A farewell to beauty and purity

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.”

Doubtful.

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.

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Written by:

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.

31 Comments

  1. TITO
    May 19, 2018

    Great words about Iniesta, Kevin. Who knows if we will see another Iniesta in our lifetime, as a complete individual, in all aspects.

    However, i read that he informed the team that he will not continue with them just 24 hours before Rome away game. Bad timing.

  2. Gogah
    May 20, 2018

    I just logged in today after ages to come say Adieu to Iniesta.
    I have known him since I’ve known football. And Barcelona.
    Ever since those early days when I was still understanding the game for the first time in 2005, I was always intrigued by this sub would come on and immediately change the game. He was visibly WAY more mobile & lively than the others who seemed ‘stuck’ and unable to create anything. He was this sub, a kid who glowed of some other worldly radiance.
    My heart broke first when Puyol left. Xavi’s departure was understandable and even though he’s a personal favourite, sporting-wise, everybody could see that, the age factor included, Xavi’s game was lesser suited to where the team’s play was going.

    In that sense Iniesta is one of those players who can be included in any kind of a tactical set up. Because he really was the solutions man. A pure footballer much like Messi is, who can be trusted to always take the right decision. When the team was stuck, give it to iniesta, and he’d create something.. run at defenders, glide past them or pause and lay a pass that few in the game can see.

    This one really hurts. Because it really marks the end of a generation. He is a real one club man. A footballer loved by everyone who watches the game. A silky player who has more steel than many give him credit for. And what an example of how a human being should be – A true exemplar as has been rightly said in this article. Kevin, awesome to see you still keeping this place going. Truly remarkable effort.

    Andres Iniesta. Fuck.
    What. A. Player.

  3. squeen
    May 20, 2018

    Holy smokes Kxevin! Did you catch Ray Hudson quoting your blog during the BeIn Sports game commentary?

    • May 21, 2018

      I did. It was really cool, and I like that it brings more attention to the space and hopefully, even more family members to call me a knucklehead, which is also really cool

  4. Doug
    May 21, 2018

    Wow – I wonder who took that photo?

  5. They-said-thered-be-jetpacks
    May 22, 2018

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that I will never be able to see this legend in the blaugrana again… No footballer has managed to shift my perspective on the game as much as Don Andres. It’s as hard to explain as he is to describe but the best I can do is to say that Don Andres and Messi are like two sides of the same coin. I can’t separate the two or think one is better than the other. If Messi is the carefully forged and sharpened edge of a katana blade (ha) then Don Andres is the well fortified and resilient back of the blade (mune), Both are equally as important.

  6. TITO
    May 26, 2018

    Not related to Iniesta whatsoever, but if Ramos doesnt fuck up your game plan, who will.

  7. G6O
    May 26, 2018

    History will forget all the lucky breaks and dirty plays and will only remember the 3 CLs in a row, the Balon d’Ors, etc…

  8. Víctor
    May 26, 2018

    Let’s not kid ourselves: the moment Salah went out injured we knew it was over for Liverpool. Of course, I, naively, thought of a miracle happening… it didn’t and Karious gave away two idiotic goals…

    It’s a shame, it seems that only Barcelona is capable of defeating Real Madrid at Champions League…

  9. TITO
    May 26, 2018

    Actually, its more likely for Messi now, since both Salah and Kiki didnt do much this game. But the WC will probably make a huge impact in the end.

  10. ugo nze
    May 26, 2018

    pls fire me valvade and his disciples…
    he cost us our ucl final telling me he’s the master of tactician…and fuck bamoteo and co.

    • Víctor
      May 26, 2018

      Valverde and his disciples have nothing to do with Real Madrid getting favoured by referees and silly opponents’ mistakes… I do not forget that Bayern’s GK also made a silly mistake in the semifinal…

      Seriously, how lucky can a team get?

