On the day of the official departure ceremony (celebration? Not hardly) for Andres Iniesta, everybody came out, and everybody cried. It is impossible to imagine a more beautiful footballer. From the homesick kid whose parent had to be talked out of returning to take him home to the ethereal legend. What a player.
The word “icon” is tossed about rather casually. But I challenge anyone to find a more iconic player for FC Barcelona than Iniesta. “Messi,” will say most, but permit a counter. Messi was blessed with otherworldly talent, and a body made for football, made to control and then destroy. Barça’s roots begin in La Masia, where a player learns what to do with the ball, his mind, space and the opponent.
There are bigger, stronger, faster players in other youth academies. The Masia player, fully realized, has a mien about him that always inspires confidence. He gets the ball and you are assured that he is going to know exactly what to do with it. It isn’t that he has the most physical ability, it’s that his skills have been refined over the years to reflect a way of thinking about and playing football that has less to do with the physical and more to do with the mental, with the fine motor skills that enable those less physically gifted to dominate.
Iniesta was slight. We shouldn’t assume that he isn’t immensely talented, for he is. But if you were to ask someone to pick a player who defines the ideal of what La Masia and Barça would like to be, it is Iniesta, from the way he plays the game to his comportment, on and off the pitch. The man is an exemplar. He taught himself skills, learned actions that became reflex, things that we think of now as wonder but that were honed on pitch after pitch, hour after hour of rigorous work.
Season after season, Iniesta made the game seem logical and at the same time, illogical. He took a pass with control that was always absolute, so assumed that by the time a defender began to consider what to do with this thing that barely comes up to the height of his chest, Iniesta has already sorted the situation, where everyone is, what the defender is going to do, what he will need to do to make space and the exact right spot to place the ball. You don’t need physical gifts for this. You don’t need to be the biggest and the strongest, even as you need to be the best.
That is a Masia midfielder.
When Pep Guardiola said of Iniesta that he was going to “retire us all,” that quality was apparent, even in the small, pale player who moved with the ball with a facility, style and grace that was and will be unmatched. You could see it. Football is also about belief, the assurance in your skills, and that right action. Like the tennis player who has drilled a topspin backhand up the line for countless hours until the stroke becomes reflex, there is absolute assurance in every move that Iniesta makes on a football pitch. Even when it seems that he’s making it up, consider his run as a work of fiction in which a skilled writer takes you on a journey. The writer knows where it is all going, even if you don’t see it yet. And then, “Aha!”
There is a purity in Iniesta’s game that even if we don’t quite understand how to put it, we notice and will miss. The game will be less beautiful in the absence of that purity. Even at 34, even when his body couldn’t do what his mind saw and wanted, Iniesta always seemed like that precocious youth player, ball as his feet amid a world of possibilities and infinite skill in the absence of physical gifts. The game was always pure and beautiful when he played it, and it is less now that he is leaving.
In this space, I once wrote that while Messi will run up to you and cut your throat, Iniesta would smile at you and talk to you. By the time he was done, you would be convinced that laying your neck upon his knife and moving it back and forth was, really, the best thing for everyone, and he’ll be there for you. Don’t worry.
Don’t worry. With Iniesta, you never had to worry. Every player has uncertainty. But of the countless hours that we have watched Iniesta play, the only quality that has never been present in our hearts is worry. Because in the modern lingo, he got this. When he has the ball, that is it. It’s everything in his world of influence, of feints and physical gliassandos so subtle that we can’t see them, but a defender watching, hoping this won’t be the time that he is made to look a fool, moves, and is made to look a fool. It isn’t that Iniesta wants to do it, or even enjoys it. You will never see him mean mugging for the camera after taking apart a defender, or high-fiving a teammate after a particularly deft action. That isn’t his way. He does what he does because it is what he does.
That sounds simple, that he does what he does because it is what he does. But it also explains why the game will be less of a game in his absence. It’s money, it’s leaping and running, it’s physicality and agents, mega contracts and threats of leaving unless some condition is met. Even when Iniesta considered his last contract, a contract for life that we all knew wouldn’t be even as we hoped he would stay forever, his conditions were personal, whether he could still do what he does to the extent that he wouldn’t damage the club that he loved.
During the Roma match, watching him on the bench, commentators remarked on his face as he watched that awful, inevitable night happen and assumed sadness at the event. None of us know Iniesta, but can bet our houses that what pained him more than the loss was understanding that this was it, that horrible match and his ineffectiveness symbolized that it was time. He couldn’t do what he does any longer, not at a level that elevated his team, that made him an absolute.
He mulled over that contract, worried about a feeling, about how he felt. He wanted so much more, for himself, his team and what he could do for the team and club that he loved, that was his home. That pain was written on his face, a moment that makes that match even more difficult to deal with. Iniesta isn’t supposed to go out like that.
So, when friends, teammates and club legends gathered to fete his career, his history, the unpayable debt that the club owes him, it felt right to have everything be in service to a legend who gave everything that he had in service to the club. The game will be less beautiful at the end of the matchday on Sunday, the last matchday of La Liga, as the Maestro exits.
“They’re taking our boys!”
