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.