It was glorious. You seek superlatives, a way to adequately sum up the destruction of Sevilla, and there really aren’t any. So why not glorious?
Amid the display, that was really only about 20 minutes of real work, the joy in the Barçaverse was universal. Here, there and everywhere, watching Barça take apart the fourth-placed team in La Liga as if it was an early-season exhibition match, was amazing.
Sevilla is mining a skein of bad results, but that shouldn’t detract from the elegant destruction that we witnesssed. Fittingly, the player that everyone was talking about after the match, the man whose style symbolized the kind of, “Would you please put your neck here? Thanks.” execution, was Andres Iniesta.
In an interview a while back, Juanma Lillo, the man responsible for a lot of what Pep Guardiola is, was talking about players. He said, simply enough, “Andres is football.”
Iniesta doesn’t make sense. He isn’t tall, powerful or strong. He isn’t fast, nor is he a dribbler. His nickname, Illusionista, comes from what he can do with the ball, how he can move in a way that makes time stop, makes opponents unaccustomed to making things happen by pausing, react in the wrong way. Iniesta is the pause between the melody in the waltz first movement of the Brahms Fourth, an absence of sound so perfect that it keeps the beat and the rhythm intact. Iniesta’s game is about timing, rhythm and logic, la pausa come to life.
That he had his most amazing match of the season on the same day the rest of the team did is beautiful, particularly as a great athlete and competitor enters his twilight.
“I know that Andres would like to play more often than he does,” said Luis Enrique after the match, expressing the essential reality of an athlete, even an aged one who probably, deep down in the recesses of a mind, a presentiment that gets shoved aside, doesn’t want to deal with.
People watched him play today, and said after the match that Iniesta has still got it, words with roots in greed and fear.
We want the most from our legends, want them to be magnificent forever, want them to be forever young, these players with whom we age. If he is old, then what is happening to us? We say that he still has it, but we know that he doesn’t, not in full, that fandom and nostalgia just want him to.
Fear. Barça is changing. Iniesta represents the last of that magical era, of Xavi and Puyol, players we hoped and assumed, like Iniesta, would be there for us, forever. Busquets, Messi and Pique are different, still of the club, but in a different way. There is something so pure about Iniesta.
Busquets came to the club in 2005. Pique returned to the club from Manchester United. Messi is an alien, sent from his home planet to show humans how their game should be played. Iniesta is different, a snot-nosed kid in a dark Masia room, weeping from homesickness. He doesn’t score goals, doesn’t create amazing, mazy runs. His game exisrs in the spaces between things, moments eked out from the wealth of athletic riches of others as he uses their own effort to dismantle.
Iniesta is football in the way that Barça was football against Sevilla, as they ran and danced and played in a way that was selfish and entitled. “The ball will be ours because we know how to make it dance. So stand back.” All three goals were beautiful, bountiful expressions of football, born of player and ball movement, everything so fast that the opponent had no answer.
Jorge Sampaoli, the man so many want to replace Luis Enrique, sat on his bench in semi-darkness, understanding that you can’t coach against what happened to his team. You can only watch, and hope that time passes quickly enough to keep an evisceration from becoming a humiliation.
Iniesta and the ball, during the second half, were at one moment surrounded by four Sevilla players, louts determined to turn possession in the Barça end, to bully the ball from the littlest of them all. He moved, got the opponent moving with him, stopped, started again, spun, paused and suddenly he was free, with more than enough space to make the ball dance.
By telling ourselves that he’s still got it, is yet a man in full, we ignore the perfect situation that his teammates created for him, when he doesn’t have to chase a faster, stronger oponent with the ball, doesn’t have to track a counter that moves too dast for his body, even as his mind understands exactly what is happening. We deny the man himself the bliss of defying time, of being able, even with the grey that streaks his coif, of being able to be in that “best midfielder in the game” conversation.
He doesn’t “still got it,” but in the right situation his skills, the ones that never erode with time, can show themselves. He can’t chase a break but he can pick a pass, can read the rub of a defense in a way that allows him to seem almost telepathic as he dissects an opponent. It is extraordinary.
We want more of that, we want that forever. Seven hundred games isn’t enough to slake our thirst for genius. Iniesta’s coach, the one who has to be the bad guy, understands that Iniesta’s skills are living in that space, like the player approaches the game, berween being right there, and just a beat off. Use him too much and that balance is eroded.
The sad part is considering a time without Jniesta, a time we have already had to face when Xavi left the club, a player possessed of that same magic, that same sleight of hand that let him turn more talented, more physically gifred players inside out.
But where Xavi controlled a match, Iniesta influences it, places balls in spots that either ask or answer questions. “What can you do with this pass?” “Boy, I sure wish someone could find me with a perfect pass once I start this … oh.”
Nobody wants to see magic leave. Nobody wants to face a time drawing ever closer, in which Barça will be different. Iniesta is a vibrant link to that time. Masia, triangles, juego de posicion, Guardiola, magic.
Today, the team’s beauty was his beauty. He sparkled because they sparkled. But not every day will be like this, not every day will find everyone happy because the team played a flawless match. Our happiness, our collective joy, shouldn’t be dependent upon perfection. There is so little margin for error there.
Demanding that the game be perfect to be fully enjoyed dooms us to unhappiness, a weird joylessness that doesn’t mesh with what we are seeing in the still-vibrant, dying embers of a genius. Iniesta’s game isn’t about joylessness or narrative. It’s about singular delight, almost unspeakble beauty, and magic. Just like football, just as Iniesta is football.