Another potential departure is also on the lips of people, even if not to the same magnitude, as Juvenil A talent Riqui Puig is rumored to be gone to Tottenham Hotspur amid recriminations and cries of mismanagement. It is said that the coach there, Pochettino, is in love with his game and desperately wants him at the club.
Puig is a talented midfielder who is about to become a permanent part of Barça B, a side that might be relegated to Segunda B. Puig doesn’t even have an agent, according to most reports. So in assessing the plausibility of his departure, let’s assume that a Premiership coach had the time to watch Barça youth football, where Puig was kicking butt before his appearances with B, and said, “Get me that player.”
Can he think, under advice from people who DO have time to scout and watch youth football, that Puig is a talented player for the future, one who it would be nice to grab for the club that he coaches, assuming he will still be there when an 18-year-old barely ready for Segunda is ready for a Premier League first team? Sure. But bet that Pochettino has just a couple of other things on his plate.
Should Puig leave, he won’t be the first Masia talent to leave the academy, nor the last. It was happening under Laporta and that structure, just as it happened under Rosell, Bartomeu and before that. We know this because we see rosters on many a pro club festooned with Masia talents, quality professionals schooled at the world’s best academy. And almost all of them left bereft of drama and rending of garments. They just left.
In this time at FC Everything Is The Worst, balance and perspective are absent. To be sure, the care and handling of a talent has been botched. Money managers tend to forget the value of the human side of an equation, the pulling a kid aside to say, “Hey, this whole contract thing is just business. We have big plans for you, okay?” Youth players are little professionals, but they are also kids who need reassurance, like Iniesta did after drying his eyes on that day many years ago.
But that same balance is necessary in assessing a situation. He is 18 years old, and is looking for the best possible path for his playing career. There is no shame in that, nor is there failure in it. He should be looking out for himself. If you look at the current first team, you see Coutinho, Denis Suarez, Alena, Paulinho, Rakitic, Busquets and in January, Arthur. A fanbase screams for various midfield signings, such as Eriksen or De Jong. More mids, right? That same fanbase screams when a young, talented midfielder considers leaving because he doesn’t see a clear path to the first team? Come on.
Jordi Mboula was the last wonder talent to leave the club, amid recriminations and general horror. He has six appearances for Monaco, and two goals. He has played about 150 minutes total for Monaco in the entire L1 season. He’s 19. At 19, Messi was playing for the Barça first team and wrecking defenses. Rare is the player who made a Barça first-team debut much before age 21, because it takes time to go through the system, to demonstrate that you’re good enough in the body and mind to make the jump.
Spurs isn’t Barça. Neither is Monaco. If you think, in this day and age of increased Masia scrutiny, worry and chagrin as talents left but also in a broader view, who is the last youth talent to leave Masia and star for another club? Thiago was already on the first team when he left.
None of this is to say that Puig is untalented, or that the youth divisions and B structure don’t need some help, humanity and people who understand people. But we need to apply some perspective. Youth players exist in a world that has accelerated the race to the next big thing. People are telling him he is ready and better than Barça, and rumors are swirling. But this is an 18-year-old kid who is just ready for his club’s second-division side. Is he the next Xavi or Iniesta? Or even the next Fabregas? Time will tell. For now, he’s an exceptionally talented youth player who might be considering leaving the club.
If he stays — rumors are building that he will — how does the club handle him? Where does he play? He just got promoted to B. Do we see Valverde giving him first-team minutes next season? Doubtful. Will he train with the first team, so that he understands the talent level present there, and the ability and maturity that will be required? Bet the house on it.
A youth system and structure exist for a reason, which is to make sure that talented players have a clear progression. Not a guaranteed progression, but a clear one, if they are good enough. Look at Alena. Never any doubt. He will be with the first team next season. Oriol Busquets? Valverde wants him, as well. The system works when the players are good enough.
Deulofeu, Assulin, Traore, Dongou are all professionals somewhere. “The Korean Messi,” Lee Seung-Woo had his development damaged by being caught up in the youth player ban. When he left the club amid screams and recrimination, he landed at Verona, where he has one goal in 17 appearances. He is 20 years old.
Puig needs to be calm. The club needs to handle its business. Supporters need to be calm. Perspective and balance need to be applied. We don’t know what is going to happen, only that journalists have raised the possibility of his departure. If he stays, which seems to be the right thing to do, fantastic. But if he leaves, is it the end of the world?
Coming full circle, what might have happened to Iniesta in this current environment? Maybe a helicopter parent can’t deal with his distraught child, and takes him home to play with a local club. “There. Is that better?” Maybe Iniesta stays, develops and gets lured away by Arsenal, where he doesn’t develop into the same kind of player, caught out by the bigger, stronger boys, and becomes the next Gai Assulin or Gio Dos Santos instead of a legend and an icon. The pressure is ummanageable. At Ajax, Justin Kluivert hired Mino Raiola as his agent and is now following the Raiola script that sets a player up to leave his current club. Kluivert is 19, and has been with the Ajax first team since he was 17. Puig is 18. Ajax isn’t Barça.
In this age of information, so much of it about everything, sometimes we have too much, so much that the ability to assess it all is lost. Let things develop. It’s all we can do.