There will never be another Andres Iniesta
“Everything around me froze for a few seconds. I heard the silence. That sounds like a contradiction, but I can’t think of a better way of describing it: an audible silence.” – Andres Iniesta describes the moment before scoring the goal to beat Holland in the 2010 World Cup final
GREATNESS always leaves a lasting impression, a kind of warm after-glow. It was like this in Gdansk back in June 2012.
Ahead of their second group game with world champions Spain at the European Championships, the Republic of Ireland were already a beaten docket.
The Spanish were on a different planet to not only Giovanni Trapattoni’s malfunctioning Irish team but the rest of the contenders at Euro 2012.
The press tribune in the Gdansk Arena was impossibly high.
The lush green grass, drenched by the incessant rain, wasn’t just a football pitch – it was Spain’s canvas for the night.
Inspired by strains of The Fields of Athenry, the Irish players were full of hard, mostly fruitless running.
They chased shadows all night long.
The Spanish players, by contrast, floated across the surface. The gulf in class was so stark it was almost as if the two teams were engaged in two different sporting disciplines.
Everything the Spanish did seemed effortless.
Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva did not have any fixed positions; they moved into space, they rotated and they played the purist kind of football.
While watching the jaw-dropping movement and touch of the Spanish players, it gave greater meaning to Alex Ferguson's "carousel" depiction of trying to combat tiki-taka football.
This was football intelligence on another level.
The Spanish that night was the best ‘in-the-flesh’ performance I’ve witnessed in all my time covering sports events.
From our bird’s eye view, Iniesta played like there was an imaginary string between his boots and the ball.
He didn’t get among the goals that night but was easily the best player on the field.
It was a privilege to be in the stadium to see what greatness really looked like.
Spain’s breakthrough tournament was Euro 2008. They were an improved version two years later when they won the World Cup.
By 2012, they were at the peak of their powers, virtually unbeatable, illustrated by their near-perfect 4-0 win over Italy in the final.
Iniesta was man-of-the-match in the decider and won player of the tournament award.
Now firmly in the twilight of his wonderful career, Iniesta will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.
China seems his next destination but Pep Guardiola’s Man City could make a move.
The pale-faced kid from the little town of Fuentealbilla, who cried himself to sleep in his early days at Barcelona’s La Masia, has spent over 20 years at Camp Nou where he’s won eight La Liga titles [soon to be nine] and four Champions Leagues.
Judging by his modest game-time this season, manager Ernesto Valverde no longer feels the team’s old-fashioned inside-left has the physical capacity to play a full 90 minutes.
Others would beg to differ.
Last Saturday evening, Iniesta played in his last-ever Copa del Rey final and reminded everyone of his genius by scoring Barcelona’s fourth goal.
It was a typical Iniesta goal: a work of art.
Lionel Messi rolled the perfect ball through to Iniesta who dummied Sevilla goalkeeper David Soria before sliding the ball into the empty net.
The 33-year-old has scored a meagre 57 goals in 669 appearances.
A poor return in scoring terms - but to view Andres Iniesta's career through the prism of stats doesn't capture his greatness.
Statistics, for instance, won’t tell you that he always turned up on the big days.
In the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal, he replaced Edmilson at half-time and turned the game in Barcelona’s favour.
In their epic 2009 Champions League semi-final second leg with Chelsea, he scored the winner in stoppage-time.
A thigh injury threatened to rule him out of the final against Manchester United in Rome the following month.
Under strict instructions not to shoot for fear of suffering a recurrence of the injury, a "60 per cent fit" Iniesta played against United and was man-of-the-match.
Faced with the prospect of first round elimination after losing their 2010 World Cup opener to Switzerland, it was Iniesta who grabbed the all-important goal that calmed Spain’s nerves against Chile.
A couple of weeks later in Soccer City, he heard the sound of silence before hammering the ball into the Dutch net in the dying embers of stoppage-time to win the World Cup.
Iniesta has always had universal appeal, but since his crowning moment in South Africa, the Barcelona midfielder is regularly applauded by opposition fans – not only for his wondrous talent but his humility.
“Iniesta doesn’t dye his hair,” said Guardiola, “he doesn’t wear earrings and he hasn’t got any tattoos. Maybe that makes him unattractive to the media, but he is the best.”
Iniesta has always had the unerring ability to dribble past a player in the smallest of spaces.
He could play, Javier Mascherano says, on a “single tile”.
Shifting the ball from his right foot to his left foot and breezing past defenders will always be his trademark.
He played the game like his feet never touched the ground.
Since making his Barcelona debut in 2002 (he didn’t become a regular until four years later), the ball was always safe in his possession.
His passes and dribbles could unlock any defence.
“The Solutions Man” was Barcelona-based journalist Graham Hunter’s apt description of an all-time great footballer.
Sift through the archives and in times of trouble, Iniesta always stood tall.
As a footballer he was pure gold.
The Camp Nou is already grieving.
There will never be another Andres Iniesta.