Entering yet another act into the various, yet seldom turbulent, chapters of a distinguished, generation-defining, career, Andrés Iniesta would have further asserted his position as the standout player of an era – had it not been an untouchable existing stature – on a familiarly hostile February evening in West London.
In the Champions League particularly, this is now little other than common ritual for each individual entrusted with the captaincy of the modern Barcelona dynasty. With the incisive counter-attacking move that confirmed an encouraging 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, prior to a return tie at the eternally imposing Camp Nou, however, those placed to survey such events may have been tempted to hail proceedings as the confirmation, and indeed the extension, of a lineage gilded with the greatest prizes in world football, just for one more match.
Steadfast where others have faltered, forever the consummate professional on occasions when compatriots have belied the cause and an ever-ready source of galvanising ability in even the most ominous of situations, the diminutive Spaniard has regardless rarely proved burdened by the praise so pontifically lavished on his figure throughout what now amounts to a glittering near 16-year senior career. His is a career, considering its trophy-spinning excellence, relatively untouched by the laurels of superficial praise, and, perhaps inherent of reciprocal loyalty that has defined his entire professional employment, rarely spoken of in notable disjunction from fellow recent Catalonian patriarchs Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Gerard Piqué, Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol et al., offering intangible insight into the conditioning of modern media apparatus and the perception of success in the footballing industry.
Although much averse to the primarily Daily Mail-ite, internet-age-fostered proclamation culture, with right-wing corporations intent on employing individual focus in the subversion of news into gross ethnographic misrepresentation – a matter greater than simple populism or sensationalism – personally I can respect the value of contorting this approach only slightly, and empowering perspective change through the messages conveyed by particular careers. Had this slight distinction found broader influence than merely independent media on the mass consumption platform, one could certainly observe that heightened summations of the defensive midfielder’s value, for example, would not have proven necessary; the N’Golo Kante cult, and that comparisons with the romanticised countryman and club-sharing figure of Claude Makélélé were given any credence by the consuming public, emergent only due to the alignment of title victories in consecutively prolific outfits and the eventual recognition of outstanding statistical acquittal, in order for the wee Frenchman to gain such prominent value in the modern game.
While we must accept that Madrid duo Marca and Diario AS, the self-styled “Sempre amb el Barça” – “Always with Barça” – Sport and the more culturally autonomous Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo continue to extend significant, and nationally uncompromised, appraisal over the proceedings of clubs in both weekly La Liga and fortune-spinning continental combat, and that regularly embroiled within this is the divisive, but entirely admirable, FC Barcelona dynasty, Iniesta, and all others, are subject to regular and turbulent public reckoning. Such, I dearly hope, will forever be the intrinsic and foremost intent of the sport itself. The irrefutability of the cultural pretence of Spain’s periódicos deportivos, although not to the perpetually invasive extent of the English media, maintains, especially alongside the status of La Liga as the second most profitable commercial division in the world and surely the principal current competitive collection of clubs, the influence of a theory generally heightened in more developed footballing nations.
Culturally, we must soon reinforce, there is a subtle, yet profound, diversion between the reception of the sport, and its respective employees, in both Britain and Spain – nations tied so irrevocably by a migration exchange that benefits either economy, yet only to the intellectual benefit of the former. There certainly exists a greater decorum and gravitas reciprocated between fans and players in the Mediterranean state, and replicated across mainland Europe, in comparison with the callous condemnation shared as rhetoric amongst such a wide audience in the U.K., and from the youngest age professional players can be rendered victims of the self-righteous jurisdiction of unsympathetic semantics. Thus, it proves increasingly challenging to quantify the contexts and parameters of achievement in modern football, given such considerable social divides.
