Sunday, 7 June 2009

Iniesta, the Unlikely Hero

author: Sid Lowe
source: The Observer

date: 24 May 2009

The clock was running down. Time slipped away from Barcelona as they launched yet another attack. A tiny, pale midfielder hovered, waiting on the edge of the penalty area. The ball was pulled back. No room to control, No touch to steady himself. An instant shot, beyond the goalkeeper into the net. Goal! Arms in the air, a screaming sprint to the touchline and Andrés Iniesta was buried under a pile of bodies.

No, not Stamford Bridge on 6 May 2009, but Camp Nou a decade earlier – 21 July 1999, the Nike Premier Cup final: the under-15 club world cup. Iniesta was 14. Captain and player of the tournament, he had just scored an extra-time winner against Rosario Central. The man who presented a shy boy with his trophies shook his hand and whispered: "In a few years' time, I'll be watching you do the same from the stands."

When Iniesta repeated the feat in London, Josep "Pep" Guardiola was, in fact, watching from the bench. "If anyone deserved that goal, it's Andrés," the Barcelona coach insists. "He always moans that he doesn't score enough, as if with everything else he does, he has to get goals too. Tonight he settled his debt forever."
Guardiola, captain of Barcelona's early-90s Dream Team, was Iniesta's hero. The youngster pinned a poster of him next to his bunk at La Masía. Only Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Laudrup could compete for the space. What Iniesta did not realise was how quickly he was becoming Guardiola's hero, too, how completely he had won over his future coach.

It took a little longer to win over others, but now he has; Definitively, absolutely and irrevocably. Iniesta is the apple of everyone's eye; even in Madrid where uniquely he is a Barcelona player you are allowed to love. The campaign builds for him to be short-listed for the Ballon d'Or, a poll has him second only to Leo Messi as La Liga's best and Sir Alex Ferguson admits that, actually, it is Iniesta he most fears.

Guardiola could see it years ago. It is his commitment to Iniesta that has, in part, forced others to see it. "One fundamental change this season is that for the first time Iniesta has been handed full responsibility," argues Felip Vivanco from the newspaper La Vanguardia. Too long confined to cameos, he has taken centre stage.

Iniesta had joined Barça aged 12 and people were already talking about Andrésito (little Andres). On the advice of his brother Pere, Guardiola watched him and reported that he had seen a 14-year-old who "reads the game better than me", a tiny lad with touch, pace and vision. Soon, Iniesta's Guardiola poster was replaced by a signed photograph dedicated to "the best player I've ever seen". On the day Iniesta was called to train with the first-team squad, he could not find the dressing room. Luis Enrique was sent out to find him. Wide-eyed, the 16-year-old thought it was a joke, yet Guardiola was deadly serious when he told team-mates: "Remember this day – the day you first played with Andrés."

One of the secrets of success is continuity, the clarity and commitment with which Barça follow Johan Cruyff's model of pass and move. It is embodied by its midfielders. Guardiola was the prototype, Xavi and Iniesta its custodians. "We are," Iniesta and Xavi agree, "sons of the system." Ferguson says "Rather than their forwards, it's their midfield you have to watch."

And yet Iniesta's game is natural, too. Asked if Iniesta was a born footballer, Guardiola replies: "No, he was already a good player in his mother's womb." Iniesta says: "I play like I always did. At Barcelona you learn loads but it comes out in an improvised way."

Iniesta's style means using his size, or lack of it, as an advantage. "You learn to be sharper, cleverer," he explains. "Small players learn to be intuitive, to anticipate, to protect the ball. A guy who weighs 90 kilos doesn't move like one who weighs 60. In the playground I always played against much bigger kids and I always wanted the ball. Without it, I feel lost." Everything Barcelona does is through the ball. Their defensive record is the best in Spain not because they have the best defenders, but because they dominate possession, limiting exposure by nurturing the ball.

Iniesta can do the other kind of defending as well: when he played at the base of Barcelona's midfield, his anticipation and awareness won him more possession than any player in La Liga, destroying the "lightweight" cliches. "He is the complete footballer. He can attack and defend, he creates and scores," says Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, while Frank Rijkaard adds: "I played him as a false winger, central midfielder, deep midfielder and just behind the striker and he was always excellent."

Jack of all trades and master of them all, Iniesta was one of the few Barcelona players to emerge from last season with his reputation enhanced and became the only Spain player to play every game at Euro 2008. But for long his versatility has played against him.

So too did his timidity. Iniesta was raised in Fuentealbilla, population 1,864, Albacete province, the stereotypical no-man's land on Spain's arid central plain. They say "Albacete, cágate y vete" – have a dump and get out of there – but Iniesta admits he "cried rivers" the day he departed for La Masía. One Catalan journalist recalls being warned not to ask about his family because he was liable to burst into tears. Iniesta's father, José Antonio, still carries a photograph of a little kid in dungarees, a ball under his foot. Andrés has hardly changed. Startlingly plain, in a dressing room of egos, often he played out of position or sat on the bench to accommodate others. One such occasion was the 2006 Champions League final.

