Iniesta, man …

Andres Iniesta has been on lips in the Twitterverse of late for a number of reasons. There was my assertion that if he played well, Barça would beat Atleti. There was a debate on the Twitter timeline of journalist Michael Cox, of Zonal Marking fame, that Iniesta isn’t as important as many culers think that he is, isn’t even one of the team’s best five players. Tim Vickery, in a piece on the new signing Arthur (from Gremio in Brazil) said that Iniesta would be “almost impossible” to replace.

Finally, Sebastian Stafford-Bloor penned a fantastic piece on the playmaker, and why they are so difficult to understand and appreciate. In one of the more interesting lines:

Playmakers exist slightly between those lines, prodding and probing their way through games, searching for weakness.

This is Iniesta. Cox, for his assertions that come from a rather different tactical viewpoint, took a veritable tsunami of ire of Iniesta fans, and that situation was as interesting as my reaction to Vickery’s comment, “What do you mean ALMOST impossible to replace?”

People predict his demise, say that he isn’t as influential as he was, line him up for the gold watch engraving, see the writing on the wall. But so many of those people don’t understand what Iniesta represents to culers. Iniesta is the best of everything.

When we think of football players, they are usually flawed in some way. They might be reticent, or kind of jerky. They might be selfish, might evince human flaws that make them like us and therefore, accessible in an odd way, relatable and understandable. Iniesta is different. He is the player who doesn’t score often but when he does, rips off his jersey to reveal a shirt that is a tribute to a fallen friend. He does TV commercials with a bear and is utterly believable. He dons the guise of an electronics shop clerk and helps people make decisions, anonymous and cheerful. Iniesta transcends football because of all of these qualities. He is our best selves, while also being phenomenally talented with a football at his feet.

It is difficult to even evaluate Iniesta as a footballer, because of that humanity. Big match? Goofy haircut? Sure. His daughter wanted it, so he did it. Like all the fathers who show up at work with one pink fingernail because their daughter needed his help playing dress-up, that is Iniesta. In the awful year for Barça, when his wife had a miscarriage, it affected his teammates, just as it did supporters, as we all thought that bad things shouldn’t happen to lovely people.

You can’t criticize Iniesta for football because he and his humanity transcend the game. But when you consider his football, he is iconic, in many ways because his golazo kick-started a period of greatness that became legend. Few of us stop to think about what might have happened to Guardiola, his teams and the legend of those teams had Iniesta not smote that ball with his heart and soul. We don’t want to. That team went on to greatness, went on to redefine football and how it should be played, defined expectation for a magical generation and its iconic coach, so much came from a single kick of a football.

We don’t want bad things to happen, particularly to people we like. We don’t know Iniesta, but we believe that he is as we see him because of his goofy lack of guile. He is that guy with the silly haircut. We don’t want Iniesta to age, don’t want to see the diminution of his skills, don’t want to see any of it. Because his game exists in the world of ephemera and influence, shaking a Goliath loose with a shoulder dip then gliding past. His game is music, a living, breathing glissando sliding seamlessly from note to note. It’s beautiful.

And he’s tiny. Opponents kick him and we cringe, because it seems that he won’t be able to survive the thwacks, kicks and gouges. The phrase “Iniestabuse” was born of the unfairness of the attack on him, like kicking a gouge in a beautiful painting, or sneezing during a pianist’s sotto voce ending. You just don’t do it. It is that size, that wee elegance that makes him something of a mascot, even as his influence on the game is outsized.

Iniesta was once described as the beauty of possibility. He goes on a weird, sliding, seemingly impossible run that ends in a weak shot, or maybe the ball being ushered over the end line by a hulking brute. But it doesn’t bother us in the same way it might when other players do it, because it’s Iniesta. His grace lives in the futility of his forays. If he scored goals like Messi, he would be illegal, wouldn’t be as pure. His ephemera captivates us, makes him larger than life even as he is barely life-sized.

Messi is spectacular. He is the best player in the game, and the best player I have ever seen, period. Live, on TV, on highlight reels, period, the end. But Iniesta is the most beautiful player that I have ever seen. He is elegant, almost playing in slow motion. He isn’t fast or quick, nor strong. What he has is an astonishing ability to always be in balance. to understand what a human body is going to do and what he can make a football do. He has a crouched running style, almost a shuffle, as if fearful that picking his feet up too much, letting them get too far above the pitch surface might affect his ability as a ball conjurer.

“Prodding and probing … searching for weakness.”

Messi doesn’t need anyone. He can take the ball, run, elude, shame, shun and score. Iniesta is symbiotic. He needs another organism to complete the life form of beauty that he strives to create. He doesn’t have assists, won’t make any of those WhoScored stats that people use to argue for a player’s influence. But the contention that if Iniesta plays well Barça will win is because even when he isn’t exerting influence, doing anything beyond existing with his faithful accessory the ball, Iniesta is controlling, directing and making worlds shift with his delicate movements. You can’t quantify that. There is no statistic for it, nor any tactical measure. Iniesta doesn’t make sense, a quality that makes people embrace him all the more tightly.

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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.

