Listen to the Silence

I’ve only ever seen the aurora borealis once, on a trip to North Dakota where I lay on a hill in the middle of the prairie and watched the light play out across the sky. Defining auroras is useful and I like to think that I understand the interactions between solar winds, magnetospheric plasma, and thermospheric constituents because I like to think of the world as immanently explainable, if only we have the vocabulary and the patience. That explainable phenomenon are still beautiful is not a contradiction in terms. I dare you to watch the International Space Station’s passes over the Indian Ocean and not be staggered by how freaking cool the whole thing is. Maybe magic isn’t just a thing that happens in fantasy novels; if you go far enough north, maybe Santa Claus is real too.

There’s a ghostly quality about auroras that makes you feel like you’re witnessing a secret of the universe. I sometimes feel like that when I watch Andres Iniesta play football.

Like auroras, there’s no true lack of understanding about Iniesta, yet he still turns opponents into startled spectators as he floats by. Iniesta never runs or walks or does anything else remotely human-like in terms of bipedal motion. Instead, he glides around like the flaring of the aurora as it sweeps gently up and over your head and out of sight beyond the horizon. You notice him in bursts, available to receive a pass, side-stepping a challenge, and then he’s gone again.

Iniesta’s career has been an arc of brilliance, each moment overshadowing the prior one, but you would never guess it just looking at him. Even Leo Messi has the hallmarks of a guy who works constantly to perfect himself as a athletic vision: thigh muscles bulging, biceps flexed, a spandex top under his jersey that conforms to every contour of his chest. Iniesta, on the other hand, looks like the guy at the gym you think is aging pretty well. His skin is so luminescent, almost sickly pale, that the Catalan variety show Crackovia nicknamed him El Gusiluz after the phosphorescent worm toy popular in Spain. His hair has been receded to the point where he might call Arjen Robben to find out how the Dutchman keeps such a luxurious mane. And yet, here’s a guy who in the World Cup final ran farther than any other player save his teammate and midfield partner-in-crime Xavi.

Did I mention that he played in a World Cup final? You know that career arc I mentioned? It never seems to stop going up, less an arc than a exponential equation graphed out on a life. When he was 15, he scored a last-gasp winner in a youth tournament and Pep Guardiola, then the most respected and revered of Barcelona’s players, said to Xavi, a budding legend in his own right, that Iniesta would retire them all. Instead of directly expelling them from the team, however, he formed a partnership first with Xavi and then with Guardiola when the latter returned to coach the team. He was the first player substituted on in the 2006 Champions League final with the team down 0-1 to Arsenal. He provided the long, incisive pass to Henrick Larsson to set up the tying goal in an eventual Barcelona victory, the team’s first European title in 14 years. He was 22 years old.

A quick list of Andres Iniesta’s accomplishments in finals for Barcelona:

  • 2009 Champions League Final: Started and assisted Samuel Eto’o’s opener against Manchester United;
  • 2011 Champions League Final: Started and provided the assist for Lionel Messi’s goal and the team’s second;
  • 2012 Copa del Rey final: Started and assisted in Messi’s goal and the teams second;
  • 2015 Champions League Final: Started and neatly slid the ball to Ivan Rakitic for the opener; he was named Man of the Match.

Despite this rather incredible series of performances, for Barça fans, his most oft mentioned goal is the last-gasp equalizer at Stamford Bridge in 2009. It even has it’s own moniker: the Iniestazo. Just thinking about that goal makes most blaugrana fans gleefully punch the air while shouting “Iniesta de mi vida!” Mention the goal in a room full of them and they’ll immediately begin reminiscing about where they were that night. There are probably a few tattoos of the moment at every home game.

That career arc seemed to have come to a pinnacle in Johannesburg, a pass from Cesc Fabregas popping up into the air and bouncing once. Iniesta described that moment as one of the longest of his life. “It’s difficult,” he said, “to listen to the silence.” It was, of course, the 2010 World Cup Final and Iniesta ghosted into the penalty area, timed his shot perfectly, and absolutely hammered a shot past Holland’s Mark Stecklenburg, the foot of Rafael van der Vaart arriving just too late to make a block.

Does Rafael van der Vaart stand in the shower and imagine himself stretching just a little further, getting a toe on Iniesta’s shot and sending it looping over the bar? Holland goes on to win the World Cup on penalties. Maybe Rafa, there in the shower, lets himself score the winning spot kick. It wouldn’t surprise me if Iniesta takes showers and imagines the perfect side salad. Four precisely placed croutons garnished with just the thinnest slices of Parmesan you’ll ever see. They’re truffle thin.

