Andres Iniesta: Spain and Barcelona's Bullfighter with the Artist's TouchMay 11, 2020
There was a moment in Spain's opening game of the UEFA Euro 2012 finals when Andres Iniesta—who went on to be named as player of the tournament—was surrounded by five Italian players trying to steal the ball from him. There's a beautiful symmetry to the image, which has become an iconic sports photograph. Iniesta is wearing his blood-red Spain jersey, his five pursuers—who form a near-perfect circle around him—are in the traditional savoy blue of the Azzurri.
"It was like a 'rondo' [piggy-in-the-middle training exercise] with Iniesta in the middle surrounded by all these Italians. It captured the anarchy that he unleashes," says Alfredo Relano, honorary president of Diario AS. "Iniesta represented—along with Xavi maybe—the purest essence of the model of football that gave Spain their successes in two European Championships [2008, 2012] and the World Cup , and Barca the most glorious era in their history.
"He embodied a type of high-quality, very technical football. It didn't matter that he wasn't physically imposing—that he didn't have a big frame or that he hadn't ferocious speed or he wasn't great in the air. He was all about football based on touch. It was something different—this notion that you could play the best football in the world with total disregard for physique. In all the years I've been reporting football, I never thought it possible you could win this way.
"I remember a phrase that Cesar Luis Menotti [Argentina's 1978 FIFA World Cup-winning coach] once said: 'Spain had to decide between being a bull and being a 'torero' [bullfighter].' A torero weighs 70 kilos and a bull 500 kilos. Spain chose to play like the torero and it ended up winning everything with all these short-sized players. It wasn't only Iniesta—it was David Silva, Juan Mata, David Villa and all these other small players—but it was Iniesta who fundamentally represented that idea. He imposed himself because of science not because of strength."
Iniesta's career with Spain and Barcelona—the club he joined as a 12-year-old, ultimately going on to play on the first team for 16 years following his debut under Louis van Gaal in 2002—was extraordinary. It includes nine La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions League winners' medals and a historic trio of consecutive titles with Spain at international level. He is also immortalised because of two unforgettable goals.
"Sure, he had the luck to score some legendary goals—at Stamford Bridge [90th-minute goal against Chelsea that qualified Barcelona for the 2009 UEFA Champions League final] and Johannesburg [extra-time winning goal against the Netherlands in 2010 FIFA World Cup final]," says Ramon Besa, a friend of Iniesta's and co-author of his autobiography, The Artist: Being Iniesta.
"I remember Pep Guardiola once said: 'In the foot of Iniesta rests the faith of 'barcelonismo' (Barcelona's football fans).' I'm sure Vicente del Bosque felt the same way about 'la seleccion' [the Spain national football team]. If Spaniards had to select a player to score the winning goal in a World Cup final, Iniesta would probably be among the most voted for, if not the most. I have always said that Iniesta played the role of Messi in Spain's national football team."
Iniesta will forever be linked with Messi and their club team-mate, Xavi Hernandez (the three famously shared a podium together at the Ballon d'Or awards ceremony in January 2011). All three of them are small men. All three of them have incredible ball control. Marti Riverola, a former team-mate at Barcelona, makes an interesting distinction about the two Barcelona and Spain midfielders.
"Xavi and Iniesta had different characteristics," says Riverola. "Xavi was more about positional play—about getting on the ball, keeping it, and holding a position—whereas Iniesta wants to attack an opposition's defensive line. Xavi kept the ball, but Iniesta goes forward, which creates more chances and often ends in a goal. Iniesta was more vertical [direct] than Xavi. Iniesta wants to attack. He wants to score. His mind is always thinking about breaking between the lines.
"Iniesta had something special. With his first touch, Iniesta always knew what way he was going to go. He could turn and change the rhythm of the play, leaving you trailing behind in his wake. It was impossible to take the ball off him. He has eyes at the back of his head. When you played with him in training, he was constantly looking behind himself so he always knew the next move of opposition players. It makes a difference because it means he's always two seconds ahead of every play."
