awareness that allows him to glides away from opponents in the tightest of situations, whilst remaining ever available to exchange passes with a teammate and to link defence with attack and keep the game moving at a pace that he dictates.
His performances over the last 15 years or so, have shown how influential he has been in the trophies won by Barcelona and Spain. 1 World Cup, 2 European Championships, 9 La Liga Titles, 4 Champions Leagues, 6 Copa del Ray’s, 3 UEFA Super Cup’s, 3 World Club Cups and 7 Spanish Super Cup’s. Add to that extraordinary feat a total of 131 caps and 13 goals for a truly remarkable international side.
It is incredible that he has never won the Ballon d’or.
But forget those achievements for a moment and look at his contributions in playing for the probably the greatest club side and the best International team that I have ever seen play.
Spain are the only nation to have won 3 consecutive tournaments and, on each occasion, it was Iniesta who made a major impact in the Final. At EURO 2008, Spain beat Germany 1-0, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he scored the only goal against the Dutch and at EURO 2012 he led Spain to a 4-0 victory over Italy and again was named Man of the Match and Player of the Tournament.
Barcelona’s constant success at home and abroad was by many judges is down to the impact of Messi, but by comparing Argentina to Spain and the manner in which Iniesta has driven them forward, could Barca’s successes be down to more than the little Argentinian.
Looking back, it began for him aged 12 after starring at a 7- a -side tournament in Brunete, near Madrid. Scouts from various clubs were watching but Barcelona invited him to join their now famous farmhouse in the shadow of the Camp Nou – La Masia, the home of Barcelona’s legendary artistic production line of footballers.
He struggled at first, being away from home, a small kid who didn’t look like a footballer but had an inner determination to succeed. Above all, he had a natural talent and a willingness to learn, work hard and improve. At this time ‘Pep` Guardiola was the club captain and Iniesta’s hero. At 15 he scored the winning goal for Barcelona in an U18 tournament and Guardiola presented the trophy to him and when he then joined the first team squad in training, Guardiola famously told Xavi: “You’re going to retire me, but he (Iniesta) is going to retire us all”
Luckily for Barcelona this didn’t happen straight away.
He made his first team debut aged 18 in 2002 but didn’t start to gain a regular place in the team until a couple of years later. He scored his first goal in a Spanish Cup victory over Levante and then played in his first El Classico, a 3-0 win against Real Madrid. In May 2006 he made his International debut in a friendly at home v Russia. From then on, he hardly missed a match for club and country apart from a period in 2008/09 when he struggled with injury. Returning to the side he helped them to go on and win the Spanish treble of league, cup and a Champions League with a win over Manchester Utd leading to Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney declaring him the best footballer in the world.
In the 2015 Champions League Final, Iniesta was captain and named Man of the Match in the 3-1 defeat of Juventus, which resulted in Barcelona becoming the first club in history to win the treble of League, Cup and European Cup Twice – Iniesta was one of only seven players to have been members of both treble-winning teams.
He had signed a lifetime contract with Barcelona in 2017 to remain with the club until the end of his career, but then in April this year he announced that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. He made his 674th and final appearance for Barcelona in a 1-0 victory at home against Real Sociedad in the final league match of the season as Barcelona celebrated their 25th La Liga title. Iniesta was substituted a few minutes before the end to a standing ovation from the crowd.
In a country where football clubs and autonomous communities divide its people, Andrés Iniesta is unique in that he has united a nation, no more so than in 2010. After scoring what turned out to be the goal that won the World Cup he ran to the corner and pulled off his shirt. There was no posing, no arrogance, just joy and humility. Underneath his shirt, he wore a vest adorned with the following message: “Dani Jarque, always with us”. Jarque who had died of heart failure a few months earlier had been the captain of Espanyol (Barcelona’s city rivals) and a close friend.
The World Cup this summer didn’t end as well as he would have hoped for but aged 34 , he is not retiring and has moved to Japan to play for Vissel Kobe in the J League.
We should not think of him as a player who merely fitted into the grand plan of the most exciting football teams ever, but a midfield architect as responsible as any for the attacking design of those sides and for teams of the future.
This image is part of Matthew’s Andrés Iniesta comic of his World Cup 2010 winning goal. To see the complete image please visit his website here