An Ode to Andres Iniesta – A Kiss From Fuentealbilla

Andres Iniesta is among a dying breed of midfielders that can turn, nutmeg, run, pause, cut inside and shoot – all on a dime. He’s come a long long way from the crying boy in La Masia to the world conquering Iniesta we know and love.

 

For 22 years, Andres Iniesta made us dance to the tune of his two feet.
Art by Charbak Dipta.

 

PROLOGUE : The Mind and the Memory

When one talks of falling in love, it is generally the heart that takes centre stage in Cupid’s dreamy affairs, relishing in the severity with which the winged god’s arrow pierces its chambered frame. When that happens, the rest of the world dissolves into oblivion and poetry dances upon lovers’ lips in likeness to the full-throated ease of a songbird’s solitary lay. For such are the matters of the heart.

The romance of the mind with a memory, though, is a different one. Each passing moment within our universe is a suitor to the haughty mind, trying its best to become a fond memory to an ego playing hard-to-get. It woos, only to rue the cold negligence with which the mind entertains its advances.

But once in a while there comes a moment that paints itself so vividly across the canvas of the mind that it becomes a memory which outlasts time itself. Here the world doesn’t dissolve into oblivion, for every tiny detail associated with that memory is a souvenir stowed by the wilful mind in its deepest realms. The poetry, nevertheless, continues its dance.

For such are the matters of the mind. And on these I’m convinced I can be trusted because my own has indulged in a romance of that sort. This is an account that aims to narrate the history of that encounter, and it begins with a little boy crying his eyes out.

 

ACT I: The Little Boy From Fuentealbilla

One cold November day in the year 1996, a 12-year-old Andres Iniesta Lujan was crying in a secluded corner of La Masia, the fabled youth academy of FC Barcelona. Just a few hours ago, he had travelled with his parents all the way from the tiny village of Fuentealbilla in the Spanish province of Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha, to arrive in Barcelona. A glimpse of what Andres’ teensy feet could do with a football had convinced then FC Barcelona youth team coach and family acquaintance Enrique Orizaola that the boy had it in him to be a part of the club’s academy.

The prospect had sent ripples of excitement down a young Andres’ delicate frame when it had first dawned upon him. But presently, homesickness shrouded all of it. It was just one of many days on which little Andres Iniesta would find himself tearful at the memory of his parents and of home – jolly old Fuentealbilla where he had kicked the ball around with boys his age and without a worry in the world.

Just twenty days after arriving at La Masia, Andres Iniesta found himself making his first appearance in an FC Barcelona shirt for the club’s under-14 B team.

In three years, Iniesta would go on to wear the captain’s armband to lead Barcelona’s Under-15 side in the 1999 Nike Premier Cup. In the final of that competition, the boy from Fuentealbilla would put on display what can be called his first act of wizardry at the Camp Nou.

It was slightly windy on that July evening in Barcelona and 15-year-old Andres Iniesta had his hair parted neatly from the middle before he put on his number-four blaugrana jersey. They were up against the lads from Argentina’s Rosario Central, who had arrived in Barcelona with their eyes firmly on their first Nike Premier Cup title. But Barcelona had a similar goal in mind, and one boy in particular had different plans for the lot from Argentina.

Captain Andres Iniesta, at the tender age of fifteen, weaved magic upon the turf at Camp Nou right from his very first touch on the ball, his lithe body twisting and turning away from boys bigger than he himself was and his feet caressing the orb upon the grass as if whispering persuasions into its ears to send it rolling at his own will.

To the Camp Nou faithful, the teenager cut a familiar picture: a seemingly fragile midfielder weaving past a sturdy lot of defenders with sprightly ease, like a god gliding aloft with his winged sandals strapped to his feet. The Blaugrana had seen Michael Laudrup and Pep Guardiola perform similar heroics for El Dream Team, and now watched on as Andres repeated the brilliance of the two senior team members. The boy was solemnly making a promise to the mighty stands of the Camp Nou: that he was there to continue the poetry uttered by these men, his heroes, for decades to come.

Meanwhile, both teams had scored a goal apiece in regular time and the tie had headed into extra time. From the stands, Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez and Luis Figo, first-team players of FC Barcelona, watched on with piqued interest. Back on the turf, the prospect of the dreaded penalties began to creep upon the players’ minds as the game entered the final minute. And that’s precisely when Andres Iniesta splashed his first set of colours on the canvas.

The seven Rosario Central lads in the penalty box could only watch as the ball glided into the back of the net with the swiftness of an albatross soaring sky-high. A sweet right foot had gently kissed the ball goodbye from about a metre off the penalty spot, connecting with a grounded cross from the right. The little boy from Fuentealbilla had scored the winning goal, and that day he wasn’t crying anymore as he ran to celebrate his moment of glory, leaving a shoe behind in the process.

Moments later, the young captain – with the wayward shoe back on his foot and a dangling armband once again intact – stood before an exuberant Pep Guardiola to receive the winners’ trophy. As the senior FC Barcelona superstar uttered words of congratulation to little Andres while shaking his hand, the shy young captain lowered his eyes momentarily before pursing his lips into a slightly suppressed and embarrassed smile, perhaps muttering a faint Gracias to Pep. Little did Guardiola know that his was one of the only two posters that adorned Iniesta’s wall at La Masia dorms. The other was of Pep’s childhood hero, Michael Laudrup.