“Hurry up,” his wife says through the bathroom door. “I made you a side salad with four croutons and thin slices of Parmesan using our truffle slicer.” Because Andres Iniesta always wins. It’s not that success just happens to him because it takes hard work and dedication to be one of the best at anything, but his success seems to be an offshoot of his personality, not a creator of it. In describing the silence of that moment before he won the World Cup, Iniesta said, “It’s difficult to listen to the silence, but in that moment I listened to the silence and I knew that the ball was going in.”

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When you look up at the sky and you see the waves of auroral green above, there is no sound. It is a slow, silent experience best captured through time-lapse videos, maybe backed by a comforting soundtrack. The silence Iniesta heard, contemplated, and then conquered is the aurora in his soul, flaring briefly at moments, always silent, but always gorgeous. His magic is that he understands that silence and revels in it. Lionel Messi is a 747 landing on top of your head, all noise and brilliant engineering; Iniesta is the quiet, undefinable brilliance you find in the darkness. He is the backheel that set up his own goal in Johannesburg and he is, for many, the shirt he revealed moments after scoring: Dani Jarque, siempre con nosotros.

A former teammate and friend in Spain’s youth setup, Jarque died of an off-the-field heart attack during Espanyol’s preseason preparations in the summer of 2009, just a year before the World Cup. The thing about Andres Iniesta is that of course he wears shirt—handmade, inked with his his own hands—memorializing his friends, even when they played for bitter crosstown rivals. Of course he gives the shoes he scored at Stamford Bridge with to a charity auction. The 2009-10 season was, for Iniesta, an extremely tough time. He lost a dear friend and suffered a series of injuries that left him emotionally and physically devastated. Yet it seems only natural that he would recover in time to lead his national team to its first World Cup trophy. You accept these things about Iniesta because he seems childishly amazed by his own successes and concretely aware of the darkness surrounding his own brilliance.

When he first moved to Barcelona to pursue his footballing ambitions at La Masia, the 12-year old Iniesta cried constantly, homesick for his small town in Albacete. Overcoming that childhood fear, that loneliness, possibly made him stronger. Or maybe he was just built to withstand the lows, of which there have been plenty. Dani Jarque, manager Tito Vilanova, and the child he and his wife lost in 2014 cannot be easily dismissed, even through turning up to practice early and leaving late. You cannot tear your own body apart hoping to find a new version of yourself inside, but Iniesta has dedicated himself to an immense number of projects to build himself up again. If there are five stages of grief, for him stages 3 through infinity are Win All the Trophies.

However much other players dominate the headlines—Messi scores another hat trick! Pique and Shakira vacation in paradise!—Iniesta seems to exist almost on the periphery of this despite his fame, marketability, and personality. He is not controversial in any way, though in an interview with Michael Robinson for the latter’s Canal+ show Informe Robinson, he claims that he is capable of anger; of course he says it laughing, sheepishly. When asked if he gets annoyed when people think of the Barça players as perfect, he shrugged and said it’s preferable that way than the opposite. He dresses casually, like someone who is comfortable in his own skin. He looks as comfortable in a blazer and button up in the banner for his family’s vineyard as he does on the football field.

That he has a vineyard should hardly be surprising at this point. The wines get pretty good reviews, naturally, and there’s a room there listed on Airbnb. In the promotional pictures for the vineyard, he’s strolling awkwardly through the vines or staring at budding grapes, even laying on the ground with some bottles looking like he’d rather be virtually anywhere else. For instance, maybe hanging out with a bear. Or being a pirate. Or eating that side salad with a small, crooked smile on his face while his family incredulously stares at endless loops of his latest mesmerizing moves.

You can watch Iniesta for years and only see the greens, never the reds, but he is a goalscorer too. He is a throughball and calm putaway against Madrid, he is a long-range cannon blast against Valencia, he is the lack of space given but taken anyway. But mostly he is here and then he is gone. He is here and then you are staring at the dark night sky, his lights turned down and all you have left is a fleeting memory that what you saw was more beautiful than your words can describe, no matter how much you add to your vocabulary. Only that’s another thing, behind the aurora isn’t just darkness, there’s the entirety of space and maybe that’s what watching Iniesta feels like: possibility, if only we could listen to the silence.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

30 Comments

  1. raj
    July 27, 2015

    Beautiful.
    Thank you!

  2. Lord Eddard Stark, a.k.a. BrichimbrodvÖken, the Vulnerable One!
    July 27, 2015

    .

    *Gasps* at the website’s new template!

  3. chang
    July 27, 2015

    Beautiful post, Medium-like design (and mobile optimized too!)

  4. Kd
    July 27, 2015

    Wow!!
    The website looks gorgeous!! Love it..
    Sorry haven’t read the post yet.

  5. Kd
    July 27, 2015

    What an article!! Wow… That Iniestazo, I will never forget. Maybe one day ill write an article about what I felt. Thank you Isaiah.

