BARCELONA — Andres Iniesta remained at the Camp Nou until the early hours of Monday morning, sat alone on the pitch after bidding an emotional farewell to Barcelona following 22 years at the club.
La Liga champions Barca claimed a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad on Sunday, providing a fitting finale for the 34-year-old, who lifted the trophy for a ninth time after the game.
Addressing supporters on the pitch after a lights show and firework display, Iniesta, who joined the club as a 12-year-old in 1996, said he “leaves as a man.”
“It’s a difficult day but for 22 wonderful years it has been an honour and a pleasure to defend and represent this club — for me, the best club in the world,” said an emotional Iniesta.
“Now it’s time [to move on] but I will carry you all in my heart forever. I thank you for all the love and respect that you’ve given me since I arrived as a boy. I now leave as a man.”
— FC Barcelona 🏆🏆 (@FCBarcelona_es) May 20, 2018
Iniesta made his 674th Barca appearance before eventually being taken off in the 81st minute, leading to a standing ovation. The crowd then chanted his name for the next nine minutes, plus added time, until the final whistle.
“We wanted to compete and win, but today was Andres’ day and the crowd made it special,” coach Ernesto Valverde told Barca TV. “The singing from the moment I made the change until the end was really emotional. When the fans are happy and want to send someone off like Andres in style, they give everything. Moments like these are unrepeatable and historical.
“You never know when will be the best moment [to make the change]. I wanted it to be near the end of the game and I wanted Messi to come on first because they have a good connection — you hope maybe he will score.”
After lifting the trophy and performing a lap of honour, Barca’s players disappeared down the tunnel for one final time this season.
But Iniesta returned to the pitch twice, first to hand out shirts to a large group of supporters behind the goal and then to take in the Camp Nou one last time.
Nearly three hours after the game had finished, he sat alone on the centre spot, the stands now empty.
Barca and Valverde now face the unenviable task of trying to replace Iniesta this summer.
“Iniesta is a player with a special type of magic on the pitch, [as] he makes things which are difficult for everyone else look easy,” Valverde said. “And that’s the essence of his football. He’s allowed us to live football in every dimension.
“I feel privileged to have coached him, like all the other coaches before me. We’re talking about a unique, one-of-a-kind player. There won’t ever find another player like him and I have been lucky enough to work with him.”
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.