Andrés Iniesta talks Barcelona, Xavi and 1,000 career games

Time passes and life changes but, Andrés Iniesta says, “the essence remains.” He won it all: there were 31 trophies, 10 league titles, seven cups, four Champions Leagues, two European Championships and that moment in the 116th minute of the 2010 World Cup final.

There were all those moments, something unique. There was Barcelona and Vissel Kobe and Ras al Khaimah at club level, and the Spain national team. Through it all, there’s still the tiny kid from tiny Fuentealbilla, population 2,071, whose idol was the then-Albacete midfielder and now Union Berlin coach Nenad Bjelica.

“I see the same things on a professional pitch that I did when I was 8, 9,” he tells ESPN.

Iniesta is 39 now, a father of five. On Tuesday night he will watch Barcelona play Napoli in the Champions League from 3,221 miles away. Hearing that anthem, there may be some “melancholy and memory,” he admits, that feeling in “some corner of you that says ‘if only football lasted your whole life,'” but also a “happiness and pride at what you have done.”

And he is still going: now at Emirates Club in the UAE Pro League, he has just played the 1,000th game of his senior career. Asked which of them most changed his life, he has no doubt: “The debut.” It was October 2002, away at Bruges. “That for me is the moment,” he says. “Beyond the obvious games — the finals, the semifinals, the titles — that’s the happiest moment.

“When I was small back in my town, being with my dad, playing on gravel pitches, I dreamed of being a footballer. Becoming a footballer, I was happy. Everything that came next was a consequence of many factors but the most important day is when I made my debut. I’m the same in essence. Then to play in the elite, in doing a job for so long, you need a huge amount of work, dedication, sacrifice. The work is infinite.”

Twenty-two years on, the Spanish star talks to ESPN about his favorite career moments, what comes next and much more.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Does the fact that you’re still playing, and so far from home, speaks of someone who loves football, who doesn’t want to go?

Iniesta: Just saying the number makes you feel emotional. Maybe it seems normal but it’s not. It’s true that in this final phase, apart from the fact that playing football still motivates me, that I still get that feeling when I train and play, there’s also a wider view, which is about the next step: you’re learning things, acquiring experiences, living new situations, preparing yourself for what comes next.

Is the next step one you would prefer to put off? Does the idea of not playing any more after all these years and having to do something else provoke a kind of vertigo?

Iniesta: I would be lying if I said no. I’m not sure if the word is ‘vertigo’ but it’s true that it’s there. When I left Barcelona to go to Japan, that was a change but I knew I would still be playing football. When I left Japan for here, I knew I would still be playing. The next step, I won’t be, so there’s a vertigo but it’s not something that scares me. There are days when you’re tired. Not so much because of training and playing — but everything else, the situation we’re going through, having to look after yourself even more than you ever did before. You get a small knock, and you think ‘damn, do I have to go through all that again, the recovery and everything?’ There are lots of days I think that, but I think that’s normal: I try to rationalise it. You start to visualise [the end], whether that’s this summer, December, next year … you start getting used to the idea.

When you’re preparing for games, does this still feel the same as when you played before?

Iniesta: No. Not now, it doesn’t. Because in sporting terms, this last phase is dramatic: the situation the team finds itself in, what I have found here. So for me, that has to be a learning process. If I thought about it in purely sporting terms, the team we have — we’re bottom — I would have stopped. But there are other elements: keeping learning, the motivation to change that, working to make the club more professional, helping it grow. If you ask: ‘are you enjoying it?’ I would say ‘no.’ I have the hope and the motivation to change that but I am not enjoying it because we’re not winning. But I still have that aim of trying to work, to help teammates, to help the club and to learn something different so that those experiences can in some way help you in the future.

You say ‘what I have found here.’ What does that mean? Emirates Club are bottom, you have won only once in 14, but is it more than that? Is the experience not that good? Is the league not what you hoped? There’s a new coach, Walter Zenga, too.