Perhaps an education at La Masia, exalted in the monikers that preceded, further removed this impending affliction for the young Iniesta. Though far from an ethnic, nor indigenous, Catalonian by birth, the playmaker – recruited aged 12, considered old perhaps for a youth ranks addition, after impressing at home county side Albacete – has certainly been embraced as a repatriated local in the furiously patriotic Barça lineage. Arriving, naturally, as somewhat of an outsider to the Catalonia-focused establishment, the Fuentealbilla-raised teen had grown up in semi-rural, arid Castilla-La Mancha; though the nation’s third largest geographical province, not a respected centre for sporting exploits and rather poetically notable Don Quixote country. This factor aside, a childhood based just under 200km closer to the Santiago Bernabéu than the Camp Nou would alone not have immediately distinguished himself for Catalonian endearment.
At the time, however, there was a stark disconnect from the Los Blancos sides of today, and of the 1970s; big spending, but underperforming, Real were suffering their longest league title drought since the early ‘80s. This was Barca’s era, under the guidance of the ever-exalted Johan Cruyff, during which they had capitalised, quite aptly, with the employment of an evolutionary approach that continues to feature heavily today. The emergence of the first generation of La Masia de can Planes graduates, a decade on from club president Josep Lluís Núñez’s purchase of the early 18th century farmhouse as a residence for the teens enrolled on the boarding programme, in a certain Josep Guardiola, Albert Ferrer and Guillermo Amor, alongside the recruitment of international luminaries Hristo Stoichkov, Ronaldo Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Romário, struck a healthy institutional balance that moulds the sport today. For a typically introverted rural 12-year-old, who by his own admission “cried rivers” upon leaving home to pursue what he, nor his parents, could have scarcely conceived as a professional career that continues to burn 20 years hence, arriving from Albacete partly by the favour instilled by his parents’ friendship with former journeyman manager and Barça youth coach Enrique Orizaola, there is certainly well-founded reason for Iniesta to have kowtowed to pressure.
Fortunate, also, to have entered a generation unburdened of the expectation of Guardiola’s, and schooled in the global demands of competition that would unfold amongst his future, Iniesta and the likes would only assert the formative pedigree of the Barça establishment. Touring the continent’s diversifying range of youth tournaments from Scandinavia – where such summits began in the 1970s with the Norway Cup and Gothia Cup – to the likes of Northern Ireland’s Milk Cup and the annually-reverted base of the Nike Premier Cup (now the Manchester United Premier Cup, and by all accounts disbanded after 2015’s edition), Iniesta and the likes, in the fulfilment of Lluís Núñez’s vision for a world-leading academy, extended the fate of a dynasty over many future rivals.
It is certainly rare that both team and player can render the sport so mathematically brutal, yet flourish with artistic subtlety within the constraints of elite-level tactics on such a consistent basis. At the earliest age as a Blaugrana, and only further refined as an innate feature of his actuality as a balding 33-year-old, was the internalisation of what were later popularised as ‘tiki-taka’ values; what he himself recounted as the “receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer” philosophy. Immersed in this institution, it is surely evident that each graduate, and enrolee at that, is as much a product of the infrastructure that stands around them as they are a player of their own innovation, and that this has been the foremost influence of academies formed in the La Masia mould.
This distinction, and interlaced development, presents the motive for those positioned externally to condemn the subsequent senior careers as suffering from an irreversible false footballing conditioning. Arrogant, perhaps, to believe they can alone forge great players, and amorally pre-empted in the tendency of directors to prioritise commercial value above human self-actualisation, clubs aiming to rival the Catalan behemoth have conceded all sense of reality in order to achieve even partial competitive supremacy. Whether this, as a prominent feature of the financial intensification of the sport, has invited a more acute character of slander from the accompanying media is arguable, but it has at the very least widened the debate of the sport’s ethics in the exploitation of youth engagement for commercial means. Perhaps, while not at first anticipated, it is what those immersed in the process gradually embrace, or at least undertake, from their career and life; permanently fixated under the invasive scope of a turbulent and demanding consumer market, while only performing to the extent of their physical and mental ability. This is an imposition that few at the Camp Nou have belied – marking a great testament to their development.
