Andres Iniesta de la Mancha lived out a reality that seems like a hallucination.
Though not official, Iniesta expects to trade in Catalonia for China at the end of the season and leave behind a Barcelona legacy that featured a 35-trophy haul, including two European trebles. The silverware is easy to point to as a marker, but Iniesta meant far more to the sport and to the club than the shiny objects the club celebrated at the end of seemingly every season he served.
In many ways, Iniesta kept Barcelona in Spain.
Regardless of the jeers bestowed upon Gerard Pique and the complicated role of FC Barcelona in Catalonia’s push for independence, Iniesta roundly received applause and adoration throughout Spain while donning the shirt.
There might never have been a more uniting figure in Spanish sports than the man from a tiny village of Fuentealbilla, a place where the population count barely crept over 2,000 souls as recently as 2009. The year after that population survey, Iniesta scored the goal that pushed the 5-foot-7 midfielder into the hearts of all Spaniards, even the most hardened of white-wearing Madridistas.
“Everyone’s goal,” Fernando Torres once described that 116th minute strike that gave Spain its first World Cup victory.
Iniesta scoring “everyone’s goal” only made sense since he was secretly everyone’s favorite player, and from that day forward, even opposing supporters across Spain began affectionately referring to Iniesta simply by his first name.
No, Iniesta didn’t put up the superhuman highlight reels of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or draw in arguments about whether he was better than x, y or z player. He wasn’t lightning fast, exceptionally tall or even especially durable. Like few other, though, Iniesta’s superior skill and subtle genius made it difficult to be a fan of the beautiful game and not marvel at the beauty in his game.
In a fan culture of cutting down opponents and finding faults, Iniesta proved to be that rare personality that united the watching world, just as he seemingly continued to unite Spain. So, when Sevilla supporters rose to applaud Iniesta as he exited the Copa del Rey on Saturday, despite Sevilla trailing 5-0 at that stage in the match, no one was surprised.
The fact that the 33-year-old spilt tears on the bench seemed to instantly break the illusion that the man from La Mancha could go on playing for Barcelona forever. The monsters turned to windmills, and reality returned to view. Sadly, the inevitable end was, indeed, near. Spain’s valiant knight will soon get on his horse one final time and ride off into the sunset.
After claiming his 31st trophy for Barcelona in the tearful Copa del Rey sendoff on Saturday, trophy No. 32 will undoubtedly come when Barcelona claims its ninth La Liga title since Iniesta joined the first team. Barcelona remains unbeaten in La Liga with only five matches remaining, so that final piece of Barcelona silverware may have an extra bit of shine on it for the departing club captain.
Add in two European Championships with Spain in 2008 and 2012 along with the World Cup in 2010, and Iniesta’s trophy count will be at 35 by the time he officially leaves Barcelona. Aged 34 by the time the 2018 World Cup starts, Iniesta expects to be part of La Furia Roja in Russia, and his ability to provide the cutting pass in a stalemate or simply outclass lesser quality opponents promises to play a factor in Spain’s World Cup dreams.
The man who once scored “everyone’s goal” winning a second World Cup before effectively calling time on his career would only make too much sense. Regardless of what ultimately happens in Russia, though, Iniesta’s European dream, it seems, is ending.
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