Guillem Balague pays tribute to Andres Iniesta as the midfielder nears the end of his Barcelona career
Andres Iniesta made what might be his last cup final appearance for Barcelona as they thrashed Sevilla 5-0 to lift the Copa del Rey on Saturday – and what a performance to mark the occasion.
Iniesta, who is set to confirm a move to China at the end of the season, was brilliant at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, scoring Barcelona’s fourth goal and earning a standing ovation from both sets of fans when he was substituted near the end.
Iniesta’s tears on the bench showed just how much it meant to him after 21 years as a Barcelona player. He will go down as one of the greatest in the club’s history.
Saturday’s game was Iniesta’s 669th appearance for Barcelona in all competitions. Only his old midfield partner Xavi Hernandez has made more.
Iniesta was seen as a rising star in Barcelona’s La Masia academy and made his senior debut at the age of 18 in 2002, but it wasn’t until he was 24 or 25 that he became a first-team regular.
Injuries were always an issue for him, and it is something he has had to deal with both in a physical and in a psychological way, but his trophies speak for themselves.
This year’s Copa del Rey was his 34th piece of silverware in 16 seasons as a professional. His haul includes four Champions Leagues, eight La Liga titles – soon to be nine, plus a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain. It makes him one of the most decorated players in the modern era.
The stats show Iniesta has only contributed 57 goals in his 669 appearances for the club, but while he has never been a natural goalscorer, his importance to Barcelona has been massive.
For most of his career, he has made the left side of their midfield three his own, and while others have enjoyed the limelight, the cleverness of Iniesta’s movement, the speed of his acceleration, and the brilliance of his distribution have been key to it all.
Iniesta is the man who knits it all together and makes their attack function. Even this season, with his powers on the wane and his Barcelona career nearing an end, he has averaged more final-third passes per 90 minutes than any of the club’s other midfielders.
He is loved by everybody associated with Barcelona – none more so than his old boss Pep Guardiola, who gave him a new lease of life after he was burnt out during the Frank Rijkaard regime.
“Iniesta doesn’t dye his hair, he doesn’t wear earrings and he hasn’t got any tattoos,” Guardiola famously said of the midfielder.
“Maybe that makes him unattractive to the media, but he is the best.”
Andres makes it look easy on the pitch but his life has been full of challenges, too. In his book, he admitted he has battled depression for much of his career.
2010 was a crucial year for him. He was deeply affected by the death of his friend Dani Jarque that season, and he hit rock bottom when he was injured three months before the World Cup in South Africa.
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He thought he wouldn’t make it but of course he did, going on to score the winning goal in the final against the Netherlands.
“As soon as the ball connected with my foot, I knew the goalkeeper had no chance,” he later said. “That moment was perfect.”
It was an iconic goal from a player who has always had a knack for delivering at key moments – just as he famously did in Barcelona’s Champions league semi-final with Chelsea in 2009.
Those seconds will in fact live on in football history, and even when his playing career is over, Iniesta’s eternal contract with Barcelona means he will always be a part of the club in some capacity.
The journey is not over yet.
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