“When he has the ball, it’s like everything else stops – like the camera is going in slow motion.”
There are two rather popular pictures of Andrés Iniesta taken during the Euro 2012, against Italy and Croatia. The pictures show the diminutive wizard in full swing against a swarm of opponents, surrounded completely like he is the only player who knows how to play football, like all others do not matter. Like stopping Andrés means stopping the whole team. It is scenarios like these that remind me of the aforementioned quote by Fernando Torres. Almost everytime he gets the ball, opponents charge onto him in numbers to try and curb his actions, but he always slips out of such situations with an almost godly ease, leaving his opponents stunned with elusive yet effortless moves.
Football is a sport which is more often than not viewed as a contest of strength and pace, a series of duels in which the strongest will emerge victorious. That is the common perception. Looking at his stature, Andrés doesn’t conform to this conventional mould of a footballer. However, what he lacks in size, is made insignificant by his technical ability and intelligence. He is a player who performs the most tedious of tasks with a charming simplicity, without complicating anything. And yet, his way of doing things is so gloriously pleasing, maybe the most pleasing of ways. He uses his small size to his advantage, slipping through the brawny defenders with silky touches and deceptively quick turns. There is no complication in his style of play. Everything he does is simple but at the same time, impossible to read. One can almost never guess which way the little sorcerer is going to go or which player he is going to pass to. Plain yet unpredictable, that is how good Andrés Iniesta is.
For the majority of his career, he has played as a ball-carrying attacking midfielder, because of his main traits being dribbling and final passes. When thinking of a dribbler, flashy skills and pace are what comes to mind, but Andrés is different. He is not one to overcomplicate things. When dribbling, he opts for a sophisticated touch coupled with intelligence use of space and anticipation of opposing defender’s actions. Complementing his ability to beat opponents, his passing is a thing of beauty in itself. He makes simple passes but always gives the right velocity and weight to the pass. No matter how far the teammate is from him, or how difficult the angle of the pass is, the ball will always land on the suitable foot of the teammate with just the right speed in order to control the ball quickly and advance play.It is not just the velvet touch or the fluid movement that makes the magical dwarf this hard to contain, but the otherworldly intelligence and supernatural composure that he executes his moves with. It is never the case when Andrés doesn’t make the right decision. As the basis of Barcelona’s style of play is a steady and continuous movement of the ball and the players, Andrés’ dribbling style acts as a catalyst.
Doing the simple things right, that is the essence of the Barcelona philosophy and Iniesta personifies it.
The midfielder born in Fuentealbilla, a small village some miles away from Albacete, had a natural obsession for the game. He would spend hours kicking the ball about on the concrete playground of his school. Sometimes with his friends Abelardo and Julian, sometimes alone. Company didn’t matter, what mattered was the ball. Everything started and ended with that hard rubber ball, which had lost its colour and its surface worn away. That ball was everything to him. Day after day, he was there on that playground. He would play there until dark or until his grandmother came to get him. “What a shame there were no floodlights back then.”, Andrés recalls that time with a slight regret, “If there had been floodlights like there are now, I’d never have left”. He first played for the junior team of Albacete Balompie, where he impressed a lot. Those who had coached him at Albacete say he was so good that all the kids would want to play on his side, they knew they would always win with him.
Destiny would bring the shy little boy from Albacete to Barcelona, where he would grow up to be one of the finest players the game has ever seen. At La Masia, he learned the Barcelona philosophy. He learned the values that made the club so great, came to know about the importance of teamwork. Soon, everybody at the academy was talking about a pale, skinny kid from Albacete, a kid who was too good for his age. The then Barcelona captain Pep Guardiola, after watching a game on his brother’s advice, remarked that he had seen a player who can “read the game better than me”. Guardiola, along with Michael Laudrup, was Andrésito’s idol. He admired them both. Pep, because he was the captain, an icon of the club and its style. Laudrup, because it was his style that Andrés emulated on the pitch. He even adopted Laudrup’s infamous signature move ‘La Croqueta’ and made it his own.
When Louis Van Gaal handed him his first-team debut against Club Brugge in a Champions League group stage match, Iniesta was 18 years old. Usually, an 18 years old would be nervous playing in the Champions League for his first match, but Andrés was not that player. Debuting with a no. 34 shirt, Iniesta showed no signs of stress, playing like a seasoned veteran. Van Gaal was undoubtedly impressed but it would take more for the little magician to secure his spot in the first team. In coming years, Iniesta would grow into a more prominent role within the Barcelona set-up. Under Frank Rijkaard, Barcelona won two consecutive league titles and Iniesta’s contribution to this success cannot be denied. Despite giving admirable performances, he was still mostly played as a substitute. Majority were still not convinced that he could make it to the top and it would not be wrong to say that people considered his stature as a flaw.
Although he played some games alongside future accomplice Xavi, not many people viewed both players as a potential duo. Instead, they were seen more as a case of either-or. It would take a long time for that perception to change. In Rijkaard’s second season, Barcelona made it to the Champions League final. The opponents for the final were Arsenal. To counter their physical presence in the midfield, Rijkaard opted for a trio of Deco, Van Bommel and Edmilson, leaving Iniesta on the bench. It turned out to be a tough competition, with both sides fully motivated to win. Edmilson suffered an injury in the first half and Andrés was chosen to replace him at half-time. He made a telling contribution in the final by starting the move in which Samuel Eto’o bagged the equaliser. Barcelona won 2-1 and it marked the beginning of an era of European dominance that would reshape the game altogether. Iniesta had gained Rijkaard’s complete trust and would go on to be an even more important member of the team.