  11. Víctor
    May 26, 2018

    Tonight and the days after this (and perhaps through his remaining career) it’s gonna be quite tough for Karius. However, let’s not forget that Liverpool was playing quite well until Salah got out… after that it was downhill for them… even if Karius didn’t make those mistakes I doubt they could have pulled it off…

  12. mvarfi
    May 26, 2018

    Thank Goodness for the World Cup!

    • mvarfi
      May 26, 2018

      P.S. I’m glad the season is finally over! I could watch Barca’s last two matches only postmortem. Vacationing got in the way, badly. The Messi-less comeback from 5-1 down WHILE away from home bodes well. Coming this close to going unbeaten is frustrating, but also priceless. No other La Liga team can claim such an experience. It’ll give Barca an edge on all fronts next season.

  13. ugo nze
    May 26, 2018

    since we are now a club that buys…so Now They must spend. so buy me grizman, and sala and with a good world class midfielder and sell Suarez. then Next season buy me mane. because I now have this feeling that messi won’t last..

    he more likely to follow the part of puyol xavi, iniesta,. so We might still enjoy him for 3 more season before he leave. so We must build for the future. because it’s too late to rebuild lamasia. maybe later we might think of rebuilding it, but For now lets think and focus now and the future..

    but We might get fuck hopping for the rebuilt on lamacia because it’s dead now for a long time…

    my Barcelona has been destroyed for a long time now including lamasia..

    yea since batomeo now believe in spending so let’s fuck that money up.. by sala nd grizman then mane.and some other world class players..
    because am fuking tired of hearing that bacelona always top the chat yearly for money making and invests……so Now, if you argue we can’t sala for €300m then were is our money going to. where is the investment you are making..ooh sorry corruption…

  14. ugo nze
    May 26, 2018

    victor..
    after loosing our two most needed game
    stupidly. against roma, and levente…WTF…3-0 and 5-4 Jesus…. can that ever happene to even celtic…

    • Víctor
      May 26, 2018

      The 5-4 loss didn’t give anything to RM… just banter for their fans… the 3-0 was shameful… just like the 3-0 against Juve last year… but that doesn’t change that RM has been quite lucky at UCL…

  15. Víctor
    May 26, 2018

    Seriously, I get being mad at Valverde for those losses, but firing him is not the answer… he managed to get a double… he deserves, at least, one more season… we’ll see and judge after that…

  16. ugo nze
    May 26, 2018

    yea it didn’t, but Damage our unbeaten run…
    maybe we will see that type of chance when Christ will be back on earth….

    infact howcan levente 15th on the log win the all mighty team called best in the world.. 5 goals to 4.
    no that’s rubbish… everyone said earlier that if we win he league unbeaten. then we can forgive him.. but Booooom 5 to 4 wtf.. are you even telling the players an the coaches doesn’t need that unbeaten strick.. wow it seen you’re protecting and supporting the coach, that’s not fair..

    • Víctor
      May 26, 2018

      I do side with the coach… even with those shameful losses… Roma defeating Barcelona 3-0 was really surprising and astounding… but so was Barcelona defeating them 4-1 at Camp Nou… Roma deserved better in the first leg… hell, I even wrote in here that Chelsea deserved to win 1-0 against Barcelona back in February… football was unfair with them on that game… a silly mistake and you could see on their faces that their defensive mistake meant losing the tie for them…

      Why do I not blame Valverde, at all, after those games? After that shameful defeat at Roma and that bad performance at Chelsea that should have been a loss instead of a tie? Because it seems clear to me that this is not only on the coach, or at least not something exclusive of Valverde. In 2017 Barcelona had two shameful away performances at UCL Knockout stages as well… and they were even worse. A 4-0 against PSG and a 3-0 against Juventus. In both games the team looked quite slow, clumsy and quite honestly, it seemed to me that they started those games being sleepy and never woke up… even when back then we had a “gutsy” and brave coach in Luis Enrique. So, it’s something that didn’t start with Valverde. Yes, the PSG miracle was marvelous and joyful to watch… but it was a one-time thing… the symptoms of a team that somehow loses their “winning chip and mentality” at away KO UCL stages were there and are still here. Now, it’s up to Valverde and the staff to fix away that. Barcelona getting a tie at Stamford Bridge masked that issue… Roma defeating us at the Stadio Olimpico just went to show us that the issue never went away… so, given that Barcelona still managed to win CdR and win La Liga with quite a great marging I’ll give Valverde the benefit of doubt for next season… if those “bad away performances” issue at UCL doesn’t get sorted out for next season then I’ll agree to sack him.

