Andres Iniesta: 'I would look at the Nou Camp and think will I ever make it?'
Andres Iniesta tells Pete Jenson about his struggle to make it at Barça, his respect for Guardiola and his fear of Scholes and Giggs
Saturday 21 May 2011
The last time Andres Iniesta scored for Barcelona in London he caused a baby boom 700 miles away in Catalonia.
His injury-time goal at Stamford Bridge in 2009 sent Barça through to meet Manchester United in the Champions League final and such were the celebrations back home that nine months later the birth rate in the city went up by 45 per cent.
"We are up from an average of nine to 10 births a day to 15 a day" said Mercedes Rodriguez, head midwife for the city's Quiron Hospital in February last year. The blip was accredited in large part to the Iniesta piledriver that broke Chelsea fans' hearts.
"It's the greatest thing that you win matches and titles and this makes so many people happy. It is incredible to see what just a goal or a trophy can do," Iniesta tells me this week at Barcelona's Joan Gamper training complex on the outskirts of the city. A week today he will appear in Barcelona's third Champions League final in six years and once again he played an important part in them getting through the semi-finals.
There was no spectacular last-minute shot this time but he delivered the pass that sent Pedro through to score Barcelona's only goal of the second leg against Real Madrid, leaving his opponent next Saturday night Wayne Rooney eulogising on Twitter: "Iniesta, what a ball".
Rooney is the first player that comes to mind when contemplating who poses the greatest threat to Barcelona next weekend, although when asked to pick out one United player, Iniesta is caught between two more historic names.
"Rooney is one of the best players in the world and I love watching him play. They have Nani as well and a very good defence. But if you had to pick out only one, then for their history and for all that they have achieved it would have to be Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs. They are two shining examples for any player."
Example is the word Pep Guardiola has always used about Iniesta. "No tattoos, no earrings – if young players want to know what to do and how to behave I just tell them to follow Andres," says the Barcelona coach.
As plain and studious off the pitch as he is brilliantly bohemian on it, Iniesta spends his spare time learning English, collecting memorabilia from his own career and looking after his family.
He bought a house for his mother and made sure his bricklayer father was able to retire at 40 after he signed his first big contract. Back in his hometown of Fuentealbilla near Albacete in Castille-La Mancha, central Spain, his grandfather's bar has been turned into an Iniesta museum full of newspaper clippings and signed shirts. It opens for big matches and those from his hometown not lucky enough to be at Wembley will watch the game from there on Saturday night.
"Apart from my daughter, who will only be two months old, almost everybody from the family will be in London," says Iniesta. That includes maternal grandfather Andres Lujan, whose bar is now home to the player's mementoes. "My family closed the bar when they moved to Barcelona but my uncles and aunts and grandparents stayed there and my father has made a small museum with my cuttings and photographs," he says.
"I try to keep something from all the big games – and not just the victories but also the difficult moments. It will be nice to have these things to look back on when I stop playing. I more or less have all the boots I have ever played with, including the first ones my father bought me when I was an eight-year-old starting out at Albacete."
Before the newspaper cuttings about his own career he hoarded articles and posters of his two footballing heroes, Michael Laudrup and Guardiola. "He is very important for us," says Iniesta of the coach, who played for Barcelona in the 1992 European Cup final at Wembley. "I think we all agree that he has been the key to the success of this team. It is what he transmits to the players – his knowledge of the game, the club and all that surrounds it.
"He is a coach that gives you solutions. In matches when things are not going well he comes up with the answer. The players are ultimately the decisive ones because we are on the pitch but it's fundamental to have a coach who you can actually learn from."
The connection between Guardiola and many of his players is strengthened by the coach having come through the same youth structure at the club, though as an outsider Iniesta's path was harder.
It began with the 80km (50-mile) trips three times a week to Albacete after they signed him as an eight-year-old. Chauffeured by his father, who saved up for three months to buy him his first pair of Adidas Predator boots, Iniesta would hang around on Saturdays to watch the club's first team in La Liga, frustrated one week when they were beaten 7-0 by his second-favourite team, Barcelona.
When Barça spotted him aged 12 playing in Spain's most famous international youth tournament in Brunete, just outside Madrid, the club's now head of youth development, Albert Benaiges, wanted the little No 5 with "Andres" on his back to start training with them, even though he was two years short of the age of most academy kids.
Barça decided to bend the rules but, despite being told by his father that "the train may only pass once", at first Iniesta did not want to leave home. It was only after he had time to dwell on that advice on one of those 80km trips to Albacete that he changed his mind. The family took advantage of a trip to the Barcelona theme park PortAventura – the prize he had won for being the best player in the Under-12s tournament – to visit the club.
He finally made the long journey away from home in the family Ford Orion with his parents and grandfather. "We stopped to eat but nobody touched their food," remembers Iniesta. "My mother was crying, my father wasn't hungry and my grandfather was trying to cheer everybody up."
And there were tears every night once installed in Barcelona's La Masia school of excellence but, rough as the journey was, it would lead to his first-team debut under Louis van Gaal in 2002 and eventually to a regular starting place under Frank Rikjaard. He was a second-half substitute in 2006 in Paris as Barcelona came back from 1-0 down to beat Arsenal 2-1 and he played 90 minutes in Rome when United were conquered two years ago.
"La Masia is a place where lots of people live together but you are on your own," Iniesta recalls. "I used to wake up some mornings and look across at the Nou Camp, thinking 'Will I ever make it?' But you get tougher every day when you see that there is another kid behind you who wants your place."
There is a sense that this could be "Iniesta's final". He needs one more goal to beat his record of nine in one season in all competitions and he is finishing the season in the kind of form and fitness that gives him, as in last year's World Cup final, a good chance of scoring it at Wembley. "I was a substitute in Paris and injured in Rome. Hopefully, for this game I will be in perfect condition to play," he says.
"It's been a good season, as much individually as for the team, I've been able to add goals to my game. Every player wants to be as complete as possible and goals for a central midfielder are very important."
Iniesta is maturing into the finished article. Aged 27, he now looks ready to fulfil the famous old Guardiola prophecy. When the Barcelona coach first spotted Xavi he said: 'This kid will retire me'; and when the two watched Iniesta the line was: 'And this kid will retire us both.' Xavi remains a vital cog in the Barcelona machine but increasingly Iniesta's importance is second only to Lionel Messi's.
That importance is magnified by his knack of producing a moment of decisive magic in the big games. Be it a baby boom-inducing snapshot from the edge of the area at Stamford Bridge or a World Cup winner in Johannesburg. "I think about it a lot," he says when asked if he ever has to pinch himself at the progress he has made. "I don't think anybody thought that I would achieve all that I have achieved. I wanted to be a footballer; I wanted to play in the First Division; I wanted to play for Barcelona; but everything else? It has just been incredible."
He has a beautiful way of describing his most incredible moment to date – that goal against the Netherlands. "I knew we were going to be world champions," he says. "It was now or never. When the ball came to me I just had to wait for gravity to do its job and then hit it. I knew the 'keeper would not get to it. It had been a tough season with injuries and I knew I had suffered a lot to be given this one last bullet."
If there is only one round left in the cylinder at Wembley on Saturday night, Iniesta will once again be the man all Barcelona fans want with his finger on the trigger.
Iniesta's Roll Of Honour
*Born: 11 May 1984, Albacete
*Club career: 2002-present Barcelona
*International career: 56 caps for Spain, nine goals
World Cup 2010
Scored the winning goal in extra time of the final as Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Johannesburg
European Championship 2008
Champions League 2006, 2009
Supercopa 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010
La Liga 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011
Copa del Rey 2009
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