Saturday July 21, 2018

Andres Iniesta: A genius and a gentleman

Posted Mon 17 Jun 2013 10:11:46 am in News, Sports | By News Desk

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Barcelona: It was a moment that catapulted Andres Iniesta to sporting immortality; a moment that would transform the most gifted Spanish footballer of his gilded generation into a national hero, who regularly enjoys the unique experience of receiving standing ovations at most stadiums in Spain he plays at with his club Barcelona to this day.

It was also an ethereal moment of sheer, rarefied beauty, during which the Spain and Barcelona playmaker recalls the supernatural sensation of hearing "silence" as his actions unfolded in spine-tingling slow motion.

That electrifying moment, that epiphany, lest we forget, was when Iniesta fulfilled every football-mad schoolboy’s dream by scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final for Spain against the Netherlands.

It secured a first global football crown for a perennially under-achieving country, due reward for their bewitching brand of passing and skill.

And, although it was nearly three years ago, that landmark goal remains as vivid in Iniesta’s mind as if it happened yesterday, a glorious moment which he admitted would forever define him.

“It was a very special moment because it was a very tough game,” the 29-year-old midfielder, who is as small and slight in the flesh as he appears on television, told me in an exclusive interview at his agents Media Base Sport’s offices in Barcelona.

“I was lucky to receive that ball in that moment to win the first World Cup for Spain. I was very fortunate. It was a privilege and every time I see that goal I get goosebumps.”

Apart from the seismic significance of Iniesta’s historic strike, what remains seared in many football aficionados’ memories is his emotionally charged celebration following that adroit, right-foot finish from Cesc Fabregas’s assist.

As he raced away to the corner flag, roaring wildly in an explosion of unconfined joy, he lifted his shirt to reveal a vest bearing the message: “Dani Jarque: Siempre con nosotros” (Dani Jarque: Always with us).

For anyone who has forgotten Iniesta’s hugely poignant gesture and the man it was in honour of, Dani Jarque was one of the Spain star’s most cherished friends, who suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of only 26 in August 2009 while at a pre-season training camp with his club Espanyol.

Despite the fact they played for rival clubs in Barcelona, Jarque and Iniesta had struck up a close friendship in their teenage years, which flourished as they progressed through the Spain youth ranks together.

Jarque’s death therefore came as a crushing blow and profound shock to Iniesta, who was desperate to ensure that his fallen friend would never, ever be forgotten.

As such, in the same consummate manner in which he makes one of his trademark lacerating passes, Iniesta displayed impeccable timing and selfless class by delivering a powerful, lasting epitaph to Jarque, while simultaneously enjoying his greatest personal moment on the grandest stage of all.

“I wanted to carry Dani with me and my other teammates,” he recalled.

“We wanted to feel his strength. We wanted to pay tribute to him in the world of football and this was the best opportunity to do so.

“That [gesture] was for Dani Jarque, for my family, for all of the people. It is the result of hard work over a long time and some difficult moments.”

Ordinarily, nothing much fazes imperturbable Iniesta on or off the field.

He glides effortlessly across the football pitch with swan-like grace – “It’s like when Roger Federer plays tennis, he barely sweats”, according to the Spain manager, Vicente del Bosque.

And during our interview, he is the epitome of smiling composure, speaking calmly and quietly, without recourse to grandiose gestures or proclamations.

But when Jarque died, the normally cool and composed Iniesta’s world was thrown into turmoil and he was left groping helplessly for answers about how someone so young and seemingly fit had perished.

If enduring gut-wrenching grief in the wake of his inexplicable personal loss was not traumatic enough for Iniesta to contend with, his anguish was compounded by a succession of injuries during the 2009/10 season.

His confidence plummeted and his frustration intensified at his persistent failure to reach his usual stratospheric levels of form.

The breaking point arrived when Iniesta tore his right hamstring two months before the World Cup during a training session with Spain, causing him to leave the pitch in floods of tears.

The heartbreaking prospect of missing the extravaganza in South Africa and desperation at his frequent ailments, coupled with his lingering grief at Jarque’s death, had all become too much for the stricken star: He had hit rock bottom.

In Michael Robinson’s excellent documentary about Spain’s 2010 World Cup triumph, ‘Informe Robinson: Campeones del Mundo’, Iniesta remembered: “That day killed me, it felt like one of those days when I collapsed. I tore my hamstring, but in that instance it was more like tearing my soul.”

Iniesta’s Spain and Barcelona teammate, goalkeeper Victor Valdes, added of his friend’s untold suffering: “We tried to console him but it was impossible. It was a serious crisis for him.”

Thankfully, Iniesta recovered physically to parade his celestial gifts at the global showpiece – but his aching soul and tortured mind still needed urgent remedial work.
Enter Spain’s physiotherapist Emili Ricart, who made a DVD for the ailing Iniesta, intertwining the triumphs and tribulations of three of the midfielder’s favourite sportsmen – tennis legend Roger Federer, two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso and Spanish water-polo star Manuel Estiarte.

Iniesta would watch the DVD every night during the World Cup and, slowly, but surely, emerged from the deep, dark depression which had engulfed him as he learned to accept that the best of times and the worst of times are intrinsic to a top sportsman’s lot.

Revivified, Spain’s talisman went on to star in his own fantasy film complete with that aforementioned act of redemption which Steven Spielberg would have been proud to conceive.

Yet day to day, Iniesta eschews a film-star’s existence and prefers to live a no-frills life, in which he upholds basic values of hard work, decency and humanity, both as footballer and a human being.

As the former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola once said of him:  “With Andres there is only the football; there are no earrings or tattoos, he doesn’t dye his hair and if he plays for just 20 minutes he never complains. I say to all the young players: ‘Look at Iniesta, do as he does’.”

