If there is a single approximate measure of Andres Iniesta’s immeasurable greatness, it arrived this past week in the form of an apology. “Forgive us, Andres,” were the words of France Football. The magazine’s offense? Never awarding Iniesta the Ballon d’Or; never sufficiently recognizing his genius.
He was and still is a genius who compelled such an apology, whether it was necessary or not. He transcended comparisons to contemporaries or all-time greats because he was unique, unprecedented in the way he commanded a game and simultaneously injected it with beauty.
He did so for 16 masterful, trophy-filled seasons at one club. And on Friday, he announced that No. 16 would be his last.
The worst-kept secret in world soccer is now official: Iniesta will be leaving Barcelona at season’s end. He confirmed his imminent departure at a teary-eyed news conference on Friday, promising to never play against the only European professional club he has ever known.
He’ll win his ninth and final La Liga title – his 32nd and final club trophy – this weekend or next, then soak up the adulation and tributes that will follow him off into the Spanish sunset. He’ll still be playing, first at the 2018 World Cup, then reportedly in China. But this feels like the end.
And in so many ways, it will be a proper final chapter. The farewell tour began last weekend in Madrid, with a vintage, virtuoso performance in the Copa Del Rey final; with the entire Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Barcelona fans and Sevilla fans alike, rising to applaud him; with tears; with pleas from his many admirers to stay, to continue to grace them with his artistry and brilliance.
Friday’s news conference was the next stop on the tour. The occasion brought Barcelona coaches, players and executives together. An eloquent monologue from Iniesta brought them to their feet, tears to their eyes, and their hands together.
“This is the best club in the world,” Iniesta said. “I wanted to be honest with myself. I’ve been here since I was 12 years old. If I couldn’t contribute everything I was capable, then it was time to say goodbye. I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable.
“I want to say thank you to the club and La Masia, which made me who I am. I want to thank all my teammates, and my family, especially my wife and my three children, my treasures. Finally, I want to thank the fans, who have been with me through thick and thin.
“I feel at peace. I wanted to triumph at this club and I did. Nothing makes me happier than that. I’ve given the best of myself in every sense. As a person representing the club I tried my best. It’s beautiful.”
Iniesta was, in a way, overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. They are why never won Ballon d’Ors. They are why he is never mentioned in ferocious greatest-of-all-time debates. They are why, in the eyes of some, he was never appreciated to the extent he should have been.
Perhaps the best testament to what he accomplished in Catalonia, however, is that his greatness is still recognized and revered around the globe nonetheless. He did not deserve to win a Ballon d’Or. He never quite reached the level of arguably the two best players in the history of the sport. But he was quite clearly the third-best player of his generation; probably the third-best of the 21st century. He was himself. For that, he has been celebrated, and will be celebrated throughout one last glorious month at Camp Nou.
“Respect is more important than a Ballon d’Or,” Iniesta said Friday. “Everyone likes individual awards, but it doesn’t change who I am.”
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