- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
May 29, 2009 7:22 pm
It rarely happens, but sometimes a footballer stops to savour the moment. On Wednesday night Andres Iniesta was 25 years old, in Rome, at his peak, and part of a Barcelona team that was passing rings around Manchester United. This was as good as it gets. So for a second during yet another attack he just rolled the ball around under his foot, as if tickling its belly. In Rome, Iniesta showed his sport the way forward.
Iniesta, his teammate Xavi and Barcelona’s coach Josep Guardiola possibly don’t share much DNA, but in football terms they are brothers. The first brother, Guardiola, emerged 20 years ago as the definitive Barca playmaker: effectively the side’s quarterback, who launched almost every attack with a perfect pass. The second brother, little Xavi, was better. Finally, almost a decade ago, a tiny white-faced teenager showed up at Barca’s training. Guardiola studied Iniesta for a bit, turned to Xavi, and said: “You’ve seen that? You’ll push me towards the exit, but that guy will send us both into retirement.”
It took a while. In 2006, when Barcelona last won the Champions League, Iniesta appeared only as a substitute. But inside the club, everyone knew he was coming. Last year I asked Barcelona’s then coach Frank Rijkaard to name the player with the perfect personality for top-class football. Rijkaard hummed and hawed, but finally, in triumph, shouted out the right answer: “Andres – Andres Iniesta! He’s always there in training, always tries, and is just a wonderful footballer.”
Iniesta’s magical year began in Vienna last June. In the final of Euro 2008, his Spanish team passed rings around Germany. Vienna prefigured Rome. Both times, Iniesta, Xavi and their buddies seemed to be playing piggy-in-the-middle against Europe’s second-best team. Germany and United chased ball in the heat. It wasn’t fair.
Barcelona have to play like that. “Without the ball we are a horrible team,” says Guardiola. “So we need the ball.” Barca are too little – perhaps the shortest great team since the 1950s – to win the ball by tackling. The unofficial minimum height for top-class football is about 5’8”, and Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi are below it. The minimum for central defenders is about 6’0”, and Carles Puyol is below that. So Barca defend either by closing off space through perfect positioning, or by keeping the ball. Johan Cruijff, Dutch father of the Barcelona style, teaches: “If we have the ball, they can’t score.”
Modern football is supposed to be manlier. Managers talk about “heart”, “grit” and “bottle” and kilometres covered. What Iniesta showed in Rome is that these are secondary virtues. Football is a dance in space. When everyone is charging around closing the gaps, you need the technique of Iniesta to find tiny openings. In Rome, he barely mislaid a pass. Sometimes he’d float past United players, his yellow boots barely marking the grass. Occasionally he hit little lobs, a sign that he knew this was his night.
We know how good United are. That’s the measure of how good Barca were in Rome. In games at this level, some very respected players get found out. It happened to United’s Ji-Sung Park and Michael Carrick, but also to Wayne Rooney. Excellent with his right foot, he is helpless with his left. Barcelona covered his one foot.
When it was over, Barca’s players celebrated with their fans behind the goal; but as we looked from players to fans and back again, it was impossible to say which was which. Iniesta is a Barca fan. On Wednesday he was one of seven starting players raised in Barcelona’s academy, the Masía.
Had he popped into the VIP buffet elsewhere in the Stadio Olimpico, he’d have seen a portent. Eusebio, Portugal’s star of the 1960s, was hanging around alone in a blazer. Every few seconds, someone would come up to hug him, or just express awe, and Eusebio would smile. He must do this 100 times a week. A year ago, you couldn’t have imagined Iniesta in old age receiving such honours. You can now. In Rome Rooney called him “the best player in the world at the moment”. Iniesta’s next target: the world cup 2010.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.