When you follow a team packed full of superstars, it’s only natural that the spotlight would shine brightest on a select few. This is a fact that we, as Culés, know all too well. While it is very much possible to share a team with Lionel Messi, it is damned near impossible to share the headlines when you are contending with the greatest player that this, or another other generation has witnessed.
Historically, that has been the case at Barcelona since 2009 and deservedly so. A plethora of articles have been dedicated to the little genius, the boy from Rosario who has revolutionised and ultimately transcended this very sport to secure his rightful place in the pantheon of human achievement. As my colleague Rob so eloquently summarised in his last editorial, Messi’s very existence could be heralded as proof of the divine and many, myself included, would be converted to believers.
Even as Messi’s role within the team has been somewhat refined and, in a relative sense scaled back with the introduction and integration of Luis Suarez and Neymar, the spotlight hasn’t shifted far. The focus remains on Messi and his part in what many consider to be the greatest strikeforce ever assembled. Not that I expect, nor want people to focus on anything else – it is human nature to be drawn to the superlative after all, but just consider the supporting cast, and the players we almost take for granted.
Therein to me lies the greatest tragedy: that our time, attention and indeed headlines are finite; that players such as Andres Iniesta often escape without so much as an afterthought.
The man himself probably prefers it that way; in almost every aspect, Iniesta doesn’t quite have the look of a star like all others before him. He is small in stature, while his most defining physical feature throughout his career has probably been his receding hairline. He is, always has been and always will be just plain old Andres Iniesta: that thoroughly unspectacular looking guy from a small village outside Albacete.
For years, he has not just been an unassuming star, he has been the unassuming star. At least the higher power that blessed us with Lionel Messi’s presence gave us a subtle little wink by gifting the Argentine with a pair of elven ears – there were no such hints with Andres Iniesta. Few could deny his talent, but right from the start his career has been punctuated with doubts.
As he joined La Masia as a child, many questioned whether Iniesta could overcome his homesickness and graduate through the ranks. When he debuted for the B team and began to feature for the senior squad, they asked whether he could overcome his physical shortcomings to feature in his preferred role in midfield. Even as he established himself as a first choice, they questioned his commitment to the club as rumours of interest from Real Madrid swirled in the sport pages in Catalunya.
Each and every time, Iniesta ignored the critics and remained focused on his football. He was achieving success his own way, paving his own path and yet the doubts continued.
Was he durable enough to endure the test of time at a club as demanding as FC Barcelona? Iniesta quite literally fought through injuries to secure titles and still the doubts have persisted; even as some of his peers have labelled him as the world’s best, praise of Andres Iniesta has always been met in some corners with a "but".
But he doesn’t score enough. But he doesn’t provide enough assists.
It’s almost as if there is an unwritten requirement for a quantifiable metric to support "greatness"… as if you can take a player with the talent of Andres Iniesta and filter his most outstanding traits down into a single number that proves without a shadow of a doubt, this is why he’s elite.
It’s this fixation and obsession with the tangible that can be frustrating; we don’t attempt to quantify the genius of a Beethoven symphony, nor do we analyse the number of brushstrokes in a Rembrandt before we can label it a masterpiece – so why would Iniesta, an artist in his own medium, be belittled for a perceived lack of productivity?
Even as time has progressed that perception hasn’t really shifted. Is it any coincidence that the wider football community views Iniesta’s most traditionally prolific seasons as his most successful? Neutrals can easily recount his goal in the World Cup Final against Holland, and his injury-time strike against Chelsea, but how many will also point out his Man of the Match awards in the European Championship final in 2008, the same World Cup final in 2010, and once again in the 2012 European Championship final?
Time and time again, Iniesta has proven that there is more to football than simply scoring goals or providing assists and that the headlines don’t always tell the whole story. With him, it’s always been about the basics, and performing them better than just about anyone else in the history of the sport – because those tangible skills, like scoring goals and providing assists, they will fall away – but the intangibles on which his game is based: his vision, his deft touch and his sharp mind are eternal.
And so, as we approach the second-leg of our tie with Arsenal, just as some of his critics continue to claim that he might be on the decline, Iniesta continues to defy the doubters and go from strength to strength. Even without scoring he was the Man of the Match in the 2015 UEFA Champions League final, while just this past November he received a standing ovation at the Santiago Bernabeu for his superlative performance in El Clasico.
The louder the doubts get, the lower he slips in the running for the Ballon d'Or, the more Iniesta rises to the occasion and while that may escape the headlines, there’s a sense that this season, in his first as club captain, Iniesta could lead his team to an unprecedented repeat of the treble.
Because oft-doubted and seldom the star though he may be, Andres Iniesta remains as good as ever.