Madrid (AFP) – Six years from delivering the most important strike of a football in Spanish history, Andres Iniesta remains the cornerstone of a La Roja side hoping to rekindle former glories at Euro 2016.
Iniesta’s extra-time goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands will be his lasting legacy. But Iniesta’s technique, quick feet as a midfielder and humble off-field demeanour have been pillars around which Spain’s back-to-back European Championship victories have been built.
The Barcelona captain will be one of the few remaining figures from all of Spain’s three consecutive major tournament triumphs between 2008 and 2012 amongst Vicente del Bosque’s squad in France.
More significantly, of those left from that glory run, Iniesta’s inclusion is the most undisputed.
Whilst Del Bosque’s loyalty to Iker Casillas and Cesc Fabregas — despite a dramatic dip in their club form — has been questioned, Iniesta, at the end of his 14th season at Barcelona, has shone for his side over the past two years.
Iniesta was named in the FIFA world XI for the seventh time last year.
“It happens often that players are written off,” said Del Bosque recently.
“But now Iniesta is in one of the best moments of his life. Let’s hope he arrives like that in France.
“We have to support each other in what we see, not in what we assume things will be.”
Such is his importance, Del Bosque even left Iniesta out for friendly matches against Italy and Romania in March to give his 32-year-old legs extra rest ahead of the demands of a fourth international tournament in five years.
Without his sidekick of many years Xavi Hernandez, Barca’s style has become slightly more direct to accomodate the talents of a forward line containing Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Yet, for Spain, the loss of Xavi and Xabi Alonso to international retirement has made Iniesta’s ability to set the tempo of the game and breakdown mass ranks of opposition defence even more crucial.
“He’s so good that it is impossible not to play him,” said Iniesta’s former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola.
“Nobody has a better reading of space and time than him.
“But, above that, he has the ability to unbalance opposition teams. He is the player that always kills you in attacks and he is always there in the biggest games.”
Yet, just as key to Iniesta’s status as a national treasure in Spain as his World Cup winner, is a humility often at odds with modern footballers.
Iniesta joined Barcelona as a 12-year-old and been a rock through a career with four Champions League and seven Spanish league titles.
“Hero? No way,” he told El Pais on how his life changed after that goal against the Netherlands in Johannesburg.
“Heroes fight against illnesses, or people who have to emigrate to feed their children.
“I am privileged that I play football and that at times I have the luck to make people happy by scoring a goal or giving a pass to help win a game.
“That is the good thing about this national team, that we have given joyful days to these anonymous heroes that don’t often get the chance to smile.”
Whether the remnants of Spain’s golden generation have a final day of joy to offer with a third consecutive Euro title will depend much on Iniesta producing his magic on the big stage once more in France.
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