Midfield maestro

Midfield maestro

Euro 2012 has reached the finals, and few would be surprised on Sunday if the Spain-Italy match was decided by a pass or a goal from Andres Iniesta, the little man of big moments.

He is 5 feet 7 inches, humble, pale and balding at 28, but Iniesta’s natural reticence is balanced by a comfort in tight spaces. It is evident in his vision and balance and agility, in his movement and Euclidean mastery of the geometric passing that sustains Spain and his league team, Barcelona.
He has an elusive gust of speed, too, when creativity alone is insufficient. The Illusionist, Iniesta is sometimes called, able to play everywhere in midfield, often appearing from nowhere.

In the quarterfinals, France was so concerned about Iniesta that it used two right backs to blunt him instead of one. In Spain’s opening match, Iniesta awaited one pass with five Italians surrounding him. A photograph of the play became popular in Spain – Iniesta encircled as if about to be besieged for an autograph or arrested.

The list of his pivotal achievements grows: The lone, winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands.

The impossibly late shot into the upper corner against Chelsea in 2009, which put Barcelona into the Champions League final and relieved Iniesta of his modesty, sending him sprinting in celebration, mouth agape, jersey windmilling in his hand.

After Barcelona defeated Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final, Wayne Rooney called Iniesta the best player in the world. In 2010, he finished second to his Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi as FIFA’s World Player of the Year. Iniesta’s grandmother noted his indispensability, telling reporters, “My nino is the one who passes the ball to Messi so he can score.”

Iniesta has been no less essential at Euro 2012 as Spain seeks to defend their title. In their final group match, La Roja was in danger of exiting prematurely against Croatia. Into the 88th minute, the game remained scoreless.

Then Iniesta beat an offside trap, took a wonderful chip pass from Cesc Fabregas and squared the ball to Jesus Navas for a shot into an empty net, restoring Spain’s full ambition.

In the quarterfinals against France, even the smothering attention paid to Iniesta could not choke his brilliance.

In the 19th minute, he put the ball through to Jordi Alba, whose cross to Xabi Alonso became the only goal needed in a 2-0 victory.“When he has the ball, that’s what makes a difference,” Alvaro Negredo, the Spanish striker, said of Iniesta.

Typically, though, Iniesta parried a suggestion at a news conference that he was vying to be named player of the tournament. “The only thing I think about right now is for Spain to go through to the final and for Spain to lift the trophy again,” Iniesta said. “It doesn’t matter what individual player wins what. The strength of each player has to work for the team.”

His great international career had a parochial and humble beginning. Iniesta is from Fuentealbilla, a speck of a Spanish village, population about 2,000.

At age 12, when he joined the renowned Barcelona youth academy, La Masia, Iniesta has said that he “cried rivers” upon leaving home. Quickly, though, his humility found expression in the generosity and imagination that he displayed on a soccer field.

When Iniesta was 16, Pep Guardiola, then a star defensive midfielder for Barcelona, is said to have told Xavi Hernandez, “You’re going to retire me; this lad is going to retire us all.” With Guardiola as the coach and Iniesta and Xavi orchestrating the midfield, Barcelona won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011. A European title with Spain’s national team came in 2008, along with the World Cup in 2010. Now Spain seeks to become the first team to simultaneously hold two European titles and a world title.

Guardiola has left Barcelona, but Xavi and Iniesta play on for club and country. They seem to collect trophies like stamps.Apart from his play, Iniesta i srevered for his humanity.
When he scored the winning goal at the 2010World Cup, he removed his jersey and displayed on his T-shirt a message honoring the memory of a friend and fellow player, Daniel Jarque, who died of a heart attack in 2009.

“It showed that what is more important than rivalry, your team or your colors is to be human and a good person,” Iniesta told Barcelona’s website. At Euro 2012, Spain have conceded only one goal, the fewest of any team, and has scored eight, second to Germany’s nine. But their style, once universally lauded as mesmerising, is now criticised by some as tiresome and inefficient. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, Iniesta said, ever the diplomat. But he found no need for apology.

“This is the style that brought us success,” he said. “And we cannot forget a few years back, this changed the history of Spain forever. I think that’s enough.”

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