A day after the footballing world was enthralled by the mesmerising exhibition of skill, movement and technique produced by Spanish supremacists in Kiev, European football’s governing body acknowledged the best player of Euro 2012. And the man who has been bestowed with that accolade was none other than the magician from La Mancha, who has spellbound the spectators with his extraordinary artistry throughout this amazing tournament in Ukraine and Poland.
It was a fitting tribute to Andrés Iniesta. His closest challenger, Andrea Pirlo, deserves special approbation as well. The 33-year-old playmaker has been a colossal figure for Italy on the way to the final. Outstanding player, great role model. But all hail to the man from Albacete who has been nothing short of a commander for the Spanish force, guiding La Roja to a historic treble of international honours, in the most eloquent fashion that one could ever fathom.
He wasn’t on the scoresheet on Sunday. But it was he, and unsurprisingly, his Barcelona team-mate Xavi Hernández, who ran the show inside the OIympic Stadium. It was Iniesta who produced the defence-splitting pass for Cesc Fàbregas, who scurried through the Italian defence before cutting the ball back for David Silva to begin the goal fest in the 14th minute.
A resounding reminder of Iniesta’s enigmatic ability to torment defences could be found in two of the enduring images of the tournament. Two virtually identical photographs, showing Iniesta in action, against Italy and Croatia, with the little man encircled by a cluster of defenders. Two portraits of a genius, speaking long and loud about the esteem in which oppositions hold him and the efforts that are sometimes needed to thwart his silky skills.
Those pictures bring back the magical memories of the renowned snapshot from 1982 World Cup – a photograph in which Diego Maradona is seen in full flow against a swarm of Belgian defenders. Indeed, it took numbers to curb the divine footballing abilities of the Argentine wizard. And quite evidently, nothing less has been frequently required to deal with Iniesta in the Slavic nations.
It is not only Iniesta’s sublime technique but also his sharp thinking that separates him from the rest. While most of his team-mates in Barcelona and Spain move the ball fast with a feather touch, Iniesta moves with the ball, holding it, drawing as many opponents in as he could, before releasing the ball or himself in the blink of an eye when the right juncture arrives. “He is the enlightened one,” Sergio Ramos said of Iniesta. “He is a great player. It is as if he has been touched by a magic wand,” he added.
Iniesta, like Xavi, is very much aware of the pains of being in the same era as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The exploits of the two diminutive midfielders have been often overshadowed by the goal-buckets of the Argentine and the Portuguese superstars, who are widely believed to be in a league of their own. It is a pity that neither Iniesta nor Xavi has been fortunate enough to bag the prestigious Ballon d’Or in an otherwise decorated career so far.
Yet Iniesta is ascending the ladder to eternity. Slowly and steadily. He will be there.
As Pep Guardiola once famously remarked: “Iniesta doesn’t dye his hair, 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.”
Truly, the pale-faced and unassuming midfielder gives us a highly contrasting portrait of a modern footballing superstar. Iniesta has a unique blend of humility and devastating creativity. His approach may be quiet, but he has a knack of delivering on the biggest stage. Dramatic late goals. Killer passes. He has been always there when his team needed him.
His 116th-minute strike against the Netherlands two years ago that took La Roja to their first ever World Cup glory is still fresh in our memory. Few months ago, Iniesta popped up to bag Barcelona’s third goal against AC Milan that helped the Blaugrana reach their fifth consecutive European Cup semi-final.
In May 2009, we all remember how Chelsea were cruising into the Champions League final, leading the semi-final tie against Barcelona 1-0. It was injury time and Barca fans were full of desperation rather than hope. 94th minute and the drama unfolded. In came Iniesta, smashing the ball past Petr Čech to score the crucial away goal that was enough to steer them into the showpiece in Rome. The Stamford Bridge faithful were in utter shock and disbelief. The Barca devotees glowed with a sense of pride and sheer ecstasy.
His team needed him again on Sunday. Spain kept knocking on the Italian defensive door. The Azzurri fought on. They hassled and harried for possession. They resisted as much as much they could. And then, inevitably, came Iniesta to find Fàbregas to send the Spanish fans into raptures. What a player. What a tournament.