World Cups often throw up intriguing sub-plots, and the 2018 edition even in its early stages has thrown up a big one. Real Madrid’s announcement that Spanish head coach Julian Lopetegui would succeed Zinedine Zidane in the Bernabeu hot-seat came as a surprise to everyone, not least the Spanish FA who subsequently acted promptly and decisively in sacking a manager who was contracted through to 2020. Just a couple of days before Spain kick off their World Cup campaign with what could well be a tournament-defining fixture against Portugal, the sacking has shocked many within the footballing world and leaves the Spanish team in a fairly uncomfortable and unusual position.
It also overshadows another World Cup sub-plot involving the Spanish, that of Andres Iniesta’s last appearance on the global stage. At 34 years old, and having just brought down the curtain on a glorious club career with his beloved Barcelona to join Japanese side Vissel Kobe, Russia 2018 will likely be Iniesta’s international swansong. His name forever etched in Spanish history for that decisive goal eight years ago at Soccer City in Johannesburg, when Spain’s World Cup adventure comes to an end this summer the great maestro will leave an enduring legacy for football fans to look back on.
A graduate from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Andres Iniesta had great natural talent from an early age. A young player who seemed at one with the ball, many who watched him back in his formative years would probably say that his career has not come as a surprise. Yet Iniesta in many ways had to overcome some significant hurdles in his early career to grow into the star player he became for both club and country. At the time of his Barcelona debut as a small, slight of frame 18-year-old in 2002, Iniesta’s attributes seemed a little at odds with that of his midfield counterparts. In the likes of Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane and Michael Ballack there were midfielders with a size and presence that often proved overpowering to opposition midfielders, with these midfield generals possessing a strength and drive that led the way for their respective teams’ success. Even guys smaller in stature such as Edgar Davids and Gennaro Gattusso had a great physical edge and indomitable spirit to their games that saw them carve out success-laden careers. In contrast to his fellow midfielders Iniesta did not possess the same attributes, and in his early days in Catalonia some wondered whether this would hold him back and prove a weakness.
They needn’t have worried.
As the years progressed Iniesta’s influence at Barcelona began to grow just at the time as the Spanish giants were stepping out of the shadow of rivals Real Madrid and re-emerging as a force in European football. The 2006 Champions League final saw the Spanish side return to the top of the European game with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal, and whilst much of that success was driven by the talismanic figure of Ronaldinho it cannot be overlooked the role a 22-year-old Iniesta played when coming on as a half-time substitute with Arsenal leading 1-0.
That summer his international career began with a call-up to Spain’s World Cup squad with his first cap arriving in a friendly against Russia on the eve of the tournament. In exiting at the last-16 stage to eventual runners-up France, Spain may have once again failed to shine at a major tournament but the performances of young stars such as Iniesta, Fernando Torres and David Villa would provide a little glimpse of what was to come in the future.
Fast forward a couple of years to 2008 and Iniesta alongside Barcelona team-mate Xavi would play a crucial role in ending decades of disappointment for the national side as Spain beat Germany in the final of the European Championships, a triumph in some ways made all the sweeter for Iniesta in that it came against midfield rival Ballack, a player who in the past some believed to be just too strong for the Barcelona man.
With the youthful Iniesta becoming European champion for both club and country, his early success also marked a significant evolution in the role of the midfielder. By 2008 the influence of midfielders Vieira and Gattusso was starting to wane and in their place were coming the likes of Iniesta and Xavi, smaller midfielders with supreme technical ability and vision.
Pep Guardiola’s arrival as Barcelona head coach would spawn a glorious era at club level for Iniesta as Barcelona won two European Cups in three years, the second of which saw arguably the greatest team performance in the history of the game as led by the mercurial talents of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, the Catalan side swept aside Manchester United 3-1 in the final.
In between the Champions League triumphs of 2009 and 2011 of course would come Iniesta’s crowning glory as a Spanish side renewed with a confidence and swagger that only comes with winning silverware arrived at the 2010 World Cup desperate to add a world title to their European crown. As influential as ever Iniesta played a starring role in helping guide his nation through to the final where they played the Netherlands. With both sides looking to become world champions for the first time a tense final was played out, whereby the Dutchmen’s overly-aggressive style won them few supporters as they looked to stop Spain’s easy on the eye patient free-flowing game. With penalties looming it looked as if the Dutch had succeeded in their plan, yet up stepped Iniesta showing his customary poise and class to score the decisive goal that saw Spain crowned world champions.
By now of course the likes of Iniesta and Xavi were idolised by young aspiring midfielders the world over as the perfect identikit of a world-class midfielder and whilst the form of club-mate Messi and Real Madrid forward Ronaldo may have seen individual honours pass them by, everyone within the football world knew of these players’ greatness.
For Iniesta, more European success followed in 2012 (Spain) and 2015 (Barcelona) respectively, with the latter made perhaps more significant by the absence of long-time team-mate Xavi from the starting team as he said farewell to his lengthy career at the Nou Camp.
This year has seen Iniesta’s time to say good-bye to Barcelona and in leaving having led the club to another domestic title this time as captain, the Spaniard ended his club career rather fittingly as a winner again.
With an imminent move to Japan this summer’s tournament is likely to be the last opportunity us European fans have to see the great man in action. A supremely gifted midfielder it has been a joy to watch Iniesta’s career up close over the last 12 years. Neither was he a deep-lying playmaker type like Xavi or an out-and-out No.10 like Spanish World Cup team-mate Isco, but rather a midfielder who seamlessly operated between the lines of midfield and attack conjuring up crucial goals – like his last-minute goal against Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semi-final or his 2010 World Cup winner – and assists, with a passing game perhaps only bettered by long-time team-mate Xavi.
In an era where Messi and Ronaldo have stunned football fans the world over in breaking all sorts of goal-scoring records, the debate over who is the greatest footballer rages on, yet for natural footballing ability Iniesta has been the best footballer of his generation.
In 2006 another great midfielder Zinedine Zidane brought the curtain down on his glorious career by showcasing his wonderful skill one last time in leading France to another World Cup final – eight years after scoring the goals that saw France become world champions for the first time. Zidane’s World Cup story may have ended in infamy, but the similarities between his tale and that of Iniesta’s are quite striking and there is every chance the Spanish star could have the same impact and go one better than Zidane in ending on the ultimate high in Moscow on the 15th July.