ACT II: Rising Through the Ranks

“This lad is going to retire us all,” Pep Guardiola prophesied before Xavi one fine day in the training premises of FC Barcelona.

The year was 2002 and the ‘lad’ in question was Andres Iniesta, who had already began training with the FC Barcelona first team. In October that year, he would earn his debut appearance in a Barça shirt in a Champions League fixture against Club Brugge.

In 2004, Barça would sign the Portuguese playmaker Deco, with whom Iniesta would enjoy a long spell of appearances, besides drawing inspiration from the former Porto man’s craftsmanship. He eventually became a central figure in coach Frank Rijkaard’s team all the way through to the 2005-06 season, during which unfolds the second act.

Barça retained their Primera Division title that year and went on to win the Champions League with a 2-1 win over Arsenal. In that final, played at the Stade de France in Paris, it was the boy from Fuentealbilla who made the difference. An effortless nudge on the ball from the magician, and football was a simple sport once again.

Arsenal had taken the lead in the 37th minute courtesy of Sol Campbell and looked set to maintain the advantage even through the latter stages of the second half despite being down to ten men from the 18th minute.

It was minute 76 when Andres Iniesta, summoned off the bench for the second half to replace an injured Edmilson, found the right incantations to cast his spell of simplicity. A willing ball escaped Iniesta’s foot to cut Arsenal’s yellow-shirted formation through the inside left channel to find Henrik Larsson. A solitary touch from the Swede sent the orb rolling temptingly towards a sprinting Samuel Eto’o who struck home to equalise for the Blaugrana.

Four minutes later, Barça would get their noses in front with Juliano Belletti finding the back of the net to win their second Champions League title.

What one would remember about that encounter is the euphoria that flooded in after a dramatic comeback had run its course. But ask us romantics, who had eyes for no other thing of beauty after Andres Iniesta had pulled the chords to our hearts with that deft touch which had started the drumroll of triumph for Barça.

ACT III: Glory and Unease

When Pep Guardiola came back to the Camp Nou as a coach, he managed to unleash a version of Iniesta that in a tale of high fantasy would fall along the lines of Gandalf the Grey transitioning into Gandalf the White.

Never in the history of football had the rivals of FC Barcelona feared the shimmy of a hip, the crouching of knees, and the sweet touch of a player’s boot on the ball as they did whenever the ball made its graceful sojourn towards Andres Iniesta. Never had grown men looked so lost and devastated, sliding across thin air and blades of grass engaged in mockery of these fallen giants, than on moments when a simple change of direction and a nimble brush of foot against ball would leave them chasing – I won’t say shadows – but a sparkling head with a receding hairline.

And then came the occurrence of the third act.

It was the return leg of a Champions League semi-final against Chelsea.The first leg had ended in a stalemate at the Camp Nou with no goals scored, and the Blaugrana were keen to advance to the final through a moment of brilliance at Stamford Bridge, London. But Chelsea were determined to break Catalan hearts that evening as they took the lead early in the ninth minute with a Michael Essien thunderbolt from 20 yards out.

Nevertheless, on that night in London, the man from Fuentealbilla once again had other plans.

It was the 90th minute and Barcelona were down to ten men and trailing by a goal. The air in London was getting heavier with each passing minute, while about 1500 kilometres away, in Catalonia, an anxious population was running out of nails to chew upon. They knew that they needed one away goal in London to make it through, but that goal seemed like an unlikely visitor.

That’s when the masterstroke came. Andres Iniesta waited inside the arc at the edge of the Chelsea penalty box. A lofted cross from Dani Alves had somehow found its way towards Lionel Messi who seemed to be caught up in a flurry of blue shirts. But the Argentine knew that Andres was close, as he somehow always was in tough times for the Blaugrana, waiting with his back slightly bent and his knees apart, as if crouching for the kill.

Messi managed to roll the ball towards Iniesta and the magician knew that the spell was right at the tip of his wand. All it needed was a little swish.

 

“I connected with that shot with the outside, not the inside or the tip of my boot, but right from my heart, with all my might.”

-Andres Iniesta

Plaudits followed for the ‘illusionist’ of FC Barcelona from Europe’s best players and managers. Alex Ferguson remarked that Iniesta “makes the team work” while Wayne Rooney rated him as the best player in the world. A contract extension from Barcelona until 2015 soon followed.

The ecstasy of lifting the Champions League trophy on the night of May 27 in Rome, however, was going to last for a mere couple of months for the Barcelona midfielder. For in 2009, winter came way too early for Andres Iniesta.

It was during pre-season in the United States and Iniesta had still not fully recovered from the injury he had played through in the final in Rome. That’s when the ill-boding stars showed up.

Back in Catalonia, there was mourning in the air. Dani Jarque, captain of RCD Espanyol and an exemplary central defender who was only about a couple of months away from becoming a happy father, had died in Florence due to a heart attack at the age of 26.

