I have an appalling confession to make. One that I’ve not shared with anyone before, and am frankly reluctant to reveal now. But, hey, these surroundings seem relatively safe…
I once advocated for the sale of Andrés Iniesta by FC Barcelona.
The year was 2006. I was relatively new to the whole Barcelona fandom thing. I’d only just gained regular access to European football on TV. And I really was smoking a lot of weed at the time. And, yes, it was on FIFA on PlayStation. But hey, any time you can cash out on the ground floor and swap a generational icon for Djibril Cissé or some such… Hey, wait! Where are you all going??
You’d think this litany of excuses, in concert with my reverence for Don Andrés in subsequent iterations of the game and, y’know, reality, would grant me license to expunge that misstep from my permanent record. You’d think so...
We’re just over two weeks removed from Andrés Iniesta’s tearful farewell to Camp Nou and, at most, 39 days from his departure from the top level of the sport he’s commanded for the past decade. We’ve had a moment to reflect on this now-bygone era at Barcelona, to seek out some context for what we’ve witnessed.
The task of summing up Iniesta’s career is, simultaneously, incredibly straightforward and virtually impossible. For a player whose unqualified brilliance was only ever deployed, humbly, in pursuit of collective success, there is no shortage of individual honors that he’s had bestowed upon him: Golden Foot this, Marca Legend that… UEFA’s Best Player in Europe and Euro Player of the Tournament awards in 2012, a top-four finisher in Ballon d’Or voting for three consecutive years between (2010-2012), La Liga’s Best Spanish Player in 2009 and Best Midfielder on five occasions (only Xavi and Luka Modrić have done so more than once), so, so many World XI/Teams of the Year/Tournament, alongside a numerous, similarly named honors from a variety of alphabet soup-inspired organizations.
He was the Champions League’s top assist provider in 2010–11, and La Liga’s top assister in 2012–13. He took the field 674 times in competitive appearances for Barcelona, and found the net 57 times. In 124 outings with the Spanish national team, he managed a further 13 tallies on the score sheet.
Impressive to be sure, but is this really doing it for you?
Then there is, of course, the utter obscenity of the trophy case: 9 La Liga titles, 4 Champions League crowns, 6 Copas del Rey, two league/cup/Champions League trebles, the pair of European Championship medals sandwiching the 2010 World Cup winners’ medal, along with, for good measure, UEFA European Under-17 and Under-19 Championships in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Toss in another 7 Supercopas de España, and three each of the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup for good measure, and that really is quite the haul.
That’s admittedly much, much better, but we’re still not quite there.
There is frankly no analysis that captures the entirety and enormity of Iniesta’s contribution to the greatest era in the history of both FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. I mean, surely, by any statistical measure he’s been a fantastic player for the vast majority of his career, but I’m also not so certain that any ratio or metric is going to capture Iniesta’s essence any more effectively than a summary of his CV.
He was, emphatically, not a goal scorer. And yet, he netted perhaps the most iconic goal of this transcendent Barcelona dynasty and an extra-time World Cup winner. If the man’s career had consisted of little other than Stamford Bridge 2009 and Joburg 2010, he’d be a legend. Funnily enough, these pinnacle moments are, in fact, not the foundation on which Iniesta’s legend is built. Unless, of course, you count dramatically winning your nation’s first-ever World Cup and using the moment, before the eyes of, literally, the world, to honor a fallen friend.
With a ball at his feet, his technical ability and powers of deception rivaled those of anyone that’s ever played the game. And yet, putting together any kind of “definitive” highlight reel of such skills is more than a little bit challenging – not because they are difficult to come by, but rather because each is so expertly woven into the fabric of the game, mind-bending brilliance simply folded into a passage of play. It’s like a captivating aroma, or the subtle flavor that defines your favorite dish. Moments of comfort and joy, even if you can’t place precisely where you first encountered them, or coherently articulate their impact.
Iniesta’s trickery, for all of its aesthetic beauty, consisted neither of look-at-me rabonas, nor rubber-legged stepovers, but the deftest of feints and pivots, and inch-perfect, sublimely weighted passes that were, in reality, more partial goal than assist. He simply, ever so calmly, slid the ball around, behind or through point-blank defenders, with a solitary aim – the creation of angles and space that bettered the team’s chances of scoring a goal. Spectacular means to a practical (and, to be fair, often also spectacular) end.
In contemplating this, I’ve noticed that my mind often shifts to the idea of Andrés Iniesta, rather than any particular moment or game. It’s a phenomenon one might notice with the likes of Lionel Messi and LeBron James, in which the aura of greatness sometimes consumes the individual components of which it’s comprised. On the pitch, Iniesta facilitated Barcelona’s dominance by simply allowing it to breathe.
And that is perhaps the greatest thing about Andrés Iniesta – that he simply was. Always. As much as anyone that’s ever passed through the club, he embodied the Barcelona ethic, and served as its lifeblood. There’s hope to be found in the fact that, against the odds, the seemingly unfillable void left in the wake of Pep Guardiola’s departure was filled by the preternatural understanding, of both the game itself and the club, of both Xavi and Iniesta. Sadly, the best shot at replicating that feat may have to wait until Iniesta returns to do his best Guardiola impression.
For the time being, however, it just feels like the air’s been sucked out of the room.
Gracias, Don Andrés. Por siempre.