JOHANNESBURG – One swift kick at FNB Stadium gave Andres Iniesta what therapy, his friends and loved ones had tried to give him months before the 2010 Fifa World Cup, so that he could get out of the dark place he was in.
It didn’t hurt that that kick also gave Spain their first World Cup, the biggest prize in the 35 titles that Iniesta has won for club and country. But being a world champion was of secondary importance when he left South Africa eight years ago. First-prize was the inner-peace he found, something that had eluded him for months before the World Cup - not aided by the injury he was nursing and the death of his friend - Espanyol captain Dani Jarque.
Iniesta honoured him after scoring Spain’s winning goal in extra time in the final against the Netherlands by revealing the message: “Dani Jarque, always with us,” written on his vest. That gesture and goal played an important part in Iniesta’s healing.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Iniesta said in his book The Artist: Being Iniesta.
“But I learnt then that when your body and mind are vulnerable, you feel like anything can happen to you, that you’re capable of doing something very damaging ... I don’t know if this sounds too strong, if it’s the right way of expressing it, but I felt like, somehow, I came to ‘understand’ how people can be driven to madness, into doing something crazy, completely out of character.”
At first the 34-year-old didn’t tell anyone what he was going through.
“Andres takes it all on board, loading the pressure on himself, keeping it all inside,” former Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, who told Iniesta about the death of his friend Jarque, said in the book. “Maybe that’s why he gets injured so often. Sometimes you think that you can handle everything, but you can’t.”
“I keep everything in,” Iniesta said.
“I don’t like to burden others with my problems; I deal with them on my own. But there comes a time when there’s no other way. There were training sessions that I couldn’t finish because of this strange feeling I had My life is what it is, and that is the way I had always approached it. This is the way things are, deal with it yourself.
All the things that have happened to me, the way I have always dealt with problems, in the good times and the bad: it’s just the way I was brought up, I suppose. The way I am.”
Barcelona will be without this selfless figure next season after he announced that he will leave the Catalan giants at the end of this campaign, ending an affair he started as a 12-year-old. It’s quite fitting that the FNB Stadium will be his second-last stop in tonight’s international friendly against Mamelodi Sundowns, as this venue witnessed a special moment in Iniesta’s career.
His final swansong in the colours of the Catalan giants will be at Camp Nou against Real Sociedad on Sunday and it will be an emotional farewell.
“Iniesta belongs to everybody, like some treasure, held close but enjoyed together,” Sid Lowe wrote in The Guardian.
Zinedine Zidane echoed those sentiments after Iniesta announced he’ll be leaving Barcelona.
“He’s a Barcelona player, but I don’t think of him like that,” the Real Madrid coach told reporters. “I think of him as football’s.”
The game has been damn lucky to have this artist.
Iniesta isn’t big, fast, athletic or tall but he has a gift that beats all those traits - his ability to freeze time and manipulate space. Barcelona and Spain benefited from this as he used this skill to draw opponents by giving them the false impression that they could easily take the ball from him.
Taking the ball from Iniesta is easier said than done as not only could he manipulate space and time, he also had feet the ball felt at home on.
“I’ve been playing with him since we were 15 and I have never, ever seen him play badly. When he has the ball, it’s like everything else stops. He’s decisive,” Fernando Torres told The World Game.
The most iconic Iniesta picture, after the one of him celebrating scoring the winning goal at FNB Stadium, comes from the 2012 Uefa European Championship final against Italy. In the picture the pint-sized Iniesta is surrounded by five Italian giants, yet looks in complete control.
“My teammates would have an easier life if I always had five men on me,” Iniesta told ESPN.
His last two matches in the blue and maroon of Barcelona are the perfect opportunity for his teammates and the lucky souls who will be there to shower him with love. His departure from Barcelona signals the end of an era, forcing the Catalan giants to find a new heart, mind and soul.
Puyol was the soul, Xavi the mind and Iniesta the heart. If it wasn’t for Iniesta’s words to Pep Guardiola, perhaps we wouldn’t have witnessed one of the greatest sides in football.
“Don’t worry, Míster. We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, okay? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything,” Iniesta is reported to have told Guardiola following the club’s bad start under a manager who was still a novice. “We’re in f****** great shape, we’re playing bloody brilliantly.”
At the end of that season Barcelona had won every trophy on offer.
“Andres doesn’t do anything he doesn’t truly believe in; he does it because it feels right to him. He’s genuine, always.” Guardiola said in The Artist: Being Iniesta.
“Maybe he spoke out because he could see that there was a method we were following, that everyone was training well, that we explained to them why we did things the way we did, and above all because that was the kind of football that he had been brought up on ... We never seem to treat Andres the way we should; we don’t seem to recognise him. He’s the absolute business as a player.
He never talks about himself, never demands anything, but people who think he’s satisfied just to play are wrong. If he thought he could win the Balon d’Or one year, he’d want to win it. Why?
Because he’d say to himself: ‘I’m the best’.”