This weekend Icons travel to Barcelona for an exclusive signing session with the wonderful Andrés Iniesta. It marks our second meeting with the little Spanish midfield master, having held our first signing together back in April 2011. Iniesta’s remarkable trophy haul for club and country makes him one of the most decorated players on the planet at the age of just 27. But how did a shy, homesick boy from the Spanish countryside blossom into the world’s best midfielder?
After years living in the shadow of his superstar Barcelona teammates, it is only in recent seasons that Iniesta’s understated brilliance has received the recognition it deserves. Unsurprisingly, Leo Messi is the man grabbing the headlines this week for his remarkable five goals against Bayer Leverkusen, but without Iniesta, neither Messi nor Barcelona would be where they are today.
Iniesta grew up in Fuentealbilla, a small village in the province of Albacete in south-eastern Spain. The precocious talent he demonstrated as a boy in Albacete’s youth teams brought him to the attention of scouts, and in 1996, a 12-year-old Iniesta was enrolled at Barcelona’s fabled La Masía youth academy. Leaving home was heart-breaking for ‘Andrésito’, and years later, the midfielder confessed he “cried rivers” the day he was separated from his parents.
Slight, unassuming and pale-skinned due to a pigmentation problem, Iniesta is not in the mould of most modern football stars. But in his formative years at La Masía, his outstanding natural ability quickly caught the attention of numerous senior figures at Barcelona, notably his current manager, Pep Guardiola, club captain at the time. After watching a 14-year-old Iniesta in action for the first time, Guardiola - another graduate of La Masía - famously remarked that he had finally found someone who “reads the game better than me”. Iniesta had won over his childhood hero, a full ten years before he became his coach in 2008.
Iniesta’s rapid development continued, and he was called to train with the first team aged 16. That day, Guardiola turned to his teammate Xavi Hernández - a first team fixture already - and said: “You’re going to retire me, but Iniesta will retire us both.” With outstanding pace, vision, skill, and the ability to use his 5’7 frame to outwit larger opponents, Iniesta has proved to be everything Guardiola predicted. And more.
But rather than ousting Xavi from the Barcelona midfield, it is in tandem that the pair have excelled, at the heart of arguably the greatest club side in history. This time, Guardiola leads from the sidelines. Under his stewardship, Iniesta has been the creative hub of a side that has won 14 trophies in under four seasons, including a historic ‘sextuple’ in 2008-09. For European and World Champions Spain, the Iniesta-Xavi axis has proved equally devastating.
Short, sharp tiki-taka and intelligent movement are the Barcelona way, and Iniesta is its greatest exponent. But it hasn’t always been easy for him to make his voice heard among Barça’s bigger names. His versatility and willingness to play in any position for the team under former manager Frank Rijkaard meant he was often overlooked in favour of more extrovert personalities. Once a hindrance, however, his unassuming and humble character has now made him the best-liked player on the planet.
Iniesta’s career so far has not been short of highlights, but two moments in particular stand out. For Barcelona, there was his stunning stoppage time winner in the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in 2009, an unforgettable effort which sent Guardiola’s side on their way to European glory. For Spain, meanwhile, he will never score a more important goal than his extra-time winner in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands.
Iniesta’s brilliance lies in the apparent ease with which goes about his job. Everything he does on the pitch looks natural, and his virtuosity brings out the very best in his teammates (watch his best assists here). Barcelona manager Guardiola has handed him greater responsibility since taking charge in 2008. The unparalleled success that has followed is no coincidence.
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