Don Andrés: In praise of Iniesta
A boy came into La Masia in 1996, when Johan Cruyff was in his last year as the Barcelona coach. He was spotted by the Barça scouts and identified as a precocious talent. After being pursued and finally convinced to join FC Barcelona, leaving his boyhood club of Albacete Balompié, his story was set to begin.
He trained and graduated from the academy into the team which subsequently experienced the most decorated, trophy-winning years in Barcelona's history. The boy was Andrés Iniesta. The then Barça manager, Frank Rijkaard, had Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho as his stars, with Xavi and a teenaged Lionel Messi in the ranks. The side was brimming with talent.
Barcelona's recent dominance in La Liga began after winning the league in 2004-05. Iniesta featured in 37 out of 38 league games that season - more than any other player. His club's European clout was consolidated when they won their second ever Champions League at Stade de France, against Arsenal in Paris in 2006. Iniesta was increasingly and intrinsically a part of the success. His willingness to play in any position made him a coach and fan favourite. He was now quintessential Barça - dyed in Blaugrana, through and through.
Andrés Iniesta's career is full of innumerable flashes of footballing brilliance. He's undoubtedly one of the greatest midfielders to have played the game and we're all privileged to have watched him live. Iniesta is the don, the pivot, the key, the enigma, the sage, the fail-safe, the talisman, the holder, the creator, the plotter, the caresser, the constant, the genie, the shape-shifter, the space-manipulator, the conductor, the beating heart, the essence, the pulse, the secret sauce, the artist, the illusionist for FC Barcelona, who has had the opposition chasing shadows, running rings around them in the midfield for well over a decade.
He truly is irreplaceable. For it is not about the number of goals or Ballon d'Ors. If he wouldn't have assists, he would have the assist to the assist. Secondary assists, tertiary assists. He'd invariably be the man who would begin the next wave of attack from Barcelona's famed midfield. He held the figurative wand and he conjured up the magic.
He's a footballer everyone loves. Just like Ronaldinho, the one you can't help but love. Everyone in Spain loves Iniesta, irrespective of the clubs they support. Everyone in the world loves Iniesta, irrespective of the country they cheer for. After Pep Guardiola took over the managerial reigns at Barça in 2008, he built the team around the nucleus of Xavi, Messi and Iniesta. Call it baptism by fire or the call of destiny, Guardiola's faith in the La Masia graduates paid rich and immediate dividends.
The foundations to perhaps the best club side ever created were thus put in place. Iniesta, in Guardiola's own words, 'Helped him understand the game better'. Adding to his exploits for his club, he also starred for Spain when they did the unprecedented treble of Euro-World Cup-Euro (2008-2010-2012). His wizardry in those triumphs is etched, worthy of repeat views on YouTube.
He wouldn't score many goals, but he would score the key goals. Champions League semi-finals, Copa del Rey final, World Cup extra-time winner...he's done it all, at the most crucial moments, at the loftiest of stages, and secured a fine legacy.
His most famous goal for Spain (above), is also an instance of him starting another move with a gentle turn in his own half, that set free his teammates for a counter-attack. He's got a quality that cannot be taught and with that, Iniesta has won everything for his club and country. Statistics though hide a lot about him and they aren't even fair sometimes.
Games - 670 | Goals - 57 | Assists - 141 | Trophies - 32 for FC Barcelona and 3 with Spain
There are no crazy personal goal-scoring records, and he holds no out-of-this-world stats. He's not the fastest, or the strongest or the fittest. But when you watch him, you know an artist is at work. Genius can't always be quantified, but in his case, it can be observed and acknowledged; as Iniesta rightly is.
He has been special on various European nights for Barcelona. His subtle, silken, sleight of feet, wrapped in cotton wool tricks, would mesmerise, carve up defences, and open up mid-fields. And here's the important part, for others. He did it for his team-mates. As a selfless club man, as an ingenious play-maker and as the creator of hundreds of goals.
Right from Eto'o to Ronaldinho to Neymar to Messi to Suárez, all of them owe Iniesta a huge percentage of their goals and their gratitude. It is his vision and awareness on the pitch and those decisive through-balls that make them shine. Iniesta did all of this, year on year, game after game, home and away, unassumingly, with the precision of a neurosurgeon, while never being sent off in a football match. Incredible!
Every time Messi needs help on the pitch, his eyes would search for Iniesta. He was the calming assurance that helped and propelled every player forward. Even and especially his beloved friend, Messi.
As he leaves at the height of his powers -- after winning the La Liga crown and the Copa del Rey one last time -- his club which prides itself in having 'more than a club' as its motto, would feel a part of its heart is leaving. Because Iniesta is more than player. He's everything that Barça are. Everything that the club holds dear, sacred and sacrosanct.
Més que un club. Més que un jagador. Andrés Iniesta. Gracie!