Andres Iniesta’s decision to part ways with FC Barcelona leaves a massive hole at the legendary club and in the hearts of football lovers everywhere.
Widely considered one of the greatest players of his generation and among the most gifted midfielders of all time, Iniesta, 33, said Friday he would close his Barcelona career at the end of the season.
But he will also be remembered as the humble Galactico, almost the anti-star, who spurned the bling and trappings of the modern football hero for the life of a quiet family man away from the media glare.
Even so the modest, diminutive national treasure who scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final and led Barcelona to the treble in 2009 and 2015, steps away from Camp Nou as the most decorated Spanish player of all time with more than 30 trophies for club and country.
“You have to say he is the most important player of this winning era that started in 2004,” said Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
“He arrived here at the age of 12 and has had his entire career here. He has been a shining example both for the sport and himself personally, right until the last game last weekend (in the Copa Del Rey). All parents would want to have a son like Iniesta.”
– Creative genius –
And all teams would like to have the creative genius and the character of the 1.70m (5ft 7in) wizard known for his dribbling and penetrative dashes that cut through the best defences the world over the past 14 years.
For Lionel Messi, Iniesta’s steely inner strength when the going got tough was as important as the outward brilliance.
“On the pitch I like him to be near me, particularly when a game takes a turn for the worse, when things get difficult. That’s when I say to him: ‘Come closer’,” the Argentinian star was quoted as saying in Iniesta’s book, ‘The Artist’.
Few Barcelona players have won a standing ovation from fans of bitter rivals Real Madrid but Iniesta earned the rare tribute when he led Barca to a stunning 4-0 win in the Classico at the Bernabeu stadium in 2015.
– Bronze Statue –
Born in the village of Fuentealbilla, between Madrid and Valencia, where a bronze statue commemorates him, Iniesta was scouted by Barcelona as a 12-year-old.
He has been a rock through a career with four Champions League and seven Spanish league titles after making his debut at 18, scoring 57 goals in 669 club appearances.
“He’s so good that it is impossible not to play him,” said Iniesta’s former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola.
“Nobody has a better reading of space and time.
“But, above that, he has the ability to unbalance opposition teams. He is the player that always kills you in attacks and he is always there in the biggest games.”
Yet, just as key to Iniesta’s status as a national treasure in Spain as his World Cup winner, is a humility often at odds with modern football and the ostentatious lifestyle of its highly paid stars.
“Hero? No way,” he told El Pais on how his life changed after the goal against the Netherlands in Johannesburg that clinched the 2010 World Cup for Spain.
“Heroes are those who fight against illnesses, or who have to emigrate to feed their children.
“I am a privileged man who plays football and who, sometimes, has the luck to make people happy by scoring a goal or giving a pass to help win a game.
“That is the good thing about this national team, that we have given joyful days to those anonymous heroes who don’t often get the chance to smile.”