  6. phunky
    July 28, 2015

    Mods- All the links are preceded by a homeimprovement.com URL, check that out.

    Great new interface.

  7. Inamess
    July 28, 2015

    Nice article Isaiah. Honestly, not at all a fan of the new format as is mainly because it will marginalize comments and interaction of the commentators but it might put more emphasis on the writings and make this more a readers blog. That could be a good thing too.

    • July 28, 2015

      Why would.it marginalize comments? Same function, same commenting procedure, as demonstrated here.

    • Inamess
      July 28, 2015

      Just a prediction. If text and gaps between lines are too big it makes navigation difficult. At least on my computer, I can see about one or two paragraphs a page, so comments are harder to find and see in relation to other comments unless they are super-short. Maybe I’m lazy, but I don’t like scrolling a lot while I’m reading. Could be better on other devices though.

  8. Benj
    July 28, 2015

    Loving the new format, so does my phone. Amazing piece about an amazing player.
    That WC final i remember being at the Crown Casino, Perth WA, with most of the spanish community of west australia, going absolutely mental, like Istanbul 05 mental!
    A couple of durch guys had spent most of the night slagging us off and choosing to place themselves right amongst us, away from the main dutch contingent. They very much regretted it as soon as the ball left Ini’s boot. What a magician.

  9. Tardigrater
    July 28, 2015

    Awesome post like always. You get closer than you think with words but you always wonder if you can ever really get there. This is what Messi is to me. I used to think there was words to describe for him, I thought there HAD to be. How can thousands of years of language not be able to pinpoint what he is?! But they can’t, he is the definition of indescribable.

  10. July 28, 2015

    Excellent.
    Isaiah, the very first photograph on this page, did you take that one, what was the shutter speed, please.
    I have just one request though, all looks nice. On the home page, together with the post’s caption, would it be possible to show the no. of comments too, for that post. It would be easy to know if there are any new comments on the post.. I would not like to miss any comments here…

  11. Dar_vincy
    July 28, 2015

    Kudos, guys.
    Though the previous interface was equally appealing in its simplicity, a move to rejig it nonetheless is a welcome development.

  12. stefan2k
    July 28, 2015

    Amazing … had goosebumps while reading 🙂

  13. Dar_vincy
    July 28, 2015

    It’s quite disconcerting that Iniesta’s talent hasn’t be sufficiently indemnified with the appropriate acknowledgement- accolades and encomiums- it deserves. This i surmise can be attributed to the meagre end-product he delivers seasonally. A situation further exacerbated by our statistics driven soccer-sphere. Like Xavi, their goal plus assist stat doesn’t tell the whole story regarding their game nor does it define their talent. By and large, Iniesta will always be a lovecraftian ghost-face whose magic would have been adjudged and adequately lauded on a different baseline.

  14. mr.undercover
    July 28, 2015

    Enter Your Comment… the blog is modernized I do realy likes the new templates, its suitable on phones too.

    Great effort isaiah. The post was amazing especially the 1st paragraph, seems like a poem, you would be a great poet.

    Iniesta’s moments of magic are extraodinary because it always comes when the team needs it the most, one of his magical moments was the solo run vs psg it embues me with an immesurable happiness,
    Much less of the iniestazo in stamford bridge (matchless feelings)

  15. mr.undercover
    July 28, 2015

    Enter Your Comment… the blog is modernized I do realy likes the new templates, its suitable on phones too.

    Great effort isaiah. The post was amazing especially the 1st paragraph, seems like a poem, you would be a great poet.

    Iniesta’s moments of magic are extraodinary because it always comes when the team needs it the most, one of his magical moments was the solo run vs psg it embued me with an immesurable happiness,
    Much less of the iniestazo in stamford bridge (matchless feelings)

  16. Ron
    July 28, 2015

    Long time lurker here, following many of these writers since the pep blog days over on the offside! Just wanted to voice my opinions on a few things:

    First off, the new format for the blog is breathtaking! The comments section though seems a bit compressed as compared to how it was before with the usernames taking too much space.(eg. check Lord Eddard Stark’s comment his comment seems misaligned because of the long username), And I think I get where inamess is coming from with the “comments being marginalized” part, though as a whole, the whole blog looks exceptional.

    Also I’d like to thank the author for the article, Iniesta was, and still is my favourite player for Barca, and imo, the perfect role-model for how a footballer should behave both on and off the field, and for me sums up our “Mes que un club” philosophy. The way he dribbles in such tight spaces gives me the same reaction as when Ronaldinho pulled off his “elasticos” or when Messi drops his shoulder and dribbles past five defenders . No goal i have ever watched has given me that same feeling as that Iniestazo in the Bridge. (I still get shivers down my spine if i watch that goal! :P) The mark of an exceptional footballer for me is how he performs when his team needs him the most and few can have the same CV as our ghostface!

