“This is my last season here.”
Six words bring a coda to a life exquisitely lived, human cinema verite in which the real-life hero on a quest for truth and beauty battled, struggled and finally emerged victorious.
Tears when he came, tears when he left are the bookends of Andres Iniesta’s time at FC Barcelona, the only club that he has really known. But unlike when he arrived, and only his parents wept with him, this time millions more shed the tears of loss — actual loss.
This isn’t the death in the actual sense, but a part of football — the pure game that is nothing more than feet, a ball, exquisite skill and heart — died today with six words.
When Iniesta signed a “contract for life,” many of us understood that it would be a short-lived life, that it was the exact right gesture from the club for a player who exemplifies everything pure about the game. But we could also see it in the way he moved, the little bit of extra time it took for him to recover after a particularly hard challenge, the way he would look at a ball and start to move, brain still much faster than the vessel that carries it, and we wondered, even as we hoped beyond hope, because wonderful, beautiful things are never, ever supposed to come to an end.
Iniesta is simply the most beautiful footballer that any of us have ever seen, a beauty that encompases every aspect of his life. On the pitch he slides and glides from spot to spot, almost leaving you with the sense that the turf beneath his feet is barely touched, a glissando more than a run. His strides were short because longer ones would leave less time for contact with the ball. His feet and ankles almost functioned as cups, holding, caressing the thing that mattered most as he came upon more talented, more physically gifted humans time and again, and vanquished them all, because that is what beauty does.
Beauty also makes the soul of a person who you will never meet in real life, shimmer. We don’t know that he is kind and gentle, the normal-sized, anonymous man who was able to masquerade as an electronics store clerk for a television advert. Iniesta’s advertising life in so many ways echoed his footballing one. He was almost always the guy who just wanted to help, whether an electronics shop clerk, or helping a bear feel less pain, then ceding the critter control of the remote as they lounged on the sofa. Everyone was happy, and that is all that matters.
His face was always open, always a reflection of what was inside, from behind eyes that seemed to miss nothing. Iniesta is a player for whom you always wanted the best because of the completely selfless way that he lived, and played. When other players scored huge goals then strutted and preened so that the world knew who scored it, again Iniesta was different.
His Iniestazo at Stamford Bridge was one of the most extraordinary moments in football, again because Iniesta was us. He hit that ball and was overcome, so he just ran, and ran, in desperate search of human contact, someone to hug, to touch so that he would understand it was real, the moment corporeal. He waved his shirt like a flag of his native country, Barça.
When he scored the biggest goal of any player’s liftime, the goal that won his nation the World Cup, the biggest prize on the biggest stage, he ripped off his shirt to expose his heart. His base layer was inscribed, in almost childlike letters, “Dani Jarque, always with us.”
Dani Jarque was an Espanyol player who most would never know. He died of sudden heart failure in 2009, a moment that sent Iniesta into something of a tailspin, something that he never called dapression. Instead, in his book The Artist, he chose careful-but-perfect words such as “free fall,” and “something that terrified me.”
Footballers, athletes, deal with death in ways quite different than the rest of us in part because their lives are defined on so many levels by a struggle for immortality. The play, the goal, the moment, the shot. No matter what happens, they will live on in fantasy, in images that capture them at that singular moment. Fans will always remember them in that way. We wonder why the Barça team, in this season where it might be able to go unbeaten in La Liga, want this so much, but we can’t understand. Death comes for us all, but how will we be remembered?
During the first Arsenal match after Arsene Wenger announced that he would be leaving the club, the Emirates was festooned with banners that honored The Invincibles, the Arsenal team that went through an entire Premiership season without being beaten. It’s legend, and immortality, a vision quest achieved.
Jarque must have affected Iniesta deeply, but think about the vision quest that also imbued his spirit and soul. We think about the crazy quilt of seconds, moments that define our lives and leave us in spots where we can be what and who we are. Everything for Iniesta until that moment found him in that spot. How could he have known, as he was inscribing that shirt, that he would have occasion to display it for the world to see, the heartfelt tribute to his friend as he ran, still seeking that human touch that would make it all real.
He didn’t know, but he had hope, as do we all. When the hope became reality Iniesta was again mortal, again one of us, being stunned that wildest dreams could come true. That beautiful soul is leaving his club.
