11th July 2010 in the 116th minute of the World Cup Final in Johannesburg and time stands still for a certain diminutive figure from Fuentealbilla. The footballing world, for a split second, holds its collective breath before the ball finally drops and Andrés Iniesta Luján drills the ball past The Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Steklenburg to finally win the famous trophy for Spain with a 1-0 victory. It was a moment of pure beauty on a night of the ugly side of football in the mild South African air.
Heart on his t-shirt
Instantly and instinctively Iniesta runs off towards the corner flag, pulls up his shirt and reveals a message to his close friend Dani Jarque which said ‘Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros’ (‘Dani Jarque, always with us’). It was a bitter sweet moment for Iniesta and a fitting tribute that in his moment of glory, at the moment of reaching football’s Everest, he remembered Jarque who had passed away far too early less than a year earlier at the age of 26.
A moment of raw emotion, that melted even the hardest supporters heart. It showed a human side to a footballer, a footballer that knew and believed there are more important things in life than winning a football match. However, that moment also showed why Iniesta can now be regarded as a footballing great. Like an assassin calming weighing up his target before finally squeezing the trigger at just the right moment. He only had one chance as the lottery of penalties loomed large in the background, which he took with aplomb.
Born in 1984 in a small village in the province of Albacete, Andrés picked up the ability to play football at an early age. Small of stature but quick footed he was spotted playing for Albacete at the age of 12 in the Brunette Tournament by the Barcelona scouts and was persuaded to join the now famous Barca academy at La Masia in 1996.
His early days in La Masia is now remembered with lots of tears by a young and immature Andrés, away from his home at such a young age. Without the backing of his family and the club, Iniesta may have been lost to the game for good before he really even got started.
He worked his way up the ranks, through the ‘B’ team and then made his first team debut in 2002 at the age of 18. It took him a couple of years to become a regular but when he finally ‘made it’, he’s been a virtual ever present since. There is a famous quote that Pep Guardiola said to teammate Xavi Hernandez when he said ‘You’re going to retire me. This lad [Iniesta] is going to retire us all’.
Guradiola did move on to pastures new before returning successfully as the first team coach. However, Iniesta quickly became Xavi’s partner in crime, that saw them, with the help of Messi and Co, dazzle the world football.
Camp Nou pilgrimage
It took me until 13th November 2010 to finally realise how good Iniesta is. I took a plane with my wife and son from Liverpool to Barcelona to watch the Barca vs Villarreal game at the Camp Nou. Villarreal played their part in a tremendous open game and Messi scored a cracker in a 3-1 home win. Dani Alves was magnificent, others played their part in an entertaining match but one player left me with a tingling feeling, with my jaw literally dropped. That player of course was Iniesta.
On that balmy November night in Catalonia, Iniesta was simply brilliant. Intelligent, quick footed, intuitive and always prodding and probing the Villarreal back line. He was at the top of his game just four months since that memorable night in Jo’burg. Here was a player playing the game exactly like I pictured in the footballing part of my brain. The beautiful game played most beautifully.
His club CV reads like a shopping list of trophies. 6 La Liga’s, 3 Champions Leagues, 2 Spanish Cups and 2 World Club Championships amongst them. He has played in arguably the greatest club side ever, which peaked (trophy wise) in 2009 with those 6 titles in the same year, including an unheard of domestic treble for the first time.
Who will ever forget his strike at Stamford Bridge in time added on, that knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League and sent Barca to the final in Rome. For that final in Rome against Manchester United, Iniesta had been doubtful with a thigh injury. He played, was influential (providing the half touch pass for Eto’o and the first goal) and Barca won.
None other than Sir Alex Ferguson commented before that game ‘I’m not obsessed with Messi, Iniesta is the danger. He’s fantastic. He makes the team work. The way he finds passes, his movement and ability to create space is incredible. He’s so important for Barcelona’. Iniesta was to be a thorn in United and Ferguson’s side again 2 years later in a magnificent team performance at Wembley Stadium.
La Roja rises to the top
His record for the national side is also equally impressive. Euro wins in 2008 and 2012, with the 2010 World Cup victory sandwiched in between. Many pundits have predicted the demise of Spain for the forthcoming tournament in Brazil but I bet not many would back against them. This is a national team that were always the dark horses for a tournament when I was growing up, a decent outside bet. That they have a recent record that they have, they now go into tournament’s expecting rather than hoping.
So highly do I rate Iniesta. For players I’ve seen in the flesh he’s definitely top 10, maybe top 5. World class, rarely having a bad game, he’s (along with Xavi) been the heartbeat of Barca (and Spain) for over the past 10 years. One criticism I could throw his way is that he could have scored more goals on the way but that could be classed as me being a bit picky. Put it this way, it’s hardly held him or his teams back over the years.
One piece of advice I can give you if you’re still reading this: get a plane/train/car as soon as possible to the Camp Nou and see this player before it’s too late, you wont regret it. He’s still got a good few years ahead of him but even father time will eventually tap the pale faced, shy man on the shoulder. A brilliant footballer and an equally brilliant person.
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