The first thing that anybody fortunate enough to visit Barcelona’s Camp Nou will notice is the club’s proud slogan, Més Que un club (More than a club). This mantra is a philosophy that captures everything about the Catalan giants, and its current crop of stars is the total embodiment of that sentiment. Standing proudly as the epitome of that ideology is Andrés Iniesta.
To look at him, you wouldn’t necessarily picture a midfield icon who has graced the pinnacle of the sport for a decade. Iniesta cuts a diminutive figure and lacks the pace and power associated with the 21st-century athlete. However, what he lacks in stature is more than compensated for in technical ability.
Alongside Xavi Hernández, his eternal partner in crime, Iniesta dominated opponents with a creative vision that is only matched by his precision of passing. The 32-year-old’s technique with the ball has rewritten the blueprint of what is needed to succeed as an elite central midfielder – that ability to dictate proceedings formed the nucleus for what has undeniably been the greatest spell in Barcelona’s illustrious history.
If football is the beautiful game, then Iniesta personifies that doctrine in its purist form. His spatial awareness is second to none and that telepathic reading is supplemented to perfection by his magic feet. The more casual football supporter may be forgiven for only becoming aware of Iniesta’s immense talent from circa 2009, but the midfield artist has actually been dazzling the Camp Nou crowd since 2002.
It was actually Louis van Gaal who handed an 18-year-old Iniesta, who had joined the club’s illustrious La Masia as a child prodigy, his senior team debut in a Champions League group game against Club Brugge. The youngster, still working his way through the ranks with the Barcelona B team, made minimal impact in first team matters that season but his potential stardom was clear to see for everyone associated with the Catalan giants.
Over the next few years, Iniesta would grow into a more prominent role within the Barcelona set-up. By 2004-05, under Frank Rijkaard, the midfield creator featured in 37 of the club’s 38 La Liga outings. Although most of these came from the substitute’s bench, the Spaniard could be proud of his contribution to the Blaugrana’s first domestic triumph since 1999.
A serious injury to future accomplice Xavi allowed Iniesta to play a far more integral role during the following campaign as he helped Barça retain the title. However, the public perception was that the Iniesta-Xavi partnership was a case of either-or. When it came to the Champions League final in Paris, however, it was neither as both players were demoted to the bench. Rijkaard instead opted for the trio of Edmílson, Deco and Mark van Bommel in a bid to counter Arsenal’s physical presence.
Iniesta replaced the injured Edmílson at half-time and made a telling contribution by starting the move in which Samuel Eto’o bagged the crucial equaliser. Barcelona went on to win 2-1, a result which cemented their place at the pinnacle of European football and in turn ignited a series of events that would see the Catalan giants reshape the game as we know it.
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Rijkaard would become a victim of his own success and was promptly dismissed following the club’s failure to lift any major silverware in 2008, thus opening the door for Pep Guardiola to usher in the era of tiki-taka.
The basics of this model had been the beating heart of Barcelona’s philosophy for years prior to Guardiola’s promotion to manager, with the fundamentals of short passing and possession play being administered from the bottom up. It wasn’t until the Pep years that the Catalan giants immersed a worldwide audience with arguably the most beautiful brand of football ever witnessed.
Barcelona and Iniesta were already on the cusp of greatness, but 2008-09 propelled them to the realm of immortals.
Guardiola’s first season in charge was one that will forever be remembered as a truly historic campaign. Before a ball had been kicked, cynics suggested that the departure of star man Ronaldinho would generate a steep decline for the club. Instead, it simply allowed for Lionel Messi to emerge as one of football’s all-time greats.
The little Argentine wizard was already one of the most gifted stars on earth but a change of position afforded him the freedom to reach new levels of performance; it was a major factor as Barcelona stormed to La Liga with ease. Messi hit 23 league goals, while an additional six in the Copa del Rey spurred the Catalan’s to a domestic double.
Make no mistake, the mesmerising brilliance of Messi was the beacon which propelled Barcelona to previously unreached heights, and without him they would never have dominated world football in such an authoritative manner. However, the value of Iniesta cannot be underestimated and it was the midfield magician’s jurisdiction of matches that truly guided the Blaugrana through its most memorable hour.
Iniesta missed nearly two months of action between November and January through injury but that didn’t prevent him from playing a central role in both the Liga and Copa triumphs. His most telling contribution, though, would come in the Champions League.
Winning a domestic double would obviously be seen as a huge success in Guardiola’s inaugural campaign as a senior coach but European success is what would catapult this group of Barcelona stars into the stratosphere. However, as the second-leg of their semi-final at Stamford Bridge rolled into stoppage time, the Spaniards were heading out.