      As for the 5-4 loss… I’ll just say… what the heck happened there? Seems to me that the team didn’t give a shit about the unbeaten season and decided to play a friendly before the season was over… who made that call? It was just stupid…

  17. ugo nze
    May 26, 2018

    victor.. if he stays, then we will still play the same shitty boring football…..and mind you, i will get a double at Barcelona….. i not 3ple

  18. ugo nze
    May 26, 2018

    if not triple

  19. christembassykapo
    May 26, 2018

    For me personally, zizu was a great player and is a fantastic coach. Real Madrid did well. If this same Liverpool meet barca without salad, there is a good chance they’d still beat us.
    How did zizu know bale would have that kind of impact, valverde instead of adding extra attack might bring on gomez a demoralised player to defend and secure the lead.
    With our without salad Madrid would have won, because they’ve got the team and the coach, truth be told we only have Messi. Iniesta is magical but only a tactician can help us see that sparkle as we should.
    Everyone is clamoring for salah but hello he was practically a waste at Chelsea, and now his the in thing.
    Let’s be truthful valverde is poor tactically, has poor man management and is no where near the coach we need.
    Destroyed our style of play made us defensive worms, infact we weren’t defensive, it was just the Messi effect, because the one match he didn’t play, goals were dropping water on av rainy day.
    How do you have a prodigy like dembele and you’re still weak when attacking, I expected the lad to have more times playing beside Messi so he can be mentored, how about Denis, even if Luis is having the worst game valverde can’t see that and come out with a plan.
    Take away Messi and you would know valverde is a very weak coach.
    Look at the matches Messi started from the bench, the one he didn’t play. It’s been Messi all along. If you want to know how weak he is let Messi return with a 2 month injury, we would be in the relegation zone

  20. luisthebeast
    May 26, 2018

    Zidane is nt a great tactician.
    He is good at man management and have the power to have a player like Bale at bench without whining.
    When things are difficult he have quality players like Marcelo Bale Ronaldo Benzema e.t.c to make something and score.
    Barca doesnt have that,if all the team doesnt perform perfect then the system cant work.
    Alba cant do what Marcelo,Pique is great but not fast and aggresive like Ramos.
    Ramos would had eat Djeko for breakfast.
    Dembele is nt yet a top class like Bale.
    General Barca all last years builded around Leo and thats great but when you buy luxury you must give them freedom and not always to make them adapt in a system.
    Madrid give freedom to the talent of the players Barca dont.
    Suarez must play there,Coutinho must do that,Neymar must do that and blah blah.

  21. luisthebeast
    May 26, 2018

    And i saw Modric again gave it all on field and then remember our slow and soft MFs at Rome.
    Should a 34 y old Iniesta or Roberto be starters at a top club in CL?No.
    Should we had a DM more faster and stronger than Busquets?Yes.
    Should we had a LB with more technique?Yes.
    So many things to change if we want a new great era.

  22. luisthebeast
    May 26, 2018

    And people want Valverde out?
    Really?
    Madrid have a better squad,it s clear and yet we won La Liga easily.
    If anything that was a great job by the coach.

  23. ugo nze
    May 27, 2018

    Luis..
    you’re making a very godam error, crediting the coach without doing so To messi.. messi deserve the laliga credit.. because it’s all messi….fuck the coach. vlvade OUT… Bring on pep or klop or any better coach. not going around looking for an unknown team and bring coaches from there…because you want to fraud and pay low… i say it again, i will win double in Barcelona. just give me sala, mane, grizman and verati..i will win you treble……

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