When recruited by Barça, regardless of one’s metaphorical status as a Catalan remnant or recruit from any external region of the Spanish expanse – other than the similarly culturally autonomous Basque (Athletic Bilbao) or Madrilenian (Real, Atléti) provinces – there is an inevitable heritage that precedes any achievement reached. A lineage that is perhaps unrivalled in the entire footballing stratosphere; certainly, for its consistency in the 21st century, where others in Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus have wavered in a commodity of subtexts. In the romanticised distortion that the sport now exists as, this itself presents enough concerns for the average Barça inductee. Strength in unity, as an adage, aside, the near-100,000-strong Camp Nou population, and even broader ownership collective that defines all of those bred into the Catalan capital’s lineage, to an extent relieves this burden, but one equally must fear the ramifications of scorning this entrenched audience; Més que un club, they avow, after all.
Although able, to an extent, to dictate the direction of this relationship under the guidance of renowned youth-inclined helmsman Louis van Gaal, Real Madrid convert captain Luis Enrique and the ilk of gilded Dutchmen Patrick Kluivert, Frank de Boer and Philipp Cocu, Iniesta graduated from the frying pan, so to speak, only to enter the fire of the 2002-03 season. Preceded by an entire five seasons by Xavi Hernández and four by Carles Puyol, and promoted alongside Víctor Valdés – at the time only a third-choice goalkeeper, following Pepe Reina’s conspicuous jettison – the midfielder was ushered in stage left amidst the melodrama of Joan Gaspart’s presidency; Rivaldo exiting, after both Jari Litmanen and Pep Guardiola had contracts terminated through administrative discord the previous season. Compounding the multitude of errors, however, of a figure previously respected within the club while Lluís Núñez’s vice-president (once reported to have been instrumental in Ronaldo’s signature for the club, while disguised as a waiter in entering the tightly-sealed vault of the Brazilian’s hotel room in a protracted move from the reluctant PSV), was the unflinching distaste settled during Luis Figo’s €60 million departure to Real in the very first act of Gaspart’s chagrin-inducing premiership. Replacing the mercurial Portuguese with Arsenal duo Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, Real Betis and former Real Madrid forward Alfonso and the re-purchase of former youth product Gerard, for a cumulative €92.5 million, the tempestuous fumigations amounted by the loss of a generation-defining talisman proved insurmountable, and undisputedly dampened the careers of the aforementioned recruits; effectively rendering each incapacitated to future employers as Overmars ground to eventual retirement with 19 goals from 141 matches in all competitions, World Cup winner Petit fizzled out in just one torrid season, Alfonso would return a shadow of his former self to Betis after producing two league goals in the 2000-01 season and Gerard, though present during the formative stages of Iniesta’s senior career, rendered an excluded figure by injuries and departing for dislocated spells at Monaco, Recreativo and Girona in 2005.
Fortunately, Gaspart was swiftly outvoted in February 2003, while van Gaal ousted just a fortnight prior following consecutive defeats to Valencia and Celta Vigo – both of whom, alongside Deportivo la Coruna and Real Sociedad, would separate champions Real from their eternal rivals in eventual league standings. A season for Iniesta, albeit one in which only nine appearances were made, that may have derailed any prodigious career while an entire squad’s reputation was besmirched was ultimately navigated without what may have proved to be the exodus of a gifted generation for the Camp Nou hierarchy. The recovery would be by no means immediate, however.
Frank Rijkaard, in close partnership with newly-elected, smooth-talking and unapologetically revolutionary president Joan Laporta, would be supported, and perhaps relieved of many egotistical demands befitting of such a vast presence on the global club landscape, by those above throughout a trying formative few months, especially while placed mid-table at the turn of 2004. While Laporta – an unlikely candidate in the June 2003 elections, yet ultimately successful in rousing sufficient support on the promise to deliver David Beckham to the raving Barcelonistas – invited an irreparable schism within administrative frameworks when *only* persuading Ronaldinho to arrive as his prestigious creative centrepiece, but also when admitting the early stutters suffered by the side, when rocked by allegations of tyranny in subverting the club to promote a personal pro-Catalan independence political stance and when suffering the ignominy of brother-in-law Alejandro Echevarría’s enforced resignation from a position as a security director after revelations of Francisco Franco Federation membership, the modest and composed Rijkaard established the foundations of an outstanding, yet only seminal, outfit.
