Midfield maestro with nothing left to prove
ANDRES INIESTA INTERVIEW:A central figure for the great Spain and Barcelona teams, AndreS Iniesta has reached his goals
They have seen better nights. Quite a lot of them, in fact. In a village in the region of La Mancha, there is a bar. The village is called Fuentealbilla and has a population of just 1,864; the bar is called the Lujan and it is run, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, by Andres Iniesta’s grandfather. It has become the home of the local pena or supporters’ club, the walls covered with newspaper cuttings and shirts, a mini-museum collected by the Barcelona midfielder. Every time Andres is in action, the bar is packed.
On Wednesday they witnessed another piece of history, it just wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. The evening before, Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi posed for photographs with Celtic’s shirt to mark the club’s 125th anniversary. The following night, the celebrations became even greater when Barcelona were beaten and Rod Stewart cried.
“We have beaten the best team in the world,” said Celtic manager, Neil Lennon. Iniesta scored in the first game against the Scottish champions but not this time. This time, there were shades of Chelsea about it. Chelsea last season, that is.
They have seen better nights, all right. The memorabilia reveals as much. When Iniesta scored the last-minute goal at Stamford Bridge that sent Barcelona through to the 2009 European Cup final, it led to a 40 per cent increase in the birth rate in Catalonia. That night his grandmother was watching from hospital, leaping up and down shouting: “My grandson! My grandson!” Others were in Bar Lujan, just as they have been for European Cup finals, European Championship finals, the World Cup . . .. and that goal in South Africa.
“My grandad opens up for the big Spain or Barcelona games,” Iniesta smiles. “I still have the boots I wore in Rome in 2009. At the Wembley final, I swapped shirts with Paul Scholes. And from the World Cup final . . . ”
He pauses to think. That night at Soccer City when Spain won the 2010 World Cup final, Gerard Pique took his memento when he took a pair of scissors to the net, while the vest Iniesta wore in memory of Dani Jarque, the Espanyol centre-back who died of a heart attack, is on display at the stadium of Barcelona’s city rivals.
Iniesta, who struck the only goal against Holland in extra time, can remember the moment perfectly. He talks about “hearing” the “silence” as he waited for the ball to drop; about knowing that he just needed gravity do its thing or as he puts it “wait for Newton”, then hit it, convinced he would score. But he’s not sure now what booty he left with. “I think,” he finally responds, “that I kept the boots.”
Fuentealbilla is deep in Don Quixote country. Iniesta left there at the age of 12 – he has been at Barcelona so long that he recently admitted that he felt “a bit Catalan too” – but he keeps coming back.
When he first arrived in Barcelona he wanted to turn straight round again. He admits when his parents came to visit he wouldn’t just sleep in the same hotel room as them, he would sleep in the same bed.
The rest of the time he slept in La Masia, the Catalan-style farmhouse that stands alongside the Camp Nou, looking out the window and wondering.
“Those days were the worst of my life,” he says. “You’re 500km away, you’re without your family. You’re from a small place where you can walk everywhere and the change is huge. There were lots of nights I thought: ‘I want to go home.’ Very hard moments. I’d think I was never going to make it. But you have to be strong. Even at the age of 12 you think: ‘I have to fight. I’ve come this far, there’s no going back.’”
Sacrifice and redemption are central to Iniesta’s experience. For a player whose game seems so effortless, so natural, so smooth, the story he tells is surprisingly tough. So, in fact, is he. Iniesta is small. Not just small-for-an-athlete small, but small: 5ft 7in and slight. But there is a steel to him, a competitive edge too easily overlooked. Iniesta speaks evenly and rationally but every now and then it comes through in his words too.
“If there’s one characteristic all players have it’s precisely that,” he says. “They all have that gene, that competitiveness, the ability to overcome obstacles, to fight, a willingness to sacrifice. It might look easy to reach the top and stay there, to play for your country and win things, but it isn’t.
“All players that have achieved those things have that: the big ones, the small ones, the good-looking ones, the ugly ones, the nice ones, the not so nice ones ... they all have that will to succeed.
“When you win something, that comes to mind. I remember when the referee blew the final whistle in the World Cup final, the first thing I thought of was the pain. The suffering. Instead of thinking: ‘I’m a world champion,’ I thought of that.
“It had been a hard year with injuries and I didn’t think I’d make it. If you win without sacrifice you enjoy it but it’s more satisfying when you have struggled. The World Cup meant so much because of the journey there.”
“The [Champions League] final in Rome [in 2009] was similar,” Iniesta continues. “I had torn a muscle and I couldn’t shoot with my right foot.”
It is no exaggeration: Barcelona’s doctors had told him not to shoot against Manchester United. But not shooting didn’t stop Iniesta and Xavi running the game.
“There are moments when the human body can overcome things you would never expect,” Iniesta says. “I got injured 17 days before the final and all I wanted was to be there, however big the tear was. It was a 3cm tear and I fought morning and night. I had played in Paris [against Arsenal in 2006] but only as a sub so it left a bitter-sweet feeling and I kept thinking about that.
“In Rome I had to play. By playing despite being ‘broken’ I struggled at the start of the following season. I played a big price. But it was worth it.”
The day Iniesta got injured against Villarreal Pep Guardiola told his staff: “Andres is playing in the final no matter – he plays.” The coach had long been an admirer and defender of Iniesta, right back to the day the kid from La Mancha joined the first-team squad for training. “Remember this day,” Guardiola told his team-mates.
The feeling is mutual: “I’m sure the day he starts coaching again, whichever team it is that he takes over will be big winners. I have absolutely no doubt about that,” says Iniesta.
Speaking of messages, Guardiola once famously announced: “Andres doesn’t dye his hair, doesn’t wear earrings and hasn’t got tattoos. That makes him unattractive to the media but he’s the best.”
In fact, it ended up making Iniesta even more popular; somehow closer to fans.
“I get the feeling people respect me and that there is affection for me. That makes me happy,” he says. . . Some people like you, some people don’t. In the end you just have to be yourself.
“In life you have different sorts of people, why should it be different in football?”
Iniesta does not just represent a shift in perceptions of footballers but in perceptions of football. Barcelona and Spain have challenged preconceptions. Along with Xavi, Iniesta is the embodiment of the style, an ideologue – even if Xavi is a more vocal, more unwavering defender of the faith.
“The 2008 Euros were so important because they showed you could win that way with a group of players who weren’t physically imposing in any way - if anything, we’re the opposite.
“People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.
During Euro 2012 even Vicente del Bosque, a man normally so measured in his discourse, was critical of accusations that Spain were boring.
In the final, Spain responded in the best possible way, defeating Italy 4-0. “We needed that,” Iniesta admits. “It was the most complete match we played – in the way we moved the ball quickly, the speed and the aggression we showed getting forward”
Iniesta was voted the man of the match in the final. It was his third award of the tournament and Uefa named him European football’s player of the year – ahead of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. “Winning that was special,” he says. “To even be standing there between Cristiano and Leo was a prize for me, so to be there on the podium and actually win it ... If people like the way I play so much that they put me above Leo and Cristiano, that’s incredible.”