Because life is so elusive, we’re busy living it instead of appreciating it. So the various honoraria, lifetime achievement awards, belated prizes and the like, are really an acknowledgement not as much that we screwed up as that we often don’t have personal la pausa.
Accolades are raining from the heavens for the performance of Andres Iniesta at this current edition of the Euros. And to be sure, he has been magnificent, which would lead longtime culers to answer, sharply enough, “Where have you all been?”
Like awards that come too late, that miss a player or entertainer’s prime period, often periods of acclaim are attended by a bit of guilt that we didn’t see this before, that how could we not have when it’s so abundantly plain. But it isn’t.
Messi is a superstar, a comet that streaks across the Stygian skies but doesn’t really want to be seen. Iniesta doesn’t mind being seen, but the way in which he works is like a moon compared to a comet — he’s just there, doing what he does.
The oft-cited quote from Pep Guardiola about Iniesta while speaking to Xavi, that “he will retire us both,” was prescient, obvious and in the 20/20 hindsight of the present, worth a look.
One of my favorite football voices, Michael Cox, said today that Iniesta plays better for Spain than Barça. He took some stick, because that is how Twitter operates. Say something people disagree with and you’re stupid, etc. But few took the time to unpack that statement, which is correct in the Iniesta context as well as the needs of each team.
Many of us call Iniesta “modified Xavi.” It’s true, even as he is something more because he possesses gifts that Xavi never had. Xavi controlled a match with metronomic precision, using the pass to rule the world. He knew what was about to happen and where the ball needed to be. All the player had to do was move to the correct spot. As Xavi diminished and became a bit more controllable through physical pressure and jumping passing lanes, the template needed to adapt. This is where Iniesta enters the frame.
Luis Enrique assumed the helm at Barça, and the system changed. The talk of Iniesta being past it accelerated. What we know now is that a great player was adapting to the demands of a different system, becoming better through change. Luis Enrique made Iniesta a better player, and Spain is also reaping the benefits, just as it did when Guardiola helped make Xavi sparkle.
People have adapted in how they play Spain and Barça. So the metronomic precision of a Xavi now needs something different, a player who, as Miguel Delaney puts it in this lovely paean, is mercury rolling. Defenders have him. They know they have him. He’s pinned against the sideline with the ball, and there are two men there. Then something happens, and Iniesta is scampering away with the ball. It is a completely destabilizing thing because not only are two defenders out of position, but the most dangerous player on the pitch with the ball at his feet now has time to do the right thing.
There have been misguided comparisons to Zidane in this renaissance of Iniesta appreciation. What is correct of both, however, is that their ball control allowed them to extend time, to focus on the moment because the thing that normal players have to worry about just happens naturally for them. Iniesta slides or spins to avert a defender, and the ball is right there. Logically a defender should be able to get at it, but he can’t. Sometimes they just kick Iniesta. Who wouldn’t? Xavi stood there with the ball at his feet, surveying his world. Iniesta slides, glides and jiggles, still influencing but in a very different way, one closer to Messi than Xavi in reality.
But Iniesta is “better” for Spain than Barça because his roles are very different, even as both are perfect adaptations of the modified Xavi. For Spain, he is closer to Xavi, dictating play for a faster, more open Spain, an engine that runs like its pilot. It is a very specific need for a team that found its fullest flower playing a certain way but now has to change as opponents have shifted to meet the challenge that it presents.
This is also true of Barça. The difference is that the Catalans have an MSN, so Iniesta’s role is augmentative rather than a driver of play. He can kill with the same incisive kind of pass, but he plays with the three best attackers in the game which of necessity changes his role. The Spain Iniesta is indeed the “best” version because it is pure. You can bet your house that Xavi watches Spain play from behind a massive grin, because the Maestro understands how Spain and its midfield needed to adapt, and Iniesta is the perfect player to take the team to that next phase.
Barça Iniesta is, however, no less lustrous. The difference is that he is sitting deeper. He will work some magic to get loose and then feed Neymar, who will do what Iniesta used to do when he was playing off Xavi. His more advanced role for Spain means that players such as Morata and Nolito are direct beneficiaries of his capricious largesse. In many ways, the less exceptional the attackers, the more sublime Iniesta becomes. He is a player who, like mercury, adapts to his surroundings, always flowing but at the same time, going pretty much where he likes.
Iniesta should be as famous as Messi. Like the Argentine, and like the Catalan he succeeds in running the Spanish midfield, he is a once-in-a-lifetime player. And dependent upon your view of divinity and its role in crafting hunks of mortal flesh, it’s easy to imagine some deity making Iniesta, smiling and shattering the mold. The truest beauty of Iniesta is that he is whatever the world needs him to be. He’s calm, kind, goofy and unassuming, a superstar who always places the team first and foremost. His game sparkles, but not in a way that will bring him the kinds of accolades that others get. This would be true even if he could score goals, because he isn’t that kind of player. He will score and then look for a teammate to hug, because that is Iniesta, an essential player who values the team so much that it becomes everything to him.
At the most massive moments, after the most massive goals, he never seems to know what to do, almost as if he himself hasn’t come to grips with what he is. The Chelsea goal, he just ran and ran until affection overtook him, until he found a home in front of the Barça away supporters. Everything for you. The World Cup goal and again, he just ran, hopping up and down like the nerdy kid who is unaccustomed to celebrating big moments.
He’s frustrating because he always says the right thing, always does the right thing. His smile is modest, almost shy. He talks of winning awards and wanting to split it into eleven pieces. We don’t have a clue how a footballer might be in real life, but with Iniesta, it’s easy to imagine, to be assured that he is the same way. His mien is essential to shaping the player that he is. He heard about a family with a sick child, struggling to pay expenses and sent them a pair of his boots for auction. He helped his boyhood club. He’s selfless, and it’s that quality that contributes to making him Iniesta instead of, say, Banega.
It’s lovely that everyone is appreciating Iniesta. It’s also a safe bet that he thinks it’s lovely, but will tell you that there are other players who everyone should be paying attention to. Because that’s Iniesta. He’s a player who melted hearts and bitterness with a hand-scrawled tribute to a late player for Barça’s bitter crosstown rival — just because they were friends. Did Iniesta know that he would score the goal that would allow him fullest flower of that gesture? Unlikely, which makes the moment almost indescribably beautiful, that he was content to just play the match with that hand-written base layer close to his heart, playing in memory of a man that he loved. Completely, utterly selfless, something that, even with all of the flicks, spins, tricks and bits of magic, is the most wonderful thing about the man we call Don Andres.