Carved from Ronaldinho’s charismatic opulence, the prompt seniority of the band of La Masia alumni, a sage transfer policy that cleansed the dun of expired titles for the natural progression of those impressing with mid-ranking continental clubs including Deco and Samuel Eto’o, and the small matter of a certain 16-year-old Argentine forward’s senior evolution in the 2004-05 season, consecutive league titles were soon sealed under Rijkaard’s positive and fluid 4-3-3 ideology. A crowning achievement, regardless, was found in their unbeaten run in the 2005-06 Champions League; only conceding five goals on their contrasting route to the historically poignant trophy, while emphasising their position after disposing of a low-quality group to narrowly oust Chelsea, Benfica, AC Milan and finally Arsenal. For Iniesta, however, this could have been partly dampened by his benching in the Stade de France-hosted final alongside Xavi; Edmílson preferred, alongside Mark van Bommel and Deco, in a deep-lying and disruptive midfield bloc intended to hinder the offensive talents of Messrs Pires, Hleb, Fàbregas and Ljungberg. Had it not been for his pivotal influence, of course, in replacing the Brazilian defensive midfielder at half-time, when positioned unfavourably 1-0 down to the ten-man Gunners, who had lost Jens Lehmann and sacrificed Pires for Manuel Almunia only 18 minutes in. Sol Campbell’s 37th minute headed finish forced Rijkaard’s hand, and although Barca – in their first final since 1994 – were restricted by the entrenchment of Arsène Wenger’s side, the swift double salvo of Eto’o – later argued to be offside as Iniesta effortlessly drove a ball forward for fellow substitute Henrik Larsson’s poked assist – and Brazilian defender Juliano Belletti, from another Larsson set-up, sealed the Catalans’ completion of a truly “happy return”.
In future final appearances – 2009, 2011 and 2015 – Iniesta yet again proved instrumental. Joined by Sergio Busquets, who at the age of 20 had been promoted to first-team action at the start of the 2008-09 season, the newly re-signed Gerard Piqué and the likes of Pedro, Bojan and 17-year-old Marc Muniesa in the former example, Thiago in the second and both Rafinha and Marc Bartra in the latter, although the halcyon days of La Masia production had retreated over this half-decade, and a policy to refrain from shirt sponsorship eroded, the sentiment of an expanding global club brand remained.
While, as aptly encapsulated by those mentioned in this calibre – Piqué and Busquets aside – the majority of modern players are expected to reinvent themselves at varying stages of their careers, particularly for managers for whom self-preservation is the increasing qualm, Iniesta has proven the emphatic anomaly to this rule; steadfast over various regimes, an erudite weapon in the armoury of each manager even since his younger days, and nigh-on indistinguishable in his innate mastery of various roles. His irrepressible force knows no bounds, and even in comparison with the otherwise infallible Puyol, Xavi and Valdés – retiring at the age of 36, pursuing Barca’s sponsorship at the time from the Qatar Foundation to exploit Qatari funds in a career twilight and besmirching his name in torrid tenures at Manchester United and quizzically Middlesbrough – is so evidently ageless and irreplaceable.
