“A remarkably small man, very thin and pale with a profusion of fine, fair hair of which he was rather vain. There was nothing special about his physique. He was small and his countenance gave no sign of his genius.”
Micheal Kelly’s description of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be plagiarized with a free hand to paint a picture Andres Iniesta. Well, maybe except for the fine hair part. It matters little as analogies are not meant to be perfect.
Hailing from Albacete, a small province in central Spain, Iniesta joined Barcelona’s talent garden La Masia or, Farmhouse as they call it, at the age of 12. He was scouted by the then Barcelona youth team coach after watching the little man dictate the game in a junior seven – a – side tournament. In a similar vein to the musical wizard who vowed the European royalty when he was 15, Iniesta’s prodigious talent radiated every time he took to the field. Then Barcelona captain Pep Guardiola famously remarked to Xavi, with whom Iniesta would later go on to forge the greatest midfield pairing football has ever seen, “You’re going to retire me. This lad [Iniesta] is going to retire us all.“
Andres Iniesta made his Barcelona debut in 2002 and in a period of 2 years, when he played in a number of positions that the team demanded, he finally established himself in the midfield of Barcelona. The last part of the sentence can be reiterated with a drum roll because what followed was an era. The greatest midfield of all time was born and Xavi provided the perfect baritone to Iniesta’s tenor. Between them, they composed melodies on the field.
Most importantly though, they fulfilled the vision of Johann Cruyff at the club. The game was possession based and the telepathic understanding that Xavi and Iniesta developed was the cog to Barcelona’s game plan. Johan Cruyff once said, “Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.” And Barcelona had two of the finest technicians to ever grace the pitch. Glory followed.
Also Read: Johan Cruyff: Portrait of FC Barcelona’s Godfather
Barcelona evolved into a ruthless juggernaut during the prime of Iniesta. They were so dominant on the ball that opponents at times considered themselves lucky to get a touch. Iniesta combined his supreme technical and passing skills with moments of delicate magic. He would dictate the pace of the game, form beautiful patterns and passing triangles that merged into one another and then when the moment was right he would dissect the opposition defense like a surgeon with years of experience. If Iniesta were a murderer, his victims would be lucky. They wouldn’t know that they are being killed until when it happens. Iniesta’s understanding of the game is perceptive and his execution subtle.
A man of few words, camera shy and unfancied in appearance, Iniesta was never the marketing persona that the modern day footballing media loves to advertise. He wouldn’t deliver outrageous punchlines like Zlatan or do a marketing campaign with Neymar’s confidence. Yet, on-field he was a cut above everyone else and his level of confidence almost bordered on arrogance. Iniesta was aware of his gifts and he believed in himself. He would audaciously pass the ball around his own penalty area, immune to any press that the opponents conjured. He would wait on the ball and watch an opposition defender gallop towards him.
A calm, unfaltering aura surrounds him and at the last moment when the defender goes for the tackle, Iniesta would disappear and the ball with him. Then he can be seen invading the space vacated and delivering the killer pass or knitting the attack together. Iniesta didn’t rely much on pulling out fanciful tricks to beat his man, that would later go rounds on youtube highlight reels. The case was not that he couldn’t, but rather he didn’t have to. Iniesta is blessed with superhuman ball control, acceleration, awareness of space and vision. Also when it comes to skill moves, no footballer executes the “La Croqueta” with as much ease and efficiency as Iniesta. But then again he would use the move only when its necessary, never to showcase.
When the going gets tough, Iniesta becomes a rock. He is a big game player who has delivered in the biggest of stages. The great Barcelona side of 2009 met a resilient Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, a match more remembered for controversies than football. Barcelona had a tough time dealing with Chelsea’s robust midfield of Lampard, Ballack and Essien.
The Chelsea attack lead by Drogba kept asking questions of the Barca backline and eventually from a thunderous Essien strike Barcelona fell behind. They needed a savior, and lucky they had Iniesta. In the 93rd minute of the match Iniesta received a square pass from Messi at the edge of the box. He curled it into the top corner with a first time hit and Barcelona went on to win the champions league and completed a historic treble.
Iniesta continued his heroics into the national team as well. Spain made to to the 2010 world cup final, buoyed by the tiki-taka style of football orchestrated by Iniesta and Xavi. The match remained goalless during the regular time and when in the 116th minute Fabregas played a measured pass into the right foot of Iniesta we somehow knew it. Iniesta took a touch, and volleyed an unstoppable shot into the bottom corner. He fulfilled the dreams of a nation and whirred off in celebration. A class act followed.
He removed his jersey to display an undershirt with words that paid tribute to Dani Jarque who died from a heart attack earlier in the season. This act endeared him to the fans of Barcelona’s hated cross town rivals Espanyol, where Dani Jarque played. Iniesta is the only rival player to get a standing ovation by opponent fans in Espanyol. Two years later Spain faced Italy in the finals of 2012 Euro championship and went on to win 4-0.Iniesta was deservedly adjudged man of the match in a game where he neither scored nor assisted. His artistry was refined and ethereal.
Iniesta kept playing and winning more trophies but time kept passing. Iniesta’s legs slowed down and he didn’t have the physical endurance to complete 90 gruelling minutes on the field. We can be forgiven to have forgotten that he was after all human. Still, he was indispensable to Barcelona and they needed Iniesta’s contribution during his limited time on the pitch.
Barcelona made it to the 2015 Champions League final and faced Buffon’s Juventus. Emotions boiled over even before the match had started as it was probably Buffon’s last chance to win the cup that had eluded him throughout his great illustrious career. In the opposition camp, Xavi had announced his departure from Barcelona after an all-conquering career that spanned 17 years. Iniesta led the Barcelona team into the ground and yet again delivered another masterclass.
In the 78th minute Barcelona substituted Iniesta, who gave his captains armband to Xavi, making his 767th and final appearance for Barcelona. Iniesta honored his beloved partner, alongside whom he won every trophy football had to offer by ensuring Barcelona’s victory and giving him the greatest sendoff in the grandest of stages. It was the end of an era. Iniesta was the man of the match once again in a European final and he deserved every single accolade. One must question the credibility of Ballond’Or as footballs highest individual honor if Iniesta never won it.
All good things must come to an end and now it is time for Barcelona fans and the footballing world to accept the harsh reality that Iniesta won’t be gracing the pitch for long. He leaves with a cabinet full of trophies, career highlighted by surreal moments of genius and a legacy that will survive time. If Shelly witnessed the era of Iniesta, he would have never penned down Ozymandias.