My Football Heroes: Andres Iniesta

On July 11th 2010, Andres Iniesta reached the very pinnacle of the footballing world. The Spaniard scored the goal to win the World Cup, as a player he has won everything, the fact that the goal that captured the biggest trophy of them all is merely one chapter, underlines the greatness of his career.

Born in a small village in the province of Albacete –  Southern Spain, Andres Iniesta’s prowess with the football ensured he always stood out. Albacete is no footballing hotbed but it was not long before La Liga’s giants took an interest in the area. FC Barcelona and their famous youth academy of La Masia were the first to act. After a tough first six months, the young Andres Iniesta settled down and became an integral part of the Barcelona youth setup. Iniesta rose rapidly through the ranks and was part of a youth team already accustomed to winning silverware.

In 2002 he made his first team debut under Louis Van Gaal, against FC Brugges in the Champions League. It was the start of a long journey he would make with several of his La Masia contemporaries. In 2003, former Barcelona and Holland midfielder Frank Rijkaard took over as first team coach, two years later Iniesta helped Barcelona win the La Liga, their first trophy in six years. Versatile yet quiet Iniesta’s contribution was arguably overlooked. Barcelona won a second consecutive league title in 2006 and reached the final of the Champions League. Iniesta was named as a substitute in the final, but came off the bench to make an impact in the second half as Barcelona beat Arsenal 2-1 in Paris. The win would mark only their second European cup. It was a familiar argument that the diminutive build of Iniesta and others like him was not the right fit for the modern game. However, Iniesta and his compatriots were changing the system.

International recognition came in 2006, Iniesta made his debut against Russia on the eve of that years World Cup in Germany. Spain made little impression on the competition and were knocked out in the second round. A year later, Iniesta claimed his first international goal against England. Barcelona meanwhile, were in the midst of a baron spell and Frank Rijkaard paid the price. His replacement was ideal for Iniesta, the former Barcelona stalwart Pep Guardiola. A key member of Johan Cruyff’s 1992 dream team and well versed in the clubs philosophy. Before teaming up with Guardiola, Iniesta joined the national squad for the 2008 European Championship in Austria and Switzerland. For years Spain had failed to fulfil their potential and had not won an international title since the corresponding tournament in 1964. Head coach Luis Aragones had built a team capable of success and though the pressure was on, the players arrived in confident mood. Spain had finally grown into the team they had threatened to be for so many years. In the final against Germany, a goal from Fernando Torres clinched Henri Delaunay trophy. At last Spain were winners again.

For the next six years Spain and Barcelona would dominate the global and European game, largely thanks to the stability honed in Catalonia. Under the guidance of Guardiola, Iniesta formed a partnership with Xavi that would set the standard around the world. At the Camp Nou one player benefited from the brilliance of the midfield duo more than any other, Lionel Messi. The plaudits continued for the unassuming Iniesta, his dazzling brilliance demanded recognition and his performances in 2009 were highly praised. Iniesta was now recognised as one the world’s best, his vision was making the most important people take notice. That season Iniesta was arguably the key member of a dominant Barcelona side, a historic campaign saw Guardiola and Barcelona imprint their tiki taka style onto the watching world. Iniesta was the architect through which this style was channelled. The coup de grâce of Iniesta’s season arrived at Stamford Bridge, in the semi-finals of the Champions League. As the game entered the final sixty seconds of added time, Barcelona needed a goal to reach the final on the away goals rule. Step forward Andres Iniesta.

So to Rome and Barcelona’s second Champions League final in four seasons, the holders Manchester United were their opponents. Manchester United were outclassed in Rome as Barcelona won 2-0. It was a stunning team performance and Iniesta was the master, following the match Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney told the press, he believed Barcelona’s number 8 was now the world’s best player. It was a record breaking season for the Catalans. Barcelona became the first Spanish club to win league cup and European cup, claiming six trophies over the calendar year.

For Iniesta, the following season was in stark contrast. Injury disrupted his pre-season and the ensuing campaign, there were moments of brilliance but these were few and far between. Barcelona still won the league title, but Iniesta only started 20 matches that season and he was troubled by more than injury. Dani Jarque was a former teammate of Iniesta at youth level and captained Barcelona’s cross town rivals Espanyol, he was only 26 when he died of a heart attack.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw Iniesta emerge from the darkness, he scored the winning goal in Spain’s final group match against Chile. Iniesta was shortlisted for the player of the tournament award. Spain reached the final, where they faced the Netherlands in Johannesburg, aiming to become only the third side after West Germany and France to hold both the European and world titles at the same time. The Dutch looked to antagonise Spain, patience was key. The match entered extra time and finally the pendulum swung. After scoring the winning goal, in celebration Iniesta removed his shirt, the top underneath read “Dan Jarque, always with us” A fitting tribute to a dear friend.

The following season Iniesta, Spain’s World Cup winner was celebrated and applauded and not just because of the goal but also because of the t-shirt celebration. It was another season of triumph, as Barcelona clinched their third consecutive league title and defeated Manchester United once again to claim their second European cup in three seasons. Messi, Iniesta and Xavi were voted the top three players in the world. The trophies kept coming, at Euro 2012 Spain knew their third successive tournament victory would write them into footballing folklore. They made history, Italy were no match in the final in Kiev, as Iniesta inspired a 4-0 win. Three international tournaments had been won and Andres Iniesta had made a huge contribution to each success.

His numerous awards and achievements include league championships, European cups and international titles. The fulcrum of two teams that dominated the world for six years, don Andres.

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