Dani and Iniesta had been friends since their days in the Spanish youth teams. Both the players, who at the club level played on either side of a fierce local rivalry, had represented the Spanish national team across all age levels from 16 to 21. The men had in fact grown together through the final years of adolescence. No wonder they were the best of friends, and no wonder, when the news was delivered to Andres, he was devastated.

A feeling of utter unease engulfed his mind and body. It was clear he was suffering, but there seemed to be no way out of it. Training sessions became mountainous tasks best left unscaled and a period of psychological instability prevailed. He seeked help and FC Barcelona did their best to provide it, but ultimately it was a moment on the turf that  was destined to shun the overwhelming gloom away.

ACT IV: The Moment

On the night of the eleventh of July, 2010, my mind fell in love; a moment it has since stowed away in its deepest realms as the fondest of memories.

I often remember that night, especially on occasions that present themselves as grim dementors arriving to feast upon souls. I can tell you I remembered that night the last time the pills didn’t work and an air of evil foreboding hung around my anxious mind. And everytime I allow myself to recall it, the night always remains the same.

There’s always the same old TV screen – the only source of light in a dark drawing room, right next to which sleep my parents. There’s always my brother who, it seemed, had automated himself to maintain the TV’s volume in accordance to an inversely proportional relation with our father’s thunderous snores. He was the elder one, so he got to call the shots with the remote, but I didn’t mind that because, fortunately, football united us and we didn’t have to fight over a gadget to watch what either of us wanted to watch on the TV. Then there’s the old sofa occupied by my 15-year-old self, which creaked  every time I jumped at a momentous occasion during a match. I now realise that the creaking would have been intense that night with the kind of show the 22 men on the TV were putting up on the football field.

And then, there’s always that moment.

It’s minute one-hundred and sixteen and fans from the Netherlands and Spain have already begun to evoke the gods of football to give their national teams deliverance against defeat in the imminent penalty shootout.

Deliverance will come, but before any ball is planted upon the penalty spot.

It is minute one hundred and sixteen and Spain are playing Netherlands in the final of the football World Cup. It is minute one hundred and sixteen and I see a little man outclass not just a flurry of orange-shirted men, but also an invisible storm cloud hanging over him. It is minute one hundred and sixteen and I see Andres Iniesta attain catharsis as he connects with a mischievous Jo’bulani with his right foot just as a frantic van der Vaart lunges in an attempt to block the shot. Stekelenburg, the Dutch goalkeeper, gets a hand to the ball, but the impish little orb has ears only for the commands of Don Andres’ feet. It bounces off a bit from the Dutchman’s intruding hand, as if to threaten ‘Don’t you dare touch me!’ before knocking at the goal-line to announce to the net that – ready or not – it was finally coming in.

And deliverance came as Andres Iniesta, in celebration of his goal, removed his jersey to reveal an undershirt with a handwritten message:

 

Dani

Jarque

Siempre

Con

Nosotros

Dani Jarque, always with us

 

Somewhere in Spain, the mother of a daughter hardly ten months old cried as she saw on a television screen the spirit of her baby girl’s absent father writ upon that undershirt. Her beloved Dani. Always with her.

EPILOGUE

Whenever I remember the night Spain lifted the World Cup in Johannesburg, I realise that what Andres Iniesta did with a ball on a field was something that poets have done with quills upon parchment. For me the little magician of FC Barcelona remains the John Donne of football – an artist rising over death and depression as if to fearlessly express: Death, be not proud!

Gliding around the grass, ball at his feet, ole ringing in his ears – Don Andres.

And I guess everyone else realises that too. Maybe that is why when Andres Iniesta steps on or off a football field, even the fiercest of rivals unite as they stand to acknowledge everything this man has given them. Go to the Cornella and you will see that no matter how vehemently Espanyol supporters protest against the claims of FC Barcelona being the best football club in the world, they’re sure to mellow down at the mention of Don Andres’ name.

Even along the mighty stands of Estadio de Santiago Bernabeu, Madridistas have allowed themselves a moment of humility as they stood up to acknowledge the vastness of the idea of Andres Iniesta.

It has been eight years since Don Andres overcame the shadows of death and depression in Johannesburg and unified Spain through an exemplary display of humanity, love and friendship. Eight long years, and it still remains an unspoken rule across Spain that when Don Andres steps on or off the pitch, you stand up and show respect. Eight years, and the little man from Fuentealbilla has continued to cast enchantments on opponents and spectators alike.

But now he must go. To inspire another land, perhaps. As for us, the heartbroken, we’ll cherish each minute of all the time that is left for this season to fly away. For the ones who had forgotten about the man from Fuentealbilla in a daze of hair dyed bronze and blue; and along tattoos writhing upon skin and muscles flexed and flaunted in celebration, these are to be the dying days of beholding a footballer who was more than a player.

Eight years, and there has never been another Andres Iniesta in this world. And I doubt if there ever will be.

 

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Piyush Bisht

Penman. Journalist. Playmaker. Spends a pretty hobbit-like lifestyle speckled with either creative foolhardiness or slothish procrastination