Appreciating Andres Iniesta. Duh.

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.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

9 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    June 21, 2016

    Wow.

    I come to this space and see an article about my favorite player ever up – and it is close to perfect. Thanks a lot!

    I think – and you may have mentioned it before – that one thing Iniesta learned under Enrique was tough and decisive defending. He already was very good at getting the ball back from opponents under Guardiola, often leading the press, but during the last two years he has shown that extra will to not let players pass him with the ball, where he was a bit tentative before.

    The best Iniesta moments are the ones you describe – surrounded by two or three world-class players who mean to take the ball from him. And then he’s away from all of them STILL having the ball, and you can’t tell how he did it even after two replays, so how on earth should the players on the pitch be able to react to something like that in real-time?

    For me, Iniesta retiring will be as sad as the day Messi quits this game. He adds so much magic and elegance to the game, and all of that in a way so strongly in contrast to the ego-driven illusions of superstardom many (especially younger) players nowadays seem to have (I’m not sure of the exact context but Zlatan’s comment of meeting “superstars who behaved like schoolboys” at Barca would fit Iniesta like a glove).

  2. June 21, 2016

    2/3rds of Xavi, plus full of Zidane, plus 1/3rd of Messi is Iniesta for me. Such a graceful player and person too, it seems. Like Gerogjorge says, his retirement will be as sad a day as when Messi retire.

  3. Jim
    June 21, 2016

    Yeah, anyone who has ever played the game knows just how hard it is to do what he does. For me, we had possibly the two greatest midfielders ever playing for us in the same midfield, possibly epitomised by Rooney’s exasperated throwing up of arms in the CL final and SAF shaking his head.

    A couple of small points. I’ve often wondered if Xavi could have dribbled more. He certainly had very quick feet, unbelievable peripheral vision but you end up thinking that just wasn’t his game – as a Pep said the ball was gone before opponents got there.

    Secondly, and apologies for saying this again, I think the reason Iniesta sometimes looks like he’s doing more for Spain is because he feels he has to. To me, he is one of those supremely humble players who is happy to let others make the difference and take the glory – unless he has to step up. Played with one or two of those who stepped up a gear just when we needed them to but they maybe lacked the personality or ambition to do it if it wasn’t needed.

    Whatever, I reckon one day when he has retired we have a BFB outing to Bodega Iniesta to sample the wares and tell him just how much he has enriched all of our lives !

  4. Davour
    June 21, 2016

    Thanks for a very nice hommage to Europe’s best player. As I’ve said before, I was almost offended on behalf of the Don that he was not mentioned more often leading up to the Euros. It’s like people forget him due to his quiet way, not building a legacy by talk but by action. And what action! It’s interesting that Xavi seems less burdened, legacy-wise, by the Xaviniesta connection, probably due to his more commanding presence. Iniesta just is; one with the surroundings, like an element.

    Easily my favourite player ever, beside the likes of Laudrup (who brought me to Barca) and Messi (can’t escape him). Let’s hope he has at least another WC in him, too!

  5. Jim
    June 21, 2016

    And so it goes on. … Ramos, at no point in that Croatian move had the scorer, his man, in his sights. Awful defending. And this was after nearly causing another one early in the game with a stupid pass. I said before the tourney started that Spain would struggle to win it with him in the side and I see no reason to change my mind, sadly.

    • Davour
      June 21, 2016

      And should’ve scored at least one header and a penalty (though the keeper went awfully early and there should have been a second pen). De Gea blunder at second goal… Spain let this slip, became complacent and must now face Italy instead of a 3rd placed team. Shame.

  6. Jim
    June 21, 2016

    You have to say Croatia deserved that. Much more energy about them than Spain in the second half. I hate that energy conservation mode both Spain and Barca go into at times. You just know that it’ll hand momentum to the other side. Iniesta looked a little tired but still played his part while Cesc disappeared again after half time. That now leaves them in a worse spot playing Italy where they’ll not be able to make changes or conserve any energy. Silly.

    • Davour
      June 21, 2016

      And then probably Germany (and France possibly waiting in semis)… major obstacles made by this loss. Silly. Clumsy, really.

      If Portugal wins, CR is looking at another smooth road towards a final; Croatia and Belgium are no push-overs, though.

  7. Chiu
    June 21, 2016

    Great article about Iniesta! I agree with George, the day Iniesta retire, will be as sad as when Messi retire. I just love his game so much, like i watch Messi.

    there are only 2 players that I always search for their individual youtube highlight after any barca and arg/spain game: Messi and Iniesta. Hope he has a great Euro, and luckily we could still see him play 2018 WC, probably his last big tournament

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