James Lawton: Iniesta, the unassuming dreamer who can deliver Spain the ultimate prize

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However it goes with the juggling of the World Cup's marquee stars over the next few days, there is unlikely to be too much neon-lit brandishing of the name Andres Iniesta, Spain's 21st century version of the man of La Mancha.

Unlike the original, Don Quixote, Iniesta does not charge windmills or attempt to rescue maidens.

He does not flaunt his romantic nature or his astonishing football skill. But if this makes him a classic representative of the dour realists who are supposed to be shaped by the bare, wind-scoured region where Cervantes, in a peculiarly Spanish joke, set his hero, it doesn't mean that he lacks either extreme passion or the capacity to dream.

Indeed, there can be no strain in recognising the strong undercurrent of belief in professional football circles that in this small (5ft 7in, 10-stone), ferociously intense man we may well have the 19th World Cup's most influential performer.

He doesn't dazzle like Fernando Torres, invade the senses in the manner of Wayne Rooney or begin to match the pyrotechnics of Cristiano Ronaldo, but what he does do arguably better than anyone in all of football is make a team come alive in the most extraordinary and telling way.

Last spring, he was the most decisive player on the field when Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome. He delivered the most killing passes. He picked United apart and afterwards Rooney said, almost as an aside, "Andres Iniesta is the best player in the world."

That warm night beside the Tiber, Iniesta and his principal ally, Xavi Hernandez, confirmed the worst fears of United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who said before the game, "I don't think Iniesta and Xavi have given the ball away in their whole lives. They get you on that carousel and they leave you dizzy."

If Spain, the reigning European champions but notorious under-achievers at the greatest tournament of them all, are to justify their status of favourites it will take more than the crowd-thrilling pace and touch of men like Torres, David Villa and David Silva. It will take a man who can boil a whole game, a whole tournament, down into one moment of decision and nerve and then deliver an utterly appropriate response.

He did it at Stamford Bridge a year ago when Barça appeared to be trailing out of the Champions League. As the clock ticked down, Xavi implored him to add one more pass to another Barcelona crescendo. But Iniesta shot, as perfectly as he rolled the ball to Xavi a year earlier in Vienna when Spain were forced to their limits in putting down the impressive eruption of Guus Hiddink's Russia in the European Championship semi-final.

Xavi still recalls in some wonderment the goal that broke Chelsea. "Normally Andres would not have hit the ball from there. I was screaming for the pass but it was a good job he took no notice. Where are the idiots now who said we couldn't play together?"

The "idiots" formed a vocal section of the Nou Camp crowd when Iniesta and Xavi were given the job of filling the vacuum left by Deco and the fading Ronaldinho. But they were never likely to change the rock-hard opinion of coach Pep Guardiola that the creative force of his team was in superior hands.

When Xavi, who at 30 is four years older than his partner Iniesta, first emerged through the Barça youth ranks, Guardiola was still a major figure in the midfield, but when he saw the new contender he murmured, "That kid will retire me." A little later he caught sight of Iniesta – and turned to Xavi and said, "That kid will retire both of us."

Iniesta has made himself the footballer's footballer, the supreme craftsman who makes everything work, who can adjust the unfavourable balance of the game with one flash of perception and clinical execution. Rooney's almost casual tribute carries a high level of significance because, of all the major front players in the world, he is maybe the most naturally gifted in the arts and sciences of the game.

Rooney is more than an action man, he is also a thinker, a reader, an interpreter of movement and timing in a way that sometimes announces a unique talent. When he says that Iniesta is the best player in the world you have to believe that he is seizing upon something which any intelligent forward player, relying so heavily on the advantage of a split second and the pass than can unhinge even the most accomplished defenders, would most eagerly salute. It is the sublime ability to measure the lacerating delivery, something that was always in the possession of the world's greatest players, men like Pele, Cruyff and Platini and Maradona.

It was possibly displayed at its most devastating by the Argentinian demi-god in the World Cup final of 1986, when West Germany's decision to have Lothar Matthaus shadow him over every blade of the grass at the Azteca Stadium threatened to create an unlikely triumph for Teutonic pragmatism over Latin flair. With five minutes to go, and the score 2-2, Maradona saw in a millisecond a gap in the German defence. He fed Jorge Burruchaga with a perfectly sculpted pass.

That is the promise of the highly respected but not hugely heralded Andres Iniesta in the next few weeks. It is the offering of someone who lives beyond the star system of football, who inhabits his own world of ambition and a professional satisfaction that will never be distracted by the clamour of celebrity.

His former Barça team-mate Samuel Eto'o, whose searing pace trades most profitably on refined service, agrees with Rooney. "There is no one like Andres when it comes to giving you the ball in the right place at the right pace. It is as though he sees everything a little quicker than anyone else. Yes, if you ask me who I like playing with, who is the best, I have to say it is him."

Iniesta's admiring boss Guardiola, who must have prayed a thousand times for a miracle recovery by his injured play-maker before the second leg of this year's Champions League semi-final with Jose Mourinho's tank-trap defence of Internazionale, long ago assigned him to a place among a separate football species.

Guardiola says, "With Andres there is only the football; there are no earrings or tattoos, he doesn't dye his hair and if he plays for just 20 minutes he never complains. I say to all the young players, 'Look at Iniesta, do as he does."

Some time ago Iniesta elected himself to the company of that fine, sometimes overlooked group of players over whom the greatest praise is not always guaranteed to secure the most exposure or the biggest contracts. It is the belief that they always supply the best guide to the prospects of their team because when they play well so, invariably, do their team-mates.

In Iniesta's case this has scarcely diminished his wealth, however. Three years ago, Real Madrid were inevitably attracted and made an offer said to be in the region of £50m. Iniesta insisted that he had made his home among the Catalans and that he would not relish a move to the Castilian enemy, saying, "I'm happy here and when I say that I want to retire with Barcelona I say it with all my heart."

Even so, the little big man is revered in a way unique across the fierce tribal passions of the Spanish game. If Torres, the man from Madrid, is the brilliant striking head, if Xavi is the superbly motivated, endlessly pressurising welterweight serial puncher, Iniesta is the creative heart.

If there has been concern about the potential level of his impact in South Africa, it has been to do with the possible effects of an injury-speckled season. This, though, has been lessened considerably with his showing in warm-up games against Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Coach Vicente del Bosque has plainly been keen for him to strike his old rhythm after injury and was visibly pleased with the ease and the poise which he displayed in full outings. Tonight in Murcia, Iniesta is expected to be similarly influential in Spain's final warm-up game, against Poland, before flying to South Africa.

Del Bosque was deadpan when asked about Spain's prospects. "Brazil are the favourites and England are very strong," he said. "But we are not worried about anything but the quality of our football. As for ourselves, at the moment we are just dreamers."

He may well have had the man from La Mancha in mind. Iniesta agrees that if he doesn't charge windmills he does have a tendency to dream. "There are various ways of getting results," he says, "but I believe the best way is to play the football that most expresses who you are and how you play. Our fans want it this way and I'm proud to belong to such a crowd."

It is a crowd that may just soon embrace the world.

Tomorrow: The challenge facing Kaka