Our eternal Capita, Carles Puyol, left Barça while raging against the fragility of his weapon, the body that he tossed hither and yon, always in the service of the club. It hurt.
Another member of that generation, Victor Valdes, left awash in spite and anger, on a knee that failed him at a routine moment. Because we never get to know keepers as we do other players, we felt it, but not in that way.
Xavi was the first one to really hurt because Xavi epitomized everything about Barça, about a way of playing that spit in the face of the hulking brutes that stomped the terra, looking to overpower and destroy. Xavi was an artisan, even as the exquisite calm with which he played the game carried with it an inscrutability. We never really felt like we knew Xavi even as he was our everything on the pitch.
Iniesta is different. This one hurts. Bad.
The most difficult part of the Roma loss for many culers wasn’t the loss. It was seeing Iniesta on the bench, seeing the face that couldn’t hide the pain and emotion of knowing that he would forever be part of this, and knowing there was no redemption. It was almost as if he knew it even before the match was over, eyes that see everything looking at his teammates and seeing what was about to happen. And he was powerless to stop it, this player whose beautiful sporting life devoted to helping, assisting others achieve glory, could only sit and watch. We hurt with him.
He showed up at a pivotal Champions League match with a haircut that could only be described as unfortunate. No matter. Like the fathers who show up at work with painted fingernails, it was for his daughter. So of course Iniesta did it. We wondered what kind of madness possessed a player on the global stage of La Liga and Champions League to show up with a mangled haircut vaguely reminiscent of an anime character, then we found out. It was the kid. It was, as always, a gesture that he could make to bring something beautiful to someone else’s life.
A forgotten part of the season of tragedy that shaped the view of so many culers at that time was when the Iniestas miscarried, another brick of sadness in that impossible to surmount wall. We can’t imagine how that affected the family that Iniesta was part of in the locker room, a group already reeling from heartache. But we can imagine that Iniesta said to himself, if a child came, that he would devote his life, do anything for them. A haircut was nothing, but at the same time it was everything as we can imagine him thinking of her, watching Daddy and giggling with glee.
Iniesta wants the best for everyone. It is how he plays. His shots are usually weak plunks at goal, desperate last options taken with a shrug and the knowledge that nobody else was going to do it, so why not. You almost get the feeling that he feels a bit bad when he scores because it brings someone else a bit of pain. It’s a spirit that embodies everything that he does, a person so flawless he seems a digital creation. Nobody could, in real life, be that … that … everything.
We can’t, shouldn’t be sad for ourselves that we will never see him again in Blaugrana, performing the impossible. He has brought us so much, done so much, taken so much in selfless service that all we should do is thank him, and marvel at him. He got kicked, time and again, and knew he would get kicked, time and again. He would lay there and rub the spot, then get up and know he was going to get kicked again. But he had to help his team. In many ways, piles and piles of goals would have messed up his iconography. Iniesta is supposed to exist as this wisp of something, a wonderful thing that makes everything better, like the scent from a bake shop that brightens your walk to work. He scored in his last big match for a trophy, at the end of a logical move, a rapier of a goal that was all deftness and influence, at the end the ball prodded home, because why not?
He was subbed off during that Copa destruction of Sevilla, and Lionel Messi, the greatest player of them all, the greatest player any of us have ever seen, hugged Iniesta like a child sharing a moment with an idol. His eyes were closed, like he wanted to capture the moment, the feeling, the weight of a man so slight as to verge on ephemeral. You got the sense that Iniesta would have stood there and held the hug for as long as Messi wanted, because in football as in life, he is devoted to making everyone better, to bringing beauty.
Even now, his final, heartrending gesture is a selfless one. He understands what he has to do, understands that to help his club grow, he has to leave it because human nature is to cling to extraordinary things, as they are all that we know. But he also understands that this sojourn to China will help his family, set them up forever, enabling them to, one day soon, just be able to sit around and be together.
Some scoff at Iniesta going to sell wine in China while kicking a football around, but that isn’t the point. As with everything for him, you have to look at the end game. He cried because he left one family, cried at a press conference because he is leaving another. Week after week, match after match, he has to leave his real family, his flesh and blood, kids he hugs, a wife he busses gently. We can’t know, but we can imagine that a man who wants nothing more than to make the lives of others beautiful with his actions, takes this last one with his ultimate end game in mind. And it’s beautiful.