Iniesta: He’s [Zenga] juggling everything trying to change this. Within the difficulties, the idea of achieving what we came here to do still fulfills me: to try to change the club, improve it so that it can take steps forward and find a stability not just for this season but in the future. Of course this league is not comparable to other leagues: it needs changes, it need to improve, and that’s the role I came to play. I want to focus on what I can do. It is proving harder than we imagined when we came.

There are obvious moments: the Champions League finals, Stamford Bridge in 2009, the World Cup final … beyond those obvious choices, when you look back on those 1,000 games, which would you pick out?

Iniesta: There are so many. Off the top of my head I would say, for example, a Barcelona-Sevilla game that we won at the Camp Nou, when I scored the first and we played a spectacular game. The last [Copa del Rey] final against Sevilla too. It’s a final but you’re going to have to let me include it because it was my last title [for Barça]. That day, pffff. I believe in energy, in all those things, and that day I had the feeling that I was flying across the grass. It was one of the best games I remember at Barcelona.

If we keep going, loads will come to mind: the 4-0 at the Bernabeu 2015, when Paulo Andrea [Iniesta’s second child] was born. A 2-3 at the Bernabeu. The last spell under [former coach Frank] Rijkaard wasn’t that great but I remember it fondly, as I was starting to play more.

What can I say? It’s been brutal. I remember Old Trafford [a 1-0 win for Spain against England in February 2007], my first goal with the national team. The moment we were in was hard and look how things changed. That was the turning point. From there, we just didn’t lose. And there’s the penalties against Italy [at Euro 2008], where it all changes.

What made you continue away from Camp Nou? Was there part of you that would have liked to have completed your career as a one-club man?

Iniesta: In life you can imagine, want, desire, certain things. I always thought I can play at Barcelona until I’m 40, and then retire there. But life puts you in places and situations in which you have to make a decision. I left Barcelona at 34 because I felt that what I can no longer make the contribution that I would like to make at the club where I wanted to retire.

So, as I want to keep playing, in the end you have to make a decision and you go to Japan. In Japan, it was wonderful. At a professional and family level, it was marvellous. If that final stage there had been easier, if I had wanted to retire last year, then I would have done so in Japan. The thing is, there’s a situation where I am not playing, I want to keep playing, so I have to make a decision to go somewhere I can play.

You come here, you find another context. And then [when it’s not what you hoped], you have two options: give up and go home because you don’t like it or hold onto the idea you came with, to try to build something that can be lasting, like Japan and Barcelona were.

Did you feel the pull of Albacete? You’re from the province, you have invested in the club, you have helped to rescue them, but never actually played for them.

Iniesta: Albacete was the most romantic thing that could have happened. If you ask me about Albacete as a way to end my career, the final page, I would for sure be there. But it’s a question of circumstance. People always think about the money. [They say:] ‘you’re going there [to the Emirates] because you’re earning I-don’t-know-how-much.’

If they knew, they would change their minds. There’s a family question and sporting questions, too. It’s not my style to say I’ll go to Albacete to just pass the time. It’s Albacete: your city, the responsibility that brings with it, the second division, which is extremely strong. At a sporting level, I understand that’s not me. If it’s going there to train, have a laugh, pass the time, well, OK. But Albacete deserves respect. But, yeah, would it have been nice? Pfff, the nicest thing there is. It would have been incredible.

What’s the next step? Will you coach? Do you watch your friend Xavi and think: maybe not? Do you suffer with him?

Iniesta: I suffer with Xavi, of course. When things don’t come off, when the situation is not the way you would like it to be. The good moments will surely outweigh the not-so-good moments, but I suffer for him. Knowing how things work, [Xavi’s decision to announce his departure] can surprise you … or not.

I understand that when someone like Xavi makes a decision like this, it is for the good of Barcelona. Maybe it can benefit them between now and the end of the season. It’s totally understandable in that sense. I am not a coach still. I still think as a player. For Xavi, there will be good and bad things, like in any job. I am nobody to be analysing Xavi’s work, I wouldn’t dare. There have been lots of positive things in terms of what Xavi has done, the team, and what he leaves [behind].

