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.”
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.