“Every time I see a photo of a game or a full stadium, I feel desperate to play football again,” Andrés Iniesta says after 54 days without. For his club Vissel Kobe, Emperor’s Cup winners in January, the new J-League season started on February 21st and stopped again four days later due to the coronavirus crisis. It was due to restart on March 15th, then March 29th, and then May 6th. Now they hope it might be on May 9th. But who knows? And that is in a country seen as a model of pandemic management, one where, Iniesta says thankfully, “the situation appears to be under control”.
It is just before dinner time, another evening on lockdown in his family flat, high above the city and about 6,500 miles from home in Spain. “There will,” he adds, “be a before and after.” Quite what that after looks like is a question that lingers, for football and for him.
By the time the J League resumes, Iniesta could well be 36 (his birthday is on May 11th). This could be a watershed, time perhaps to look to retirement plans – coaching, rarely associated with him, comes up in conversation – but he resists. In fact, Iniesta thinks “all this time not playing will give me the energy to keep going even longer”.
Until then, time drags on. "From the start of the virus, schools were closed, mass gatherings were cancelled. Things like wearing masks, some of the hygiene measures, are normal here anyway and that's helped to reduce the spread," Iniesta says. "Now we're just waiting, staying home, going out as little as possible. The little ones [Valeria, just turned nine; Paolo Andrea, almost four; Siena, nearly three] are doing classes online. They know there's a virus that's dangerous."
The kids stay in and back in the tiny village of Fuentealbilla, population 1,816, so do Iniesta’s parents. Attention turns to Spain. “All sorts of things go through your mind,” he says. “People are handling it naturally here [BUT]maybe we’re more influenced by what we see or read about Spain than what’s actually happening here. Here you can go for a walk [Unlike Spain], but sometimes we don’t because you’re influenced by Spain, thinking: ‘Is it the right thing to do?’ That can be disconcerting.
“Viruses, and this virus in particular, is a bit unpredictable. You ask yourself when can we get back to normal life? When can we leave our homes? When can we give each other a hug? We don’t know if the weather improving will mean the virus is reduced like any other virus or the flu, if a vaccine will be found? All those things are up in the air.”
The football season, too. “The key moment was the [Tokyo]Olympics,” Iniesta explains. “They tried everything for it to go ahead. Once it was postponed [giving the J-league more room for manoeuvre in July and August], the league decided not to return until May 9th. So that’s when we go back … in theory. Not having a clear target is hard. There have been moments when we thought we were going back this day or that day, then it’s paused again.
“When it comes to preparation, planning, motivation, stepping up your training because games are approaching … well, it’s impossible. You train full-on when there’s still a month left, or maybe more. The good thing,” Iniesta says, “is we’ve only played one game.”
It is easier to let go, in other words. “I don’t want to be dramatic but you can see it’s going to be really difficult for this [season]to be completed,” he adds. “Hopefully there will be a turnaround and everything changes radically for the better, but getting back to playing looks difficult now.”
“I suppose there will be rules that decide [outcomes]one way or another in exceptional circumstances, but it’s a difficult situation. It must be very hard [for teams like Liverpool, who may be denied a title]. Or a second division team on the verge of being promoted, told this season is null and void, that it doesn’t count. Or, the other way round: a team in the relegation zone is saved. Pfff. I don’t know how you resolve it.
“In the short to medium-term the virus is bound to have a social and economic impact, on every level. Football is part of society; it can’t escape that. You feel a responsibility to do the right thing as a person and as someone in the public eye. This will have an impact; there will be measures that stay in place, changes, a before and after. We have to try to make the best of a terrible situation.”
Could one benefit be that clubs, hit economically, are forced to draw on their youth systems? At Barcelona, perhaps it could force a return to an identity built on La Masia – the stone farmhouse in the shadow of the Camp Nou where Iniesta lived when he first departed Fuentealbilla, a small boy in tears? A return to the days when the Ballon d'Or podium was all Barcelona youth-teamers, Iniesta standing with Xavi and Lionel Messi, the only one of the three remaining.
For many, these have been days of nostalgia, classic games watched again, memories coming back. For Iniesta, too, completing the documentary that follows his biography, touching on those moments at Stamford Bridge and in South Africa; the depression he suffered; the death of his friend, the Espanyol captain Dani Jarque; and now his new life in Japan with his wife, Anna.
There is one thing he still doesn't reveal: what Frank Rijkaard said after leaving him out of the side for the 2006 European Cup final. "It would be wrong to repeat the words he said to me," Iniesta says. Then there's a joke, lost down the line. Nor, speaking of jokes, is the moment when he met Peter Crouch in the film – a running gag in the former England striker's podcast – and why would it be? "I'm aware of it," Iniesta says, "I just don't remember if it was me who asked for the photo or if it was him." Crouch would like to come to Japan, he is told. "Well, I'll be here," he says. "What's he up to right now?"