Some felt Iniesta needed to be more streetwise; others that he required media backing, someone to champion him. "Iniesta is easily Spain's most complete player. He has everything," Xavi says. "Well, nearly everything – he needs media backing." A pigmentation problem leaves him so pale that the running joke on Catalan TV is that he's a glow worm – the children's toy whose face glows in the dark. Quiet, discreet, a man who admits "discos are not my thing," others have handed him the ironic title of "Party King".

"I can't imagine I've been left out because I'm 'only' Andrés Iniesta, or because I'm the quiet one," Iniesta said just over a year ago. Then arrived Guardiola, who even before he took over had eulogised a man on "a different sphere." Iniesta, he said, "is so good, he deserves to play, so, so much, and yet he never complains". "Everything, but everything, he does makes his team-mates better players," says one of Guardiola's closest collaborators.

Guardiola made Iniesta a fundamental pillar and the results have been spectacular: he has the best average rating in the league, the newspaper El País defining him simply as "Nureyev". "I'm not obsessed with Messi, Iniesta is the danger," Ferguson says. "He's fantastic. He makes the team work. The way he finds passes, his movement and ability to create space is incredible. He's so important for Barcelona."

"Andrés doesn't dye his hair, doesn't wear earrings and hasn't got any tattoos. That makes him unattractive to the media, but he's the best," Guardiola said recently. "Sadly, a humble, discreet footballer doesn't sell like one who's loud," adds Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, his first coach. Goalkeeper Víctor Valdés agrees, pointedly greeting questions about Iniesta's season with a curt: "Andrés has been the best for years."

Now, he has been well and truly discovered: "When you're this good even your own discretion can't hide your talent," insists one columnist. In fact, Iniesta's mumbling, monotone, unremarkable quietness, once a problem, has ended up making him even more of a star. He has become, as the lead singer of Estopa puts it, "an anti-hero". The fact that he is so thoroughly decent and impossible to dislike, is part of his armoury. Phrases like "humble genius", "fantasy without the flashiness", and "the simple star" have become an admiring media's stock in trade.

The pale, quiet, small-town boy has become a hero for his humility, for his football, and of course for that goal. As one overcome columnist put it after Stamford Bridge: "We now know that there is a footballing God. His name is Andrés, he is shy, he is from Albacete and last night he made me cry." Above all, though, he made Pep Guardiola proud.

read the full and original article here

Read more:
Iniesta launches official website
Barcelona Is Winning With Style
Iniesta: "We have to play our game"


umessi10 said...

And yet Iniesta's game is natural, too. Asked if Iniesta was a born footballer, Guardiola replies: "No, he was already a good player in his mother's womb.


CKoon said... of the best article i read. Sid Lowe is so good at describing Iniesta's character, it really touches my emotion.

0marX said...

Simply beautiful.

voonte said...

Great read. It's impossible not to like this guy. Fantastic fotballer and human being. He deserves every praise he get, and more.

Anonymous said...

As Sid Lowe says himself: this article should have been published two years ago.

hieifcb said...

whoa great article, i want to cry for Iniesta already =P
Next poster: Andres Iniesta ^^

tero said...

Iniesta is a total opposite of CR7,except the fact that Iniesta is a much better footballer

rahul said...

nowdays, more than teh football its teh media who creates who is teh best n who is teh worst. excellent comments by guardiola n co. nt wearing stupid earning n having gay tattoos makes him unattractive to teh media is so true. bt teh man has proven himself purly on talent.ppl shout ronaldo vs messi. it shud be messi vs iniesta vs ribery. its so sad tht media creates a panther out of a pussy. luk at tht shit pimp beckham. tht guy was so overated n shit he cudnt even prove hismelf in some shit MLS. bt best player y cuz everyday new hairstyles, cheap gels, knocking everyday some1 or teh other, he was more like a footballing brand model than a footballer.

Xaviniesta said...

*tears up* lol..i feel so vindicated. for yrs i championed barca's trident xavi iniesta and deco among my barca frns. they were my idols even when the likes of ronaldinho eto'o messi hogged the limelight. i'm so happy xavi and iniesta are being appreciated more now, most esp andresito. hope somehow he lets himslef enjoy the praise even just a little, no one deserves it more than him, so patient and uncomplaining all these yrs, i used to call him our secret weapon but now its not secret anymore. from that article VV has the best quote imo.

btw with the talk abt footballing "gods" and stuff is camp nou now the new mt olympus? lol

Anurag said...

how can someone LIKE ronaldivo when there are players like iniesta around? TRUE LEGEND!! he, messi and xavi truly give a new dimension to the words "team men"

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