Come the end of June, Andres Iniesta’s contract with Barcelona will come to an end, terminating, perhaps, the greatest marriage between a player and his football club. Iniesta’s way is the Barcelona way.
His departure will ensure that only three of the regular starting XI, Pique, Busquets and Messi, will remain from the famous Guardiola vintage, the greatest club side ever to grace the planet.
Iniesta isn’t even retiring. But it feels that way. Since he was a twelve-year-old of only slightly smaller stature than the present, he has known nothing but Barcelona and I, personally, cannot remember a Barca outfit in which he has not featured. They simply go hand in hand: the pinpoint, efficient passing, graceful dribbling, ever-flowing movement, all contribute to both his and his team’s seemingly unfailing success.
Most of the praise during this period has, understandably, been lavished upon Lionel Messi’s equally minuscule shoulders. He can produce moments of magic where Iniesta, from a deeper role, is simply unable to.
Cristiano Ronaldo often receives similar compliments to Messi in terms of his ability to change a game in an instant. Yet for overall, consistent quality, I don’t believe that either of them, despite their impact on the game, can match Iniesta. He is a better footballer, while Messi and Ronaldo are the better players.
I’ll explain: Iniesta cannot match the physique and strength of Ronaldo, nor the blistering pace of Messi. However, these physical disadvantages just make his ability on the ball stand out more.
Messi’s range of passing is mong the world’s best but it cannot match the Spaniards. Similarly, Ronaldo is able to generate power where few others can. Iniesta, in spite of being diminutive in comparison, has guided some bullets with equal force (a certain injury-time winner against Chelsea springs to mind.)
He does not have the pace or acceleration to match the most lethal attackers. He does not have the broad shoulders and rugged aggression of the ablest of defenders. But he still glides past players, ball under a spell, as if standing still. It truly is magical. I am of similar height, build and, dare I say it, speed to Iniesta and can barely get past a 20 stone Sunday League defender, let alone the world’s elite.
Furthermore, he has made a name for himself as a match-winner even though his influence radiates from the centre of the pitch, outside the penalty area. Ronaldo and Messi will score more goals to win more games but without Iniesta, Barcelona and Messi would not have even been in a position to win a countless number of those.
In effect, it is his inferiorities which make him so spectacular. That and his ability to dominate the biggest stages, for both club and country. Messi has done it for Barcelona but never for Argentina, Ronaldo for Manchester United and Real Madrid but never Portugal, injury denying him the chance to do so in the Euro 2016 final.
Iniesta has done. Him and Xavi ran rings around Scholes and Carrick at Wembley in 2011. He has been a regular contributor to the never-ending story of El Classico. Most importantly, however, he has done it for Spain. Euro 2008 saw him selected in the official Team of the Tournament, at Euro 2012 he was the Player of the Tournament and man of the match in the final. However, neither of these achievements can equal the immortality-sealing winner in the 2010 World Cup final. In a game now famed mostly for brutality rather than brilliance, Iniesta stood out throughout, providing the killer blow with an expertly taken half-volley in the 116th minute.
He shouldn’t be capable of reaching such heights, achieving what millions dream of. Most players of his size are cast aside before they reach the median stages of junior football but little Andres stood out even then. A famous quote from Pep Guardiola to Xavi, Iniesta’s fellow playmaker-in-chief when Pep managed the Blaugrana, having witnessed Iniesta play for one of Barca’s youth teams in the late 1990s, read that “you’re going to retire me, but this lad will retire us all.”
I am a firm believer that talent can only be earned by practice (10,000 hours if you are to believe Matthew Syed.) Watching Iniesta, though, makes it too difficult to believe that what he does is not innate, does not come naturally. For his range, his vision, is unparalleled in the modern game.
Barcelona without Iniesta, even with Messi still at his sublime peak, will never be the same. Such has his impact been that the dynamic may be set to change forever. Like a Gerrard-less Liverpool or a Class of 92-less Manchester United.
He may play on, gilded offers from the United States and China surely beckon., and he may retain his unshakeable greatness for a few years yet. But once Spain are out, whether with a bang or a whimper, at this Summer’s World Cup, it will be era-ending