Iniesta's mesmerising ball control is possibly his defining trait. Few, if any, players from the modern era are as graceful on the ball. Few have had the ability to master it so well in tight spaces, to elude the snapping tackles of defenders, to manoeuvre it at will, as if in charge of the proverbial ball on a string, always it seems with a fraction of a second to spare.
"He's just an exquisite technical footballer," says Besa. "There is no player like him to master that relationship between time and space on a football field. He's so elegant on the ball; it's almost impossible to take it off him when he has it. He has a love affair with the ball that I've never seen matched in another player, with the possible exception of Michael Laudrup.
"Other players may also have been very skilful, like Zinedine Zidane, but Iniesta can't rely on protecting the ball with his body [like a bigger, stronger player can], which meant he had to become an escapologist—so he could disappear into thin air. When you watch him, he glides around the pitch like he's skating."
Iniesta has been forthright in revealing his struggles with mental health, which he goes into in detail in his autobiography. He is universally regarded as one of the gentlemen of the game. In almost 900 official football games, he has never been sent off. But the "Mr Nice Guy" label belies a steely determination and focus.
"Guardiola often said that 'Iniesta was like the perfect son'—the perfect player, the perfect human," says Riverola. "He never complained, never caused trouble, always on time, listened to the coach when he spoke. He doesn't have any tattoos. He's a model professional. At La Masia, he always did everything he could to develop himself and become the best player he could be. He was never distracted by a social life or celebrity. He only ever wanted to improve himself as a footballer.
"At training every day, he was always 100 per cent focused. When you see it in perspective—after my career in football with different clubs—you appreciate the effort he put in. Sometimes, players are tired or they're not in the mood to go training, but Iniesta was always showing you that you have to be focused every day and do yourself justice.
"You can see at Barca, that kind of focus is dwindling year by year. Ten years ago, players used to go 100 per cent in training. Now, it seems, they think they only have to show up on Sunday for matches. It's why they're not getting the same results as in the past. Iniesta grew up with a philosophy of working hard, which other players at La Masia had, too. It's why Guardiola's Barca team was always winning games 6-0, 5-0, 7-1—not because they wanted to ridicule opposition teams, but because they wanted to give 100 per cent of themselves."
"It's definitely notable that Iniesta has always been so kind and such an upright character," adds Relano. "In Spanish, we talk about certain players having a sense of cunning—'la mala leche' (bad milk). It usually helps—the enormous ambition, the great players have. Traditionally, they're predators. They will stop at nothing.
"But it's not a characteristic you associate with Iniesta. After 15, 16 years playing at the top level, I can't recall an unsavoury incident, when he acted badly or lashed out against another player or against a referee, or made a rash declaration. Nothing. He always behaved in an exemplary manner. Nobody could imagine him being conspiratorial. He imbues a certain kind of purity and innocence. How somebody like that can reach the top is a very striking element about his career."
After departing the stage at Barcelona in 2018, Iniesta has chosen Japan for his latest adventure. No other international player—in a country that has hosted the likes of Zico, Diego Forlan and Spain's greatest striker David Villa, an erstwhile team-mate of Iniesta's at Vissel Kobe—has had as profound an impact on the J1 League as Iniesta, argues Sean Carroll, who has been covering Japanese football locally for over a decade.
"Iniesta's arrival was bigger than that of other international players because he's one of the best players of his generation," says Carroll. "Some of the other stars who turned up were winding down their careers. He's obviously not as young as he once was, but to pick up a player that famous who had achieved as much as he had—direct from Barcelona—was a massive thing for everyone in Japanese football.
"And he has delivered. He still dominates games, controlling the tempo. You can see he's a cut above the rest of the players he's playing against. He won the Emperor's Cup on New Year's Day this year. That meant that Vissel Kobe qualified for the Asian Champions League. That's what it's all about for the club's owners, Rakuten. It was the first major trophy the club had ever won."
Football in Japan has been suspended because of the coronavirus crisis, as it has elsewhere around the globe, but if and when it resumes, don't discount Iniesta—who celebrates his 36th birthday on May 11—adding to his trophy haul. We can't wait to see him renewing his love affair with the ball.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz