We know Andres Iniesta as Andres Iniesta, the diminutive artisan who made every match he took part in a glorified game of piggy-in-the-middle for the best part of a decade. He who interspersed those myriads of meticulous passing patterns with freestyles of jinks and flicks and swerves that made even your dad give a knowing ‘Olé’. He who made passing look better than anybody had done. Hell, he didn’t pass it, he caressed the football up and down the pitch on hundreds of feverishly hot Catalonian afternoons and nights.
It was Iniesta that defined and was integral to what made Barcelona and the Spanish national team great during their respective golden eras at the beginning of the 2010s as an archetype of the ‘tiki-taka’ doctrine that swept all before it. He was an output for waves of pressure induced by those seemingly neverending sequences of passes that overwhelmed opponents time and time again, a tireless servant to the art of possession-based football. Moreover, his synergy with Xavi and Sergio Busquets, all moulded in the confides of La Masia and all-conquering with the Blaugrana and La Roja, was the basis of the greatest midfield triumvirate football has ever known. Together, the trio formed a triangle of inexhaustible passing lanes plucked straight from Pep Guardiola’s fantasies.
Iniesta was a player that was universally adored; worshipped in Barcelona and treasured in Spain whilst being admired elsewhere. I was part of the latter category, finding myself hypnotised by Iniesta’s subtle allure but only on special occasions like Champions League nights and major international competitions. Each occasion I had the pleasure of watching Iniesta was a dip in the twilight zone, an echo chamber where minutes could whistle past with every string of passes pinged back and forth from Iniesta. I would catch myself only when the ceaseless passing halted and I’d see five minutes had vanished from my life. You’re back in the room.
In all honesty, Iniesta’s compatriots as well as the devotees that filled the Camp Nou week after week during his pomp are really better placed to describe what made Andres a legend of the beautiful game. In fact, they did just that with the nickname they heralded him with. Two words that boil down one of the finest midfielders ever to his essence: El Illusionista. What a name that is; the beauty of it is it works. Iniesta was a magician. If Harry Houdini or David Copperfield ever swapped the suit and tie (or straitjacket) for a football strip, they would fill Iniesta’s shoes as a conductor in the midfield, all elegance and precision. Controlled extravagance.
When Iniesta was 12, he was chosen by Barcelona to come and join the circus and its breeding ground for precocity, La Masia. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, but in doing so, he left behind his family and friends in his hometown Fuentealbilla and would weep alone in his dormitory tucked in the annals of the famous academy. Homesickness didn’t overwhelm him for long however; Iniesta embraced the distinctly Barca philosophy of continual passing and movement that had been installed into the club’s conscious by Johan Cruyff, and blossomed as a result. He was a prime example of the type of player Cruyff wanted to cultivate at La Masia: intelligent, nimble and acute.
The most famous anecdote from Iniesta’s time at the academy came from a conversation in 1999 which sowed the seed for the tiki-taka hegemony we would see a decade later. Barcelona’s under-15s side won the Nike Cup with Iniesta as their talisman, scoring the winning goal in the final and being named player of the tournament. In attendance was Barca’s then-captain Pep Guardiola and fledgling midfielder Xavi. After watching the scrawny, fleet-footed teen cast his spell, Guardiola turned to his apprentice and said “You will retire me, but this kid will retire us both.”
Iniesta fulfilled this prophecy and then some. When Guardiola returned to the Camp Nou as manager, he found a superb player with the potential to make the leap into the pantheon of legends. By the end of Guardiola’s tenure with the Blaugrana, nobody would deny Iniesta that status. He went from the star of the U15s team to one of the headliners of arguably the greatest club side in history and it was blissful to watch. If Messi was John Lennon, the undoubted rockstar and visionary of Barcelona’s fab XI, then Iniesta was Paul McCartney lulling the ball to the sound of ‘Blackbird’.
Yet forget about the Beatles, my mind returns to Iniesta as El Illusionista. ‘Pick a card, any card’, he would ask the defender. Now this bloke is the type that doesn’t really believe in magic and he’s been thrust on stage by his mates rather unwillingly. He begrudgingly goes along with the bravado but he thinks that it’s all a con, to be frank. There’s a formula to this sort of thing that comes in a booklet like the ones you used to get for Christmas as a kid, he thinks. That’s up until the card he picked miraculously appears in his back pocket. Iniesta’s shimmied aside him, basked in the rippling applause from the stadium for a split second, before playing a crisp pass to Xavi to continue the attack.
He did that night after night, drawing opponents in and skipping away as if the defender and his lunging tackle weren’t there. Gone in a puff of smoke. There wasn’t the need for anything flamboyant, a spin or feint would suffice. It was like the understated magic that Dynamo would pull off on a street corner when he wasn’t walking on water. The ease at which Iniesta glided through challenges implied that you too could do it at home. Learn a croqueta here and a Cruyff turn there, build up a repertoire and before you know it, you’re a world-beater. But if you’ve ever tried to learn magic, you know it’s not that simple and it will usually go wrong the second you try it out on someone.
That’s the funny thing with Iniesta, the true illusion if you like: what he did seems attainable. It’s not that hard to pass the ball to a teammate or touch the ball past someone surely? Except in practise, it’s near impossible. You’ll misplace a pass, you’ll get tackled and it’s all your fault that your bang average five-a-side team is still your bang average five-a side team and not Barcelona. How did he make it look so effortless? I suppose that’s knowledge only for those in the ‘magic circle’.
It was that unflappable nature and velvety touch that made Iniesta so reliable in a high-risk philosophy like Barca’s, which requires the cream of the crop to implement successfully, and in the dozens of crunch matches he’s partaken in over the years. For instance, he is the only man in history to win the Man of the Match award in a final of the World Cup, the European Championships and the Champions League. Moreover, when I think of Iniesta, the first situation I think of is him receiving the ball in a tight space.
There’s a man coming to clatter him from behind or a gang of opponents have crowded a titchy area of the pitch with only Dani Alves offering support. Most players, even professionals at a relatively high level, would panic and seek to clear the ball or worse, be dispossessed. But with a twist and a wink or a rapid interchange of passing, Iniesta would be away, sweeping upfield having escaped the straitjacket. There’s no surprise then that Iniesta’s most iconic moments have come in the dying seconds, when his team was in the tightest of spots, when the cord was about to snap and the freefall into the beartrap (a la Darcey Oake) would commence.
That last-gasp clincher against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2009, the goal that sent Barca to Rome and the Champions League final (amidst questionable refereeing), is one such moment. It’s arguably Iniesta’s best ever goal even without its weighty context, the ball hurtling so cleanly off the outside of his boot from 20-ish yards to beat the world’s best goalkeeper at the time in Petr Cech. The phrase ‘pulling the rabbit out of the hat’ wouldn’t do the goal and its short-term or long-term aftermath justice. However, the apogee of Iniesta’s illustrious career came a year later with the touch and volley that won Spain its first-ever World Cup.
Everything up to that point had been vintage Iniesta. The composed touch from Fabregas’ poke to tee up the shot and the subsequent shot was rifled with typical precision. But when the ball hit the net, the illusion broke. Iniesta raced away, screaming at the top of his lungs, and revealeding a shirt with the message ‘Dani Jarque, always with us’ scribbled on in blue marker. Jarque, former Espanyol captain and a close friend of Iniesta’s, had died following a heart attack in August 2009. Predictably, Iniesta was distraught and a 2009-2010 campaign riddled with injuries only heightened his anguish and frustration. However, it was all released with one goal. Gone was the muted showmanship, the ripples of applause that had characterised a career – raw ecstasy blew open Soccer City in Johannesburg with Iniesta as its manic heart.
You may have noticed I have referred to Iniesta in the past tense which does him a slight disservice given he’s still playing professional football for Vissel Kobe in Japan. He’s taken up a statesman-like role in the Land of the Rising Sun, having left the glitz and glamour of the world’s grandest stages behind. If Barca was a Las Vegas residential, Vissel Kobe is a tour of smaller venues up and down the country with the death-defying stunts of yesteryear replaced by neat card tricks that still have the capacity to amaze an audience. Yet, Iniesta’s career at the top level ended in the small hours of the night following his final game for Barcelona.
Sat in the centre-circle of the Camp Nou, that Colosseum of football where he is now one of its greatest alumni, Iniesta was captured soaking in the last moments of 17 years with Barca. Seventeen years in which the two had become inextricably linked, when the club rose to heights of football excellence arguably never before scaled and the player became shorthand for midfield virtuosity. Alas, soon Iniesta will leave the stage for good and the beautiful game will lose one of its silkiest orchestrators. For a player who never failed to stamp his imprint on a match, it will be a final puff of smoke and then, when the eulogies are written and the tributes are made on social media, it will be the last curtain call for El Illusionista, the man who proved magic is real.