Monday 24 September 2018

Enjoy the magic of Iniesta while you still can

Spain's greatest ever deserves to be ranked among the icons of the game

Andres Iniesta plays the first game in his final World Cup tonight. Photo: Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Andres Iniesta plays the first game in his final World Cup tonight. Photo: Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jamie Carragher

Andres Iniesta goes into his final World Cup recognised as one of the greatest players of his generation. It is time to go even further in our appreciation.

Iniesta is the finest Spanish footballer ever. He should be regarded as highly as any of those footballing gods, past and present, whose pantheons we worship.

As an attacking midfielder, Iniesta belongs on the same pedestal as Zinedine Zidane. If he can inspire Spain to another victory - just as he did in 2010 - or even enjoy another stellar tournament, in my eyes he will surpass Zidane.

It has been a prolonged farewell from Spanish and European football for Iniesta since the end of last season, each moment of adulation deserved.

Strangely, for all the tributes coming his way, I believe he is under-rated.

History

For some time I have been asking myself who in football history, specifically playing Iniesta's attacking midfield role, has had such a profound influence on our game, or in the biggest matches of his era?

Zidane is the obvious answer, yet whenever I have made a comparison between the two players in conversation there is a polite nod and then shrug - a response which tells me most people agree Iniesta is a special talent, but privately do not share my view he is already at Zidane's level.

Why? His performances over the course of 16 years prove Iniesta has been as influential for Spain as Zidane for France. Nothing separates them in World Cup success. Iniesta is already ahead in terms of club honours.

Iniesta's career statistics are mind-blowing. Nine La Liga titles, four Champions League wins, a World Cup and two European Championships. It is a travesty he was never awarded the Ballon d'Or.

The brilliance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has denied their peers that accolade. But look beyond the medals and analyse his contribution to those victories - shining in the greatest club side (Pep Guardiola's Barcelona) and best international team I have seen; Spain, the only nation to win three consecutive tournaments in the modern era.

Before every major final, we speak of those who differentiate themselves from the rest by defining games that most matter. We query if those who have produced in the earlier stages of a competition can do so when the winning post is in sight. Think of how few are capable of doing that. Then consider how often Iniesta has delivered.

Few players get the chance to make an impact on one final. Iniesta has left his imprint on the final of every major competition.

Iniesta was not only part of the World Cup-winning team, he scored the winning goal in 2010 and was the man of the match. He was man of the match in the European Championship final against Italy two years later, and named player of the tournament.

In the Champions League he was consistently in the team of the year, name-checked by opponents as much as Messi as the man who truly made Barcelona tick. Ahead of the 2009 Champions League final, Alex Ferguson named Iniesta as the player he most feared.

After the game, Wayne Rooney said Iniesta was the best footballer in the world. So it goes on. He was man of the match in the 2015 Champions League final, too.

Our perceptions of Iniesta are influenced by the quality of those around him.

It is easy to see the emergence of Guardiola's great Barcelona side through Messi's impact, meaning many of those around him are viewed as support acts.

Spain's international success, and the manner in which Iniesta has driven them forward, shows how Barca's success is down to more than Messi.

Iniesta is not a goal-scoring midfielder. He has never been particularly quick. Even his assists record seems relatively modest. But our memories of particular games are shaped by the warmth of experience - what we saw on the field - far more than the cold data we analyse afterwards.

Put simply, Iniesta is a joy to watch; how he understands the game; the ease with which he glides away from opponents - particularly in the tightest of situations; how he is always in position, always there to exchange a pass with a team-mate to link defence, midfield and attack and keep the game moving.

This is a skill no pass completion or assist chart can ever show us. The pleasure and thrill come from the naked eye.

For much of my playing career, I felt Xavi was the finest midfielder I played against. After seeing Iniesta as a teenager, Guardiola famously told Xavi: "You will retire me, but this kid will retire us both."

No one can replace Iniesta. Aged 34, Iniesta is not retired yet, although this represents the final goodbye to his top-level career.

We should not think of him as a player who merely fitted into the grand plan of the most exciting football teams ever, but a midfield architect as responsible as any for the attacking design of those sides - and the teams of the future.

We should not think of Iniesta as one of the best attacking midfielders there has been. He is worth more than that. We may only be a matter of weeks away from universal agreement there were none better. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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