The way we play – An interview with Iniesta

Photograph: Ivan Sekretarev/AP

They have seen better nights. Quite a lot of them, in fact. In a village of La Mancha, there is a bar. The village is called Fuentealbilla and has a population of just 1,864; the bar is called the Luján and it is run, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, by Andrés Iniesta‘s grandfather. It has become the home of the local peña or supporters’ club, the walls covered with newspaper cuttings and shirts, a mini-museum collected by the Barcelona midfielder. Every time Andrés is in action, the bar is packed.

On Wednesday they witnessed another piece of history, it just wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. The evening before, Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi posed for photographs with Celtic’s shirt to mark the club’s 125th anniversary. The following night, the celebrations became even greater when Barcelona were beaten and Rod Stewart cried. “We have beaten the best team in the world,” said the Celtic manager, Neil Lennon. Iniesta scored in the first game against the Scottish champions but not this time. This time, there were shades of Chelsea about it. Chelsea last season, that is.

….

Fuentealbilla is deep in Don Quixote country. Iniesta left there at the age of 12 – he has been at Barcelona so long that he recently admitted that he felt “a bit Catalan too” – but he keeps coming back. When he first arrived in Barcelona he wanted to turn straight round again. He admits that when his parents came to visit he wouldn’t just sleep in the same hotel room as them, he would sleep in the same bed. The rest of the time he slept in La Masía, the Catalan-style farmhouse that stands alongside the Camp Nou, looking out the window and wondering.

“Those days were the worst of my life,” he says. “You’re 500km away, you’re without your family. You’re from a small place where you can walk everywhere and the change is huge. There were lots of nights I thought: ‘I want to go home.’ Very hard moments. I’d think I was never going to make it. But you have to be strong. Even at the age of 12 you think: ‘I have to fight. I’ve come this far, there’s no going back.'”

….

“When you win something, that comes to mind. I remember when the referee blew the final whistle in the World Cup final, the first thing I thought of was the pain. The suffering. Instead of thinking: ‘I’m a world champion,’ I thought of that. It had been a hard year with injuries and I didn’t think I’d make it. If you win without sacrifice you enjoy it but it’s more satisfying when you have struggled. The World Cup meant so much because of the journey there.”

The [Champions League] final in Rome [in 2009] was similar,” Iniesta continues. “I had torn a muscle and I couldn’t shoot with my right foot.”

It is no exaggeration: Barcelona’s doctors had told him not to shoot against Manchester United. But not shooting didn’t stop Iniesta and Xavi running the game. “There are moments when the human body can overcome things you would never expect,” Iniesta says. “I got injured 17 days before the final and all I wanted was to be there, however big the tear was. It was a 3cm tear and I fought morning and night. I had played in Paris [against Arsenal in 2006] but only as a sub so it left a bitter-sweet feeling and I kept thinking about that. In Rome I had to play. By playing despite being ‘broken’ I struggled at the start of the following season. I played a big price. But it was worth it.”

….

Speaking of messages, Guardiola once famously announced: “Andrés doesn’t dye his hair, doesn’t wear earrings and hasn’t got tattoos. That makes him unattractive to the media but he’s the best.”

In fact, it ended up making Iniesta even more popular; somehow closer to fans. Iniesta seems more like one of them; not long after the World Cup he recalls a woman coming up to him while he was leaning against the bar. “Excuse me,” she said. “Yes,” Iniesta replied, expecting the next line to be the usual request for an autograph or a photo. Instead she said: “I’d like an orange Fanta, please.”

….

Iniesta does not just represent a shift in perceptions of footballers but in perceptions of football. Barcelona and Spain have challenged preconceptions. Along with Xavi, Iniesta is the embodiment of the style, an ideologue – even if Xavi is a more vocal, more unwavering defender of the faith. “We feel part of something: we generate the football,” Iniesta says. “People say that it is in the midfield where the style of play of a side is established and in that sense we feel responsible.

“The 2008 Euros were so important because they showed you could win that way with a group of players who weren’t physically imposing in any way – if anything, we’re the opposite. Maybe that’s the point at which the idea starts to change. It’s the same with Barcelona, who always had that philosophy but have now added titles and trophies. Without the trophies it would all mean a lot less but it proved that it was possible.”

….

“It’s not that now we are saying football is a science and playing this way you will always win,” Iniesta says. “The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.

“But the football that Spain and Barcelona play is not the only kind of football there is. Counterattacking football, for example, has just as much merit. The way Barcelona play and the way Spain play isn’t the only way. Different styles make this such a wonderful sport. But what we do is not easy, either.”

….

Iniesta was voted the man of the match in the final. It was his third award of the tournament and Uefa named him European football’s player of the year – ahead of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. “Winning that was special,” he says. “To even be standing there between Cristiano and Leo was a prize for me, so to be there on the podium and actually win it … If people like the way I play so much that they put me above Leo and Cristiano, that’s incredible. I feel like people respect me.”

So how about the Ballon d’Or? Iniesta smiles. It is a kind of resigned smile. “Anyone would love to be there,” he says but he knows it will be Messi or Ronaldo that wins it; that arguably the greatest national team ever may never have a winner of the award. “Recognition is the World Cup and the European Championships,” Iniesta says. “It’s a team sport and they are the team prizes.” There’s a pause and he grins: “But of course it would be nice.”

….

Read Sid Lowe’s entire piece “Andrés Iniesta: Football isn’t a science. We play this way because it suits us” here, on The Guardian’s site.

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