    We have been truly blessed to have three of the four most talented players in the past decade in world football playing for our club for the amazing price of free!

  17. Jafri
    July 28, 2015

    I’d like to see the number of comments displayed on the article summary on the home page like it used to be, because I visit the website a few times a day and would prefer not to open the article and scroll down to see if any new contribution has been made.

    • Jim
      July 28, 2015

      Yeah, that would be useful for addicts like myself.

    • Jim
      July 28, 2015

      Another thought. ( from experience it’s always the same with websites. You make a great improvement and immediately everybody gives you a wish list of new features they’d like ! )

      I think we talked about this before. Is there any way / would it even be a good idea to allow posters to edit a post within a short timeframe ( say ten minutes?). Might find that harsh words said in haste would be rethought and removed. I know in the old format when I’d posted something I thought some might not agree with ( hardly ever, I know ) I always waited till it appeared in the site and somehow that tempered my feelings by reading it cold and I would have changed the odd word if I could. Just a thought.

  18. mr.undercover
    July 28, 2015

    Enter Your Comment…yes good idea ! I hope isaiah is working on it

  19. G6O
    July 28, 2015

    Seems like most people like the new format, I don’t.

    The old format looked like a Barca blog and was intuitive to read. This one looks like a just another random blog put together in 5 minutes, plus a lot of space is wasted, and the comment section is a nightmare to navigate.

    I’ll keep reading, but it’s not going to be as good an experience as it used to.

    P.S.. If this was done because of phones, then it’s jjust more evidence that mobile phone are ruining the internet – website after website have destroyed themselves trying to cater to phones. People reading stuff on phones is not the audience one wants to attract.

    • Jim
      July 28, 2015

      Don’t get an oldie like me started on youngsters and their phones !

      However, Imo, it was probably about time for a revamp. I know what people mean about the formatting ( really mainly in landscape on an iPad) but if we can restore the number of comments to near the article title I reckon we’ll get used to it. Looks good on a phone and portrait tablet . Hope Im not coming across as moaning.

  20. BA
    July 28, 2015

    excellent post, excellent new format.

  21. dl
    July 28, 2015

    I liked the old format, and I also like this one, so it’s a win-win.
    I agree with those who’d like to see the number of comments on the title page — I’m a heavy user of the blog and I like to see at a glance if there’s a new comment.

    And as regards mr. iniesta, he’s provided so many moments of joy over the years! A very remarkable talent and seems like a very decent person, too. We’re very lucky.

  22. hansh
    July 28, 2015

    What a beautiful article Isaiah! Iniesta has been my favorite player, for how he is both on and off the pitch, for as long as I’ve been a barça fan and it’s lovely to read this homage to him. Also, it’s interesting – all tributes to Iniesta naturally focus on the world cup goal, because how could they possibly not, but it’s also true that his career has been on an upward slope since then too. That wasn’t the pinnacle of everything that he’s achieved – except for how it so clearly is.

    (The new format isn’t ugly in any way but I miss some of the features of the old one. Conversations in comments were much easier to follow previously, and I also really liked the inclusion of the blog “motto” and the barcelona-themed banner in the old one. Ah well, I’m sure we’ll all get used to it!)

    • Happiness
      July 29, 2015

      This blog/site is always about the writing. So long as its excellent quality remains the format is almost irrelevant. I’m 50/50 about the new format. I sort of think it is not a great article-presenting format; rather it would be better for a lot of graphic content. I really don’t care about pictures here, just the articles. So…. don’t mean to be a downer, but I don’t see the need for the change. Wouldn’t mind seeing some logo and blaugrana colours as you develop the presentation.

      Regarding the article, greatly enjoyed the thankfulness for Iniesta. Unfortunately, none of the links worked for me. Don’t know why exactly. Since no one else mentioned this problem I imagine it is relatively unique to my computer. However, it is only here I have this problem of “ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED”. Odd.

  23. Cyclops
    July 29, 2015

    ******** ******** ******
    Just trying to check if this comments will be posted, my gadget seems to have gone nuts (- for anyone wondering ‘what the **** is the dude writing’)

  24. July 29, 2015

    Just a quick note, folks; we’re working on some of the bugs that we’ve noticed or have had pointed out since launching. I’m hoping it’s just a toggle to say how many comments there on a given article, but we’ll see what the theme we picked has to offer in that regard. We’ll be posting some more color on the page as we get our act together regarding graphics. We seem to have jumped the gun on that, and we apologize for not having that figured out before we launched.

    I’m glad most of you like the change; for those who don’t, we believe change was necessary partly for ourselves as writers and partly simply because it was about time–the old format and background had been up since 2009, I think. And for those of you who don’t like it, you’re in good company: my wife has suggested “just a couple” design changes that would basically make it a new theme…

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