Like so many others, I’m nostalgically sad that we are reaching the end of Andres Iniesta’s time in La Liga. “Don Andres” has a maximum of two more Blaugrana performances to come, including what is sure to be an emotional send-off against Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou on May 20.
The scale and sincerity of the eulogies toward him have been impressive, but there are several things that because of his elegant brilliance, because of his achievements and because his name is stamped upon the greatest moment in Spanish football history have been ignored or at least set aside.
A series of flukes led Iniesta to join Barcelona
It was 1996 and, at a national seven-a-side tournament just outside Madrid, Barcelona’s top scouts spotted two youngsters of exceptional promise: Iniesta, the player of the tournament, and Merida CF’s Jorge Troiteiro.
Iniesta was playing for his hometown team of Albacete, who were late entrants into the competition because two other clubs did not have the money to attend. Albacete arrived late to the party but partied the best.
Back then, Barcelona’s youth system was more fledgling and set up to have its youngest intake at aged 14. Iniesta was 12. Meanwhile, Troiteiro — and his dad — were being sought by Atletico and Real Madrid and let Barcelona know firmly that, unless they were signed up and given an apprenticeship there and then, the “wonder kid” would likely be Calderon or Bernabeu-headed.
The Camp Nou youth gurus were flustered. They really wanted Troiteiro but were not prepared to break their age rules unless Troiteiro had a friend to keep him company. And so Iniesta was offered accelerated entry into La Masia, which led to an ocean of tears but also made him arguably Spain’s greatest footballer.
Early struggles in and around the first team
When asked about one outstanding memory, as he tearfully announced that this would be his last season with Barcelona, Iniesta immediately opted for his first-team debut in a Champions League game away to FC Brugge. Strange choice, you might think.
After all, he did not opt for his goal at Chelsea in 2009 nor any of his four Champions League victories. He looked past wins at the Bernabeu and even his virtuoso display in April’s Copa del Rey final win over Sevilla.
Louis Van Gaal gave him that first start because he had been at Ajax and understood that talent, irrespective of age or physical attributes, needed to be promoted and tested. What followed was the Frank Rijkaard era, in which the physically imposing Dutchman, a street fighter by instinct and successful survivor of the “kill or be killed” mentality in Serie A, doubted whether Iniesta’s talent was sufficient to compensate for his size.
When Glasgow Rangers asked to take Lionel Messi on loan, they were told by Rijkaard’s assistant, Henk Ten Cate: “He’s too young and too frail to survive in Scottish football, but you might want to ask us about Iniesta.” Two Barca vice presidents told me that there were fierce rows about whether the academy prodigy could be loaned to the Ibrox club.
With the Catalan influence demanding that Rijkaard retain and develop, the move fell through, but so it was that, when the 2006 Champions League final XI was named, Iniesta was on the bench, ignored for Marc Van Bommel. “If you hadn’t come on at half-time, there was no way we were going to win that game,” Xavi told him later.
How, in retrospect, could it be that Rijkaard undervalued the crown jewel that, frankly, could have saved him his job if he’d been advanced into the team from the moment he merited the promotion? Which was pretty much when the Dutchman took over.
Success has come at a price
When his friend Dani Jarque died suddenly in August 2009, the impact seriously hit Iniesta for a considerable amount of time. But what’s less talked about is the physical anguish his competitive bravery put him through and how much that added to the psychological burden in those dark months after May of that year.
Because Rijkaard left him out against Arsenal in Paris three years earlier, Iniesta, despite tearing a thigh muscle against Villarreal with just days of the 2008-09 season remaining, was utterly determined to play in Rome vs. Manchester United, to win another Champions League final, this time as a starter.
He rushed his comeback and played when 60 percent fit because his attitude, as he told me, was “play and win whatever the cost.” So he did, to the extent that Wayne Rooney entered the losing dressing room to tell his United teammates that “we’ve just been beaten by the best player in the world.” Iniesta — not Messi.
What followed was purgatory: months of not trusting his frame, not believing in his physiology. The desperation of a master craftsmen, whose tools are blunt, broken or stolen.
The guy who needs to be named here is Emili Ricart. This dapper, ultra-talented, patient and highly professional physio took Iniesta — the athlete — and gradually mended him. Setback after setback was overcome: Moments when Iniesta’s frame was wracked with sobs of desperation, moments when his muscles tore again, moments when it seemed a bridge too far.
But this was a holistic partnership. Ricart knew that Iniesta the talent, Iniesta the man, Iniesta the potential all-time great needed healing psychologically. Having made him just about physically able to play at the 2010 World Cup, he sent his playing pupil off to South Africa with a DVD.
It showed great champions such as Rafael Nadal and Fernando Alonso experiencing despair, failure and humiliation. But it also showed them fighting back for victory. Iniesta watched it repeatedly that summer until, finally, he leaped over despair and tears and scored the goal that will forever be associated with Jose Antonio Camacho emotionally yelling: “Iniesta de mi Vida!” as the World Cup final was won.
O captain! My captain!
If not being described as a genius or a gentleman, you’ll most often hear people talking about Iniesta for his timidity, humility or shyness.
But that is all true, only to a degree. I do not imagine that it was an absolute goal of Iniesta to captain his club or country. To lead in his own way, to contribute, to win, to be a good teammate and to be a wise head? Of course. But to be the guy with ceremonial and collegiate responsibility, I don’t think he’d claim that those are his strengths.
Yet when Xavi Hernandez moved on to pastures new in 2015, the Barcelona dressing room system demanded that, instead of the armband skipping to Messi or Sergio Busquets, Iniesta was the new skipper.
Almost immediately, he had to sort an incident at Getafe in which Barcelona players dressed in Halloween gear and interrupted the home side’s news conference to the media’s umbrage. On his day off, Iniesta called around and agreed a statement that called some to heel and rescued the club’s dignity. He also needed to be the key leader when Neymar disappeared into the sunset last summer. Iniesta, as captain, had to rally, to explain, to front up and to challenge his teammates to respond with a gritty mentality.
All of which he has done with his usual level of success and determination. Despite the burden of captaincy coming at a stage in his career when he was beginning to worry about his ability to compete physically and to command a place in the XI, Iniesta leaves behind a Liga and Copa double and a harmonious squad that has, probably, overachieved this season.
Truly, he’s an all-time great but not solely because of his beguiling talent on the ball. This is a big, big man.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.