Otherwise, it’s all there. “Good moments, bad moments. I have always been clear that this has been my way of doing things, respecting others, trusting in myself, confronting things as they have presented themselves, taking them on without complaining when I wasn’t playing or when I saw something that wasn’t fair, always trying to make the most of the opportunity to play. And in the end, that’s the point: it’s about how you approach it.”
It’s about the journey, one for for which he notes in one moment of the film: “I paid the toll.” That toll is most visible in the eyes of his parents, José Antonio and Mari. “My mum has almost never spoken publicly and it’s emotional hearing her,” Iniesta says. Yet, the moment when the passing of time is marked and melancholy most takes hold may even be when Messi talks about their generation, the finest in Barcelona’s history: in the tone, the eyes, the slipping away of his sentence, there’s a realisation that the end is near.
It is hard not to link that to the moment the club is going through now, lurching from crisis to crisis. Barcelona can feel like it has lost its religion, La Masia less-fertile ground now; more a battleground instead. Those days seem a long way off, even though Iniesta departed less than two years ago, Xavi three years before, and Carles Puyol and Víctor Valdés a year before that. Messi, Gerard Piqué, and Sergio Busquets remain but are all well into their second decade at the club.
“That generation will never be repeated but what follows does not have to necessarily be worse in terms of how the club fares. It will never be same but it doesn’t have to be worse,” Iniesta says. “I had seen Puyi go, I had seen Víctor go, and then Xavi had gone … you concentrate on your own day-to-day, you still have a great team around you, top players.”
Yet you can’t help wondering if a player like Iniesta would be given the chance any more. If something has been lost and the only way to recover those ideals, that identity, is to recover that generation, bring them back. Worse, you cannot help wondering if he had gone prematurely; if it need not have been the end, his departure linked to the drift, a disconnect. In the film, that hint hangs heavy, a lingering sense that there is blame to be apportioned.
“Erm … ‘blame’, no … it’s no one’s fault. In the end, things happen the way they have to happen. And they happened like that and I took the decision because I felt it was the one that I had to take.”
Had to? “It is true that if things are done differently you feel differently. I say that very clearly: it’s like a relationship and in a relationship if you have a problem with your wife or with a friend and you don’t talk, you don’t talk, and then the moment comes that you do talk, things have already deteriorated or one person thinks one thing, another [THINKS]another. But I don’t think it’s blame, because everyone sees things in a different way and all I am doing is giving my opinion and for sure on the other side there is another opinion.
“There have been all sorts of eras in the club’s history: young players used to get a chance in the first team when results were bad and they had to turn to the youth team. That happened in my era,” Iniesta says.
“But then you have the period when you have 10, 11, 12 players from the youth team in the first-team squad. It depends on who the coach is, the situation of the club, but I always think that a player in the youth system who is good enough to play in the first team reaches the first team, in one situation or the other.
“It was many years living this club, growing up here since we were very young, getting into the first team and staying there for 10, 12, 15 years, becoming captains. We were all formed here as people. It’s difficult for something like that to happen. It’s very difficult. We’re talking about Barcelona, a club with the best players. Víctor, Puyol, Xavi, me: we came up in a scenario to Busi, Piqué, and Leo.
“We’re people who have been at the club our whole lives and we have that ‘plus’ that others don’t have. The moment could come when all of those players coincide at the club [again]. Without doubt, the likes of Víctor, Xavi, Puyol, have to go back because it wouldn’t make sense for them not to.”
And you? “Right now, I’m trying to extend my playing career as much as possible, I want to kick a ball for as long as I can because that’s what makes me happy. I’ve got a contact until next year, 2021, but I’m looking at things at the end of every season and I feel good, motivated. I want to keep playing and we’re delighted to be here.
“When it does end, I have always said that I would love to go back to Barça. It all depends on how? In what role? What situation? Who is at the club? That’s some way off. But with everything I experienced there, all the feelings I have, I would love to go back.”
The next cycle has already begun. In January, Barcelona offered the manager’s job to Xavi, Iniesta’s midfield partner, defenders of a footballing faith. Xavi turned it down, for now, but admits that he does want to return to coach the team. Víctor Font is preparing his candidacy to be president of the club in 2021, in opposition to the current board, and Xavi would be his manager. What if he called Iniesta to go with him?
“I don’t know if I will coach or not. And Xavi is four years ahead of me: I don’t know where he will be when I stop playing. Let’s see,” Iniesta says. “As a formula, it’s very good.”
As a formula, it was the best. For now, though, Andrés Iniesta just wants to play football. “It’s what we all want,” he says. - Guardian