A few years ago, Andrés Iniesta was the footballer over whom I would find myself arguing the most. While it was finally becoming acceptable to champion Xavi as one of the finest footballers of his generation – something which I’d been banging on about for years – I was adamant that Iniesta deserved to be regarded in his exalted company. Despite my protestations, I would generally receive indifferent looks tagged with comments suggesting that I was exaggerating the diminutive Spaniard’s talents. After arguing my case more and more vocally (as the pints continued to flow) I’d usually finish the conversation by shouting “you fucking imbecile” before storming off.
Then finally in the 2009 Champions League final the rest of the world finally took notice. The match was billed as the battle of the world’s two footballing heavyweights – Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet it was the featherweight (in terms of stature, not ability) who stole the show, putting in a virtuoso performance which outshone that vast array of talent on the pitch that night.
After a quick spell of early pressure from Manchester United, Samuel Eto’o opened the scoring in the tenth minute, and from there Barcelona went on to dominate the game with consummate ease. It was a display of perfection in the art of intelligence, movement and technique which the English side could not live with, and was the beginning of a period of dominance for what is often regarded as the best club side in history. Central to this performance was Iniesta, dubbed the Ghost, who was majestic all night. Ask the Manchester United players and Sir Alex Ferguson who they feared most in that team and you will receive one profound answer – Andrés Iniesta.
It took some time for him to reach that level of performance. Under Frank Rijkaard he was utilised in different positions, which made it hard to nail down a concrete spot in the side. As with most utility players, his versatility initially proved a hindrance but what sets him out from so many is that he turned this into an advantage. Footballing intelligence is often a phrase banded about, but Iniesta is full of it. He used the experiences of playing in various positions and roles to become the player he is today – it is why it is almost impossible to pin him down to a particular space on the pitch. Study the data of his average touches of the ball in any one game and all you will conclude is that he is simply everywhere.
His ability is unquestionable and he is one of few players that can be described as a truly natural footballer. When Pep Guardiola was once asked whether Iniesta was born as a good footballer, he responded by describing him as “a good player in his mother’s womb”. His touch is glorious, whilst he has that rare ability to seemingly move faster with the ball at his feet than without it. His change of pace with the ball is often astounding and remarkable he is constantly playing with his head up, looking for the perfect pass.
The assist for Xavi’s goal in the 3-2 Super Cup first leg victory against Real Madrid, was a perfect cameo of what makes Iniesta so special. Collecting the ball just inside the Madrid half he drove at the defence, taking out three defenders with a mazy run before timing a perfectly weighted pass into onrushing Xavi, which required no first touch other than to be stroked into the back of Iker Casilas’ net. It was simply unstoppable.
In today’s footballing world, often overshadowed by egos and the need for self-indulgence, Iniesta is a man who clearly puts the team before himself. I’m sure he would like to win personal accolades but there seems a genuine desire to be part of a successful team, and I suspect the respect of his team mates and peers is more than enough for the boy from Albacete. At long last he is universally regarded as being one of the finest in the world, even loved in Madrid – a unique feat for a Barcelona player. No longer can anybody ignore the Ghost.