International debut came in world cup 2006 in which Iniesta was one of the standout players despite Spain not making it to the final. Two years later, Spain won the European championship. Iniesta impressed the world with a series of dazzling performances and was named in the team of the tournament. This was Spain’s first major title since 1964 and it started a period of international dominance for La Roja. Football community had begun to view him as one of the best players in the world and the long due praise had finally started coming his way. While he was enjoying success with the national team, Barcelona were going through a barren spell. Failure to secure any silverware for two consecutive seasons meant the exit of Frank Rijkaard and arrival of Pep Guardiola. Pep came with new ideas and a bold courage to rebuild the team from the very bottom. He let many key players go, including Ronaldinho and built a new core of fresh youngsters who would soon be ruling the world. The construction of the footballing anomaly that was Pep’s Barcelona had begun and Iniesta was a vital piece in the structure. Alongside Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez, the little magician finally became the player he was always expected to be.
Barcelona played the most exhilarating football that anyone has probably ever witnessed under Pep. Guided by the extraterrestrial Lionel Messi, Barcelona won a historic treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey and the Champions League that season. While the Argentine wizard rightfully deserves the credit he gets for the Catalan giants’ success, Xavi and Iniesta were of no lesser importance. It was the level of intelligence and understanding that these three share which brought about the club’s most triumphant spell. Barcelona had it relatively easy in the league and cup, but the Champions League wouldn’t be possible without Iniesta. Catalans faced Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Champions League and it turned out to be an uphill task. The Blues opted for a deep defensive setup which proved to be incredibly hard to penetrate, even for the godly trio. The first leg at Camp Nou ended 0-0 and all the pressure was now on Barcelona to come out on top at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea scored through Michael Essien in the ninth minute and reverted to defending the lead. The men in claret and blue were bombarding Petr Cech’s goal with shots but nothing seemed to work. The game had entered stoppage time and the scoreline was still in favour of Chelsea. Any hope of making it to Rome was slowly diminishing and the Stamford bridge crowd had begun singing songs of victory.
But as they say, it’s not over until it’s over. Just as Chelsea’s bench started getting ready for the celebrations, the game was turned on its head. Having received the ball from Messi at the edge of the Chelsea box, Andrés glanced at goal and with one touch of his right foot, fired the ball right into the top corner. It certainly wasn’t an easy shot to take but again, Iniesta was not born for the easy. Waving his shirt in joy, he ran off to the sideline and in a matter of seconds, a huddle of teammates devoured him. The home crowd had been silenced, the Catalans were jumping in delight and the road to Rome was clear. In the final, Iniesta reverted back to his role as a creator and was again influential as Barcelona beat Manchester United 2-0 to complete the club’s first ever triplet. The little maestro was so impressive that United’s star forward Wayne Rooney was convinced that Andrés was the best player in the world.
It was a season full of thrill and triumph for the Blaugrana, but for Iniesta, it was not the same. He had been struggling with a series of niggling injuries, staying fit was becoming a real challenge. He had missed two months of football due to injuries. The world beater inside him was getting eager to go out and conquer the world, but circumstances were not looking to be in favour. All of this caused him to be in a state of mental unease. When asked what exactly it was that he felt, Andrés describes it as a state of ‘free fall’, a situation where he felt helpless. No matter what he did, balance just couldn’t be found. In the midst of all the chaos, he was further hit by the heartbreaking news of Daniel Jarque’s sudden death. Jarque, who had been appointed the captain of the cross-city rivals Espanyol, had always been one of the closest friends to Iniesta and losing him broke Andrés from the inside.
However, he would get the perfect opportunity to pay his respects. That picture of Andrés running to celebrate his world cup winning goal while he waves his shirt in the air still gets every Spaniard emotional. Not only because that goal brought the long-awaited World cup, but because of the message that came along with it. “Daniel Jarque, siempre con nosotros.” “Daniel Jarque, always with us.” There couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute to a dear friend. The little magician had gotten Spain their first World Cup victory and for that, every Spaniard is thankful to him. Every stadium gives him standing ovations till this date and will continue to do so until he retires.
He went on to win Euro 2012 with Spain and countless trophies with Barcelona, including two more champions league titles. He has won everything there is to win and is the only player to be the man of the match in the finals of Champions league, Euros and the World Cup. The period of 2008-2012 saw a complete overhaul of the game both at club and country level because of the dominance of Barcelona and Spain. Andrés Iniesta was vital to both. On an individual level, he has failed to collect many accolades because of his teammate Lionel Messi. While many argue that he deserved to win awards like Ballon d’Or and that it is quite an injustice that he has not. Still, none can deny the importance of the illusionist to the beautiful game.
For me, Andrés Iniesta is unmatched in terms of footballing technique and intelligence. In football history, he will be remembered right up there with the eternal gods of the game. Andrés is, in the purest sense of the word, a legend.