This said, under Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque – discernibly pragmatic helmsmen and only minor international figures in their playing days, in contrast with Rijkaard and Guardiola – the diminutive Castilian was encouraged to expand his skillset to truly reign an unparalleled champion. Much akin to the Raumdeuter Thomas Müller’s role four years hence, and potentially Neymar’s talismanic aspirations this summer, it is arguably Iniesta’s presence that underlined any Spanish success in the 2010 World Cup, while rivals fell by the wayside. That was, after all, a tournament in which he was only matched in playmaking ability by the once-mercurial Dutchman Wesley Sneijder, and yet, in a final if not for them utterly unglamorous, their qualities drew a stalemate prior only to a wondrous 116th minute effort of incisive composure. While perhaps not as indicative of La Rioja’s triumph at Euro 2012 or indeed 2008, where Cesc Fàbregas and the in-form trio of Xavi, David Villa and Fernando Torres, respectively, starred, and his task differed in either final – maintaining Phillip Lahm’s burden in 2008, before placement on the left of an attacking trio against the defensively culpable Ignazio Abate and Claudio Marchisio in Kyiv freed him – he still took the credit of the 2012 Player of the Tournament Award, not to mention winner’s medals at both events.
While questioned through his nation’s failures – beginning in earnest with the calamitous 3-0 defeat at the 2013 Confederations Cup Final – at consecutive tournaments in Brazil and France, the archetypal Catholic maintained his faith. A period aligned with the dissolution of a Barça institution – Guardiola resigning, Tito Vilanova, just nine months on from being forced to resign from the managerial role, tragically passing away from a cancer relapse in April 2014 and new president Josep Maria Bartomeu ushering in an ethos reliant on the turnover of managerial staff, from director of football Andoni Zubizarreta to the perhaps unfortunate Gerardo Martino – it was a severe test to Iniesta’s, and fellow alien La Masia inductee Messi’s, solidarity. Undaunted by reform, Bartomeu enacted the arguably anti-Més que MSN era and the revamp of a side to confront Real’s modern Galácticos, while fixating still around his celestial homegrown assets. With Bartomeu set to serve until 2021, be it not for what now seems an unlikely prosecution for involvement in the unlawful transactions over Neymar in 2013, the midfielder’s remaining years may prove merciful to the political panderings necessitated by an elective presidency.
The entirety of this foreseeable future may not be served under an orchestrator of unlikely rekindling in Ernesto Valverde, granted, yet the reinvention posed amidst the Extremadura native’s first season – while firing Barça to an all-but assured La Liga title and potential Champions League victory – has surely demonstrated that further reform, upsetting the status quo, is welcome under the present regime. For all of the conservative support that Bartomeu retains, this requirement is at least respected in the demands of the ever-changing modern sporting environment. As a burden, however, it is certainly eased by the eternal tactical versatility of the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper’s youth graduates – those, rather than at La Masia, now reared at the main training complex – who will continue to flourish under the increasingly senior presence of Iniesta and Messi.
Nostalgia at this juncture, however, need not be apparent. Indeed, may we long herald the wondrous omnipotence of these few remnants of Cruyff’s youth policy, and witness their talents consume the decorum of silverware in coming seasons. On the occasion of a tradesman’s retirement, whether enforced or elective, with honours or in relative destitution, plaudits must not be refined to the individual itself involved, and particularly in an industry as ideologically dictated as sport. As much a product of the evolving Barcelona apparatus and the intentions of gilded minds Cruyff, Rijkaard, Guardiola, Enrique and now Valverde, Iniesta can never truly be respected as the lone individual many attempt to render him. The cyclical nature of the environment dictates individuals in his ilk will again rise, and equally as responsible for this will be the facilities invested, preceding visions of relevant figures and demands of coaches entrusted with such influential financial hosts.
We may never see an Iniesta again by name, but by nature the repetition is, due to this amplified culture of socialisation, inevitable. Whether that benefits the sport itself is a fine debate for another time, but for a midfielder decorated with global, continental and domestic titles, and more pivotally fulfilled in a stable private life, the doubts are few. Nobody, however, has quite the philosophical approach to the sport of Iniesta. His adaptation to the evolving demands of the sport, primarily psychological, has been assured, yet for others it will be truly unlikely. Such, perhaps, will be the lasting legacy of a unique career; one to admire, certainly, but one to also take heed from in a world in which industry can obscure reality. Never must we take its message in vain.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!