10 Comments

  1. Davour
    March 9, 2018

    Preach it!

  2. georgjorge
    March 9, 2018

    Wow. I didn’t expect a piece on my all-time favorite player right now, but there it is, a very beautiful tribute to a beautiful player. Thank you!

    One more thing about Iniesta not mentioned here, a quality that he shares with Messi, is his almost workmanlike attitude to a game. He goes out there to do a job, even if he does it with such grace. Over all those years, after being fouled you will hardly ever catch him complaining to the ref or starting a fight. He goes down, stands up again, and gets on with the game. Why would you go out on the pitch if it weren’t to play but to spend time talking and riling up your opponent? Iniesta wouldn’t understand that.

    Also, his grace in getting the ball past opponents will probably lead future generations watching highlight reels to think that he was just a very talented trickster, like so many out there. But what is overlooked often is what Xavi mentioned in a recent interview, an understanding of space and time on the pitch. Those passes that JUST make it past a defender into the path of a Barca forward, or those small pauses which thrown an opponent just a bit off balance – I would love to see how those things are calculated at lightning speed inside Iniesta’s head.

    This is starting suspiciously to sound like a farewell. I hope that he will stay with the team for another season, in a substitute role like Xavi did for his last season at Barca, and then have a great time taking care of his vineyard. But he will be sorely missed.

  3. =EQUALIZER=
    March 10, 2018

    I’ve always taken great pride in my ability to read people and situations accurately. When the Atleti Barca match was going on, my friend popped in at around 18 mins and asked how the match was going. I told him quite simply and as if it was extremely obvious that “whoever scores the first goal WILL win the match”. And so it happened that was exactly how the match turned out.

    A little while ago, when i posted my assessment of Dembele’s work so far that we’ve gotten to see in the colours, Many said that I was being harsh and knee jerk reactive. Recently there were reports from the coaching staff that pointed towards precisely that lack of effort that I alluded to. anyway, as always, for the good of the team and club I will, while being critical. always wish the best for my team and enjoy them.

    Malaga now, before Chelsea.
    I hope we lineup, in a manner that will help our boys expend the least amount of energy.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Ter Stegen ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    ~~ sROB ~~ Mina ~~ Verma ~~ Digne ~~
    ~ Dembele ~ Paulinho ~ Alena ~ Coutinho ~
    ~~~~~ Alcacer ~~~~ Suarez ~~~~~~~~~~

  4. Jim
    March 10, 2018

    First of all, spot on, Kxevin. For me, he’s a constant reminder to the opposition that we’re better than them every time he touches the ball and that can be draining.

    For tonight, first of all, congratulations again to Messi and no bad thing he gets a rest and comes back fired up for midweek.

    Meanwhile, we have a game to win. What I don’t want to see is Suarez left up front on his own as he was last week. That is so short sighted as we lose one of our best players straight away as he cant get involved, no matter how much he runs about. So, for me, It would be 4-3-3 all day with Busi, Coutinho and I suppose Rakitic in midfield and Suarez, Dembele and Paco up front. Give Suarez company up front and he’ll get the goals but if we don’t who IS going to score tonight ? They don’t need to allocate three or four to stop Messi. ( Tell me my info is out of date and he’s jumped on a charter to Malaga as we speak. . .)

    At some point we need to be a little more adventurous. Once Iniesta went off last week I found our efforts pretty dull actually. EV still gets his pass from me because he doesnt really have the players bedded in to do anything differently, and Id be happy to see our defensive face away in Europe any time but we need to have a little more ambition at home and in La Liga in general. I’ll be interested to see if EV’s long term stance is more defensive or if he’ll revert to 4-3-3 eventually.

  5. georgjorge
    March 10, 2018

    It’s easy to see why Malaga will be going down this year, so the three points here are not too big. But the confidence boost to Dembélé from his performance + assist so far could be very valuable, and maybe we might not even have to wait for so long until he turns into the player we have been waiting for ; )

  6. TITO
    March 10, 2018

    I cant remember the last time we passed so easy in Malaga. They were really poor, but some of our plays were great.
    Dembele did quite good, so was Coutinho and Paulinho, hell, the whole team.
    In the end, Digne’s cross several minutes before the game ended just sums up the season that he is having.

  7. passandmove
    March 11, 2018

    “But Iniesta is the most beautiful player that I have ever seen.”

    Yes, oh yes. Messi is the best (by an improbable margin, considering that zillions of people play football quite seriously), but Don Andes is the most elegant, graceful, beautiful.

    Those TV commercials? I get uncharacteristically sentimental watching them. He seems like a proper person.

  8. ooga aga
    March 12, 2018

    Just looking at the schedule. We have chelaea and the host Bilbao, then a two week break i presume for international friendlies. We start back up on March 31; if we were to make it to the CL finals we would then play 15 matches in 57 days, thats about 2 per week for 8 weeks straight. :-/

  9. ooga aga
    March 12, 2018

    *we have Chelsea and then host Bilbao

  10. Doug
    March 14, 2018

    Wow Kevin – beautiful piece about my favorite player. Very nice – thanks.

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