Six minutes into the second half of Barcelona’s Copa del Rey final victory over Sevilla last Saturday, Andres Iniesta received possession in the centre of the field, 30 yards from goal.
He flicked a square ball to Lionel Messi, continued his run into the box, received a perfect return pass, danced around Sevilla goalkeeper David Soria and slotted the ball into the net from a narrow angle.
It was a brilliant goal, and a deeply symbolic moment for a man who has now, as expected, announced he is leaving. Symbolic because it was a moment of quintessential Iniesta: the shuffle, the vision, the execution. Symbolic because it involved a flash of instinctive understanding with Messi. Symbolic because it was probably his last piece of significant action in Spanish football.
Half an hour later, with the game dying out, Barca boss Ernesto Valverde substituted Iniesta so he could receive a standing ovation from the 67,500 crowd at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid.
Fighting back tears, the 33-year-old applauded in response to the fans who rose as one – even the Sevilla supporters whose hearts he had helped to break – to salute a universally loved legend.
The word legend absolutely applies to Iniesta, who will head away from the Nou Camp after winning 32 trophies and making nearly 700 appearances, having first joined the club more than two decades ago at the age of 12.
More than plain statistics, though, Iniesta is a legend because of what he represented. His style of play, along with Xavi and Messi, embodied the silky smooth passing carousel – to steal Sir Alex Ferguson’s phrase – which enraptured the world and won two Champions League titles under Pep Guardiola in 2009 and 2011.
That team has been gradually breaking up, year after year: Eric Abidal left in 2013, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes in 2014, Xavi in 2015, Dani Alves in 2016, and now Iniesta, leaving Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique as the only remaining members of perhaps the greatest club side ever.
Iniesta is more than just a player, and his departure is more than just the usual end-of-season squad reshaping. For his millions of admirers, he means more than just a midfielder who passed and dribbled the ball with rare brilliance. He simply means football.
Destined for greatness
It’s easy to say with hindsight, but Iniesta was always destined for greatness from the moment he stepped through Barca’s ‘La Masia’ academy doors, with tears of homesickness pouring down his face, at the age of 12.
One of his earliest admirers was Guardiola, who first glimpsed the precocious young talent when he scored the winning goal for Barcelona in a prestigious global under- 15 tournament at the Nou Camp in 1999. Famously, Guardiola told Xavi: “You’re going to retire me, but he’s going to retire us all.”
Iniesta graduated into the senior team as a teenager, but a lack of physique saw him fail to nail down a regular starting place for the first few years before his great turning point came in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal.
Manager Frank Rijkaard left Iniesta on the bench for that game in Paris, but introduced him at half-time with the Gunners leading 1-0. And he was the key factor in allowing the Catalan club to wrest control of the encounter, eventually triumphing through goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti.
Thierry Henry, who played for Arsenal that day and subsequently joined Barcelona, later ruefully recalled Iniesta’s influence, telling Barca TV: “The final was changed by Iniesta when he came on in the second half. When he started to turn with the ball, after an hour I couldn’t follow him. Iniesta killed me.”
From that moment Iniesta didn’t look back, becoming an automatic selection for the remaining two years of Rijkaard’s reign and then forming an indispensable triumvirate with Xavi and Messi after the arrival of Guardiola in 2008. The rest is a captivating chapter of footballing history.
A true national hero
Iniesta has never been a prolific scorer, but when he has struck it has generally been at significant moments such as his balletic effort in his final final on Saturday.
He netted one of the most important goals in Barca’s recent history, thumping home a superb injury-time strike at Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, sending the team into the final in Guardiola’s first season in charge.
Above all else, though, he will always be remembered for one moment: the 116th minute of the 2010 World Cup final.
With Spain and the Netherlands locked in a goalless stalemate, Cesc Fabregas found him in space inside the area, he took one touch to control, waited for the ball to drop and thundered a volley into the back of the net to make his country world champions for the first time.
Iniesta celebrated by whipping off his jersey to reveal a T-shirt bearing a message: ‘Dani Jarque, Always With Us.’ Jarque was the captain of Espanyol who had died suddenly of heart failure a few months earlier, and Iniesta’s remembrance of his friend touched a nerve with the entire nation, becoming the iconic image of Spain’s glorious triumph.
The World Cup-winning goal, and the manner in which he delivered it, is Iniesta’s greatest legacy. It explains why he is loved throughout Spain, not just by Barcelona fans – and it also helps, especially in these deeply politicised times, that he is not from Catalunya, having been born and raised 300 miles to the south of Barcelona in Albacete, a small city in the Castilla-La Mancha region.
Iniesta is not just a Barcelona hero: he is a national hero. He is unique among Barca players in receiving a warm welcome wherever he travels in Spain, even being granted a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans after netting a sizzling strike in a 4-0 victory at the Bernabeu in November 2015.
His departure from La Liga is therefore prompting an unusual and unashamed outpouring of emotion from across the country, with even the rabidly pro-Madrid sections of the media eager to salute the outgoing star: Marca’s front page on Sunday hailed him as ‘The Last Emperor’, and AS headlined its front page by simply stating: ‘Iniesta, Don’t Go!’
Why is he leaving?
Watching Iniesta’s magnificent performance against Sevilla on Saturday, the obvious question was why someone capable of producing such brilliance is choosing to leave for the pre-retirement backwaters of China. If he can still play like that, surely he should stay at Barcelona?
The problem, though, is Iniesta has been delivering performances of that quality with increasing infrequency, with Saturday’s masterclass at least partly facilitated by Sevilla’s strangely wide-open approach. Conversely, Barca’s humiliating Champions League exit against Roma earlier this month was a clear demonstration of his difficulties in overcoming physically powerful opposition.
He will turn 34 next month, and his body is telling him that he could only stand the rigours of a nine-month season by becoming a bit-part player – a role he would never want to fill. He also wants to avoid becoming a selection problem, knowing that the sight of Iniesta on the bench could hinder the integration process of recent signings Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.
Iniesta, naturally, could have stayed in Spain or moved elsewhere in Europe – on Sunday, Real Betis manager Quique Setien jokingly pleaded on Twitter for Iniesta to join his club.
But he would never want to play against Barcelona by staying in Spain or joining a potential Champions League rival, and moving to China provides a clean break, an enriching life experience and, admittedly, an enriching pay packet – he will reportedly earn £2.5m per month with his new club.
He hasn’t quite finished yet, though. Iniesta has five more games with Barcelona to enjoy an emotional farewell, including a final Clasico clash with Real Madrid on Sunday, 6 May.
Then he will head to Russia for the World Cup finals and surely his last international tournament, where his midfield sorcery alongside the likes of David Silva, Isco and Busquets will play a key role in Spain’s quest to reclaim the title. Don’t bet against him scoring in the final.