In his prime, Andrés Iniesta was widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in history.
The playmaker helped revolutionize how soccer was played around the world and, as a pivotal part of historic Barcelona and Spain teams, he won everything there is to win in the sport on both the club and national team levels.
In the 22 years after joining the Barça’s youth academy, Iniesta won 32 trophies for the club and lifted two European Championships and one World Cup for Spain in an unprecedented run of success – La Roja won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, the first and only country to ever win three major championships in a row.
But his departure from his boyhood club in 2018 didn’t mark the end of his career. Instead, it was the start of yet another adventure in very different part of the world.
After leaving Spain, Iniesta signed for Japanese club Vissel Kobe and enjoyed reasonable success in following five years.
But this year, after seeing his playing time diminish in Japan, it was time for a new challenge.
Amid interest from around the world, including Major League Soccer (MLS), Iniesta eventually signed a one-year deal with UAE side Emirates Club.
“When I left Japan, I had different options and then, at the end of the day, you decide for what you believe is the right thing to do, the right thing for you and your family,” Iniesta told CNN’s Becky Anderson.
“There are many things to be improved [in the local scene], so I can really use my experience in order to improve the football situation here.
“I am thrilled to be here and I am very happy with the way I was received here. I’m just hoping to do the best I can.”
Life in the UAE
Despite signing a one-year contract, Iniesta has the option of extending his stay, but he’s currently just focused on enjoying the season ahead.
The midfielder says his