The modest maestro confirmed to Gulf News that he strives to be admired for his impeccable behaviour as much as for his fabulous football.
He said: “I like to live peacefully with no scandals. I like to be like this because that’s the way I am and I show myself in that way.  

“I’m not better or worse than anyone else in the world. I have my virtues and my flaws like everyone else.”

On the pitch, Iniesta has enjoyed another scintillating year for the Spanish champions, his unstinting brilliance earning him the title of Uefa’s best player of the year for 2012 and a third-place finish in Fifa’s annual Ballon d’Or competition to elect the most accomplished footballer in the world.

He also finished second in the award in 2010, but Iniesta insists he harbours no desperate yearning to topple his majestic Barcelona teammate and four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi from his seemingly immovable perch as the finest player on the planet.

He said: “It’s nice and interesting to be considered to be among the best [players]. If people appreciate what you do every day, that is special. It’s pleasing that they acknowledge what you are doing. It’s not my target to be the best in the world, though. It’s better to be better as a person every year and to be happy playing.”

You would not usually associate such worthy, virtuous sentiments with a serial winner of Iniesta’s ilk.

But he is a testament to the fact that nice guys can succeed and don’t always finish last, as the cliche goes, given that he has claimed every conceivable trophy in the game with Spain and Barcelona.

The staggering, untrammelled success and consistency  that the three-time Champions League winner has achieved – his Spain teammate Fernando Torres once said “I’ve been playing with him since we were 15 and I have never, ever seen him play badly,” – would not be possible if he did not possess a ferocious winning mentality.

Yet, like most high-achieving sportspeople, he cannot explain how his innate and intense competitive fires were first kindled and how they continue to rage year after year.

His unquenchable lust for trophies is simply part of his DNA, he said, commenting:  “I do believe all sportsmen are competitive. It’s our life; day by day we compete with rivals and teammates and try to win. It’s something that all sportsmen have inside.
“I have always liked to win, and I haven’t met yet someone who likes to lose. Nobody likes to lose. But always, one has to know how to learn from every defeat.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that despite his abundant talent and titles, the man known as El Ilusionista (The Illusionist) in Spain due to his spellbinding skill admitted he is forever seeking improvement in his game, with many critics accusing him of not scoring enough goals.

“I am very critical of myself and I like to improve everything,” he said.

“It’s not like I don’t like the way I am doing things right now, or that I like everything that I am doing. I believe there is always room for improvement.”

His perpetual quest for betterment owes much to the exacting education he received at Barcelona’s renowned breeding ground for young talent, La Masia Academy, which he joined at the age of 12 after impressing at a junior tournament.

Happiest boy on Earth

But for a small-town boy – he was born and grew up in the village of Fuentealbilla (population 1,864) in south east of Spain – leaving his close-knit family behind was an arduous experience initially, he recalls.

He said:  “I was slow to adapt to the new situation. I remember calling my parents constantly; I needed to see them, be with them, listen to them. The first few months were hell, as I only met my parents once or twice a month. Whenever they arrived at La Masia, I would hug them and I was the happiest boy on Earth.”

Having been schooled in adversity in his teens and several years ago, Iniesta is well equipped to face the twin impostors of triumph and disaster, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, and treat them just the same.

Therefore, he bristles with defiance when asked to comment on talk of the possible decline of Barcelona, who only two years ago were being roundly acclaimed as the best football team ever, following their 7-0 aggregate humbling at the hands of Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League in May.

Iniesta, who has also debunked the notion that small men cannot thrive in the Beautiful Game (he is a diminutive 5ft 7ins), said : “It is far from being the end of an era. We reached the semi-finals in the Champions and the Copa del Rey, besides winning La Liga. For any team that would be a great season. Perhaps we were a little tired to towards the end of the season, but this team has had a long run. We have to keep working and improve every day. I still think we are among the top sides in Europe.”

While emerging as the cream of the continent is a major priority for Iniesta and Barcelona every season, maintaining their domestic hegemony remains the most sought-after goal, he insisted.

Said Iniesta: “The most important title of the season is La Liga. It is a reward to the whole year’s hard work and consistency. Every year at the start of the season, the main goal is the league. In other competitions you can have a bad day, a bad qualifying campaign and you may get knocked out. But the league title is reward for a job well done over many months. It is truly special to win this title again this year, we are really happy.”

Striving to help Barcelona conquer Europe again and remain the kings of Spain in the face of what is likely to be formidable opposition from a wounded Real Madrid side rebuilding under a new manager, won’t be the only stiff challenge facing Iniesta in the next year.

He and his record-setting Spain teammates, winners of both the last two major championships they have competed in, will be chasing an historic fourth major title in a row at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Beating the hosts in the final in their own legendary Maracana Stadium would be “a magical experience”, admitted Iniesta, who said emulating the success of 2010 would rank as his greatest achievement in football in what has been a coruscating career.

He said:  “It’s very difficult to win a World Cup. Some national teams have never won it. Some have won it more than once. But we are going with the idea of taking things step by step and first we have to qualify. Once we are there, we will give our best.

“We are confident we have a good team, almost the same team we had before [in 2010], plus some talented young players such as Isco. We can go very far in the tournament, but there still there are many situations which can happen to prevent you from winning the cup such as injury or bad luck.”

Indeed, as existentialist Iniesta knows only too well, the only predictable thing about the bittersweet symphony of life is its constant unpredictability, with tragedy or triumph ready to strike at any given moment.

What is certain, though, is that the indomitable midfielder will continue to face any eventuality, good or bad, with dignity, style and courage, exemplifying the fact that he is both a genius and a gentleman.

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