Do you have your coaching badges?

Iniesta: No, not yet.

Are you going to get them?

Iniesta: Yes, yes, I would like to. I would like to qualify as a coach and a sporting director. Those are the roles in my mind.

At Barcelona?

Iniesta: If that day comes, it’s not going to be soon. It’s not about whether I would like to coach Barcelona or not: I haven’t even started to get my badges, so who knows what could happen in X amount of time. For now, I want to enjoy what time I have left as a player, even though it’s not long.

What do you make of Barcelona at the moment?

Iniesta: It’s not easy. They have injuries now, too. Raphinha has just fallen. But they’re alive in the [league and Champions League] competitions. The Napoli game is very, very key. If they go through, that will give them a lot of energy and morale for the final months. You can’t forget that Barcelona have such young players, and they have the role they have because they deserve it, but that shouldn’t be normal. You have to really appreciate what they are doing.

Whenever Barcelona are at home, I am positive. Napoli have improved and it won’t be easy, but I always trust in Barcelona going through. It’s true [though] that Montjuic is nothing like Camp Nou.

Are Manchester City favourites?

Iniesta: One of them for sure, because of the way they play. We know [City manager Pep] Guardiola, how he works, and the squad they have too. Look, the more prime material you have the better, obviously. But anyone who knows Guardiola and has worked with him knows he’s different to the rest. For me, he’s something very special.

As we’re on coaches: Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti?

Iniesta: There are few words I can say about someone like him: to be able to leave Madrid, come back again and do what he has done, with different players, a new context, is brutal. He deserves so much credit.

You mention Barcelona’s academy players, this latest baby boom. You came up through the system and made your debut very young but your process was slower. You didn’t have to play every game at 17, 18. What would you advise Lamine Yamal, Gavi, Pedri, Pau Cubarsi?

Iniesta: The situation demands that. When we started with [Louis] Van Gaal, I played and [Joan Roman] Riquelme was on the bench. The results weren’t good and the academy players came in. Necessity is often what defines the future of kids. The ideal would be different but necessity is necessity and if the kids have the talent, well, why not?

The management of the situation is another question. Can sometimes [playing so much so young] be negative? Yeah, could be. But it is what it is. The context is different [to when I played]. Then there are other moments when the team does have stability but the coach decides to play them anyway. That’s different. Guardiola gave the chance to Pedro and ‘Busi’ [Sergio Busquets] when the moment was different. Having 4, 5, 6, kids playing in the first team is great news.

It’s not normal for them to lead the team; they should be accompanying it. Lionel Messi or maybe Lamine now are exceptional cases, not the norm.

Does it frighten you? Ansu Fati and Pedri have had injuries. Xavi talks about having to be careful with them.

Iniesta: In a year Pedri might have played a record number of games: league, Euros, Olympics, everything. It’s about need. [Ronald] Koeman played him because he considered him fundamental. The Euros was the same, the Olympics too.

He’s a young kid who wants to play, take on the world. So you put him on the pitch. You can ask whether that’s a good thing, whether he should be left out, but in elite sport, it’s not so easy. From the outside it looks easy. ‘Don’t play him! Don’t go to the Olympics! Only play half the games at the Euros!’ But actually doing that is hard.

Speaking of baby booms, that goal at Stamford Bridge was reportedly responsible for a rise in the birth rate in Catalonia. Romantic music? Candles? Nah, an Iniesta goal. There are hundreds of ‘Iniesta’s children’ now…

Iniesta: Haha. It’s a good thing to bring new people into the world, isn’t it? That’s always good news. Above all, it’s the happiness of the moment. That’s nice, and you hold onto the good moments. You know, I met some of them a few years later, people who had been born after that moment. I’m happy for them, but I have enough on my hands with my own kids.