Cometh the moment, cometh the man. For all his delightful attributes, Iniesta has never been a midfielder renowned for scoring goals. The five foot seven inch wizard has always taken pride in supplying the ammunition rather than pulling the trigger but, with his side on its last legs, he turned from provider to headline-maker with one of the most iconic goals in Champions League history.
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Having received the ball from Messi on the edge of the box, and with only a slither of the goal to aim for, Iniesta produced the perfect strike to send Barcelona to the Champions League final. Few would have tried such an ambitious effort and fewer still would have pulled out that magical shot. Stamford Bridge had been silenced, apart from one very noisy corner where an overjoyed visiting support celebrated long into the night. The Catalans were heading to Rome.
In the final, Iniesta resorted back to his more familiar role of architect by supplying Samuel Eto’o for the opener in a 2-0 win over Manchester United. Following a season of heroics, the pass-master was beginning to gain worldwide acclaim from fans and peers alike, with many suggesting that he was the pinnacle that all other players should aspire to be.
Iniesta had been the driving force behind the greatest achievement of any Spanish club as that Champions League triumph completed an unprecedented treble. He was named as La Liga’s best home-grown player that season, as well as the division’s best playmaker.
Barcelona continued to dominate under Guardiola, lifting a further two Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, another European Cup and two World Club Championships. Iniesta remained a constant focal point throughout this glittering era and has become universally accepted as one of the finest midfielders to ever grace the pitch.
Whilst Lionel Messi, the man who completed the Barcelona puzzle, has gone on to claim all the individual awards due to his record-breaking exploits in front of goal, nobody can ever dispute Iniesta’s significance to Barcelona’s success. Without the magnificent midfield supplier, the astonishing attacker would have never reached such dizzying heights and he owes a great deal to his colleague – something the Argentine is more than happy to admit.
While Iniesta’s role as Barcelona’s most influential star is up for debate, there is no denying that he has been the catalyst to inspire the most trophy-laden era of any international team ever.
Spain’s achievements during the period of 2008 to 2012 are unquestionably the greatest awe-inspiring feat of any FIFA nation in history, and the boy from Albacete has been a shining light throughout. That said, Iniesta’s success with the national started long before the triumph of Euro 2008. He helped two La Rojita sides to European glory between 2001 and 2002 ahead of promotion to the under-21s, where he would be captain on several occasions until his eventual senior breakthrough.
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Having worked his way through the ranks leading up to Euro 2008, the Fuentealbilla-born schemer announced himself on the international stage in style with a string of scintillating performances in Austria and Switzerland. Those individual merits saw him named in the official Team of the Tournament. More importantly, they provided a key asset as Spain lifted their first major trophy since 1964 to start a period of worldwide dominance for La Roja.
As Spain entered the World Cup in South Africa as one of the pre-tournament favourites, it had been a thoroughly testing build up for the number 6 both on and off the pitch. A string of niggling injuries had limited his playing time for Barça and temporarily threatened to sabotage his hopes of making Vicente del Bosque’s 23-man squad.
More painful still for the midfield maestro was the loss of childhood friend Daniel Jarque. In August 2009, the recently named Espanyol captain suffered a fatal heart attack during his club’s pre-season camp in Italy. He was only 26.
Iniesta was broken, and the impact of that devastating news was visible to anyone connected to the Barcelona star. However, fate would afford him the perfect opportunity to honour his friend, and those photos of the playmaker celebrating his World Cup final winner, in which his shirt pays tribute to Jarque, will forever be etched into the retinas of football fans everywhere as the lasting image of Spain’s greatest ever accomplishment.
Spain further underlined their place atop of the international pyramid by retaining their European title in 2012. Once again, Iniesta played a starring role and was named Player of the Tournament thanks to his ability to keep possession and find a killer pass. Although the defending champions capitulated in explosive fashion at World Cup 2014, this special team had rightly written its name into the history books and the boy from Albacete had been the most prominent figure of all.
In years to come, football fans will celebrate this era as the greatest in Spanish football, not only for the long list of trophies but more importantly for that phenomenal brand of play that changed our sport as we know it. Iniesta has been at the core for both club and country.
The fact that his achievements have often been overshadowed by those of Barcelona team-mate Messi should not prevent Iniesta from securing his place amongst the all-time greats. At the age of 32, he has already won every piece of silverware on offer and his CV stands up there with the very best.
As far as technicians go, Iniesta is, for me, the best of a generation. Pirlo, Scholes, and Xavi all come close but none quite match up to the artistry of the boy who joined Barcelona aged just 12. Additionally, he grabbed the most important goal of Barcelona’s greatest ever triumph as well as the most iconic in his country’s history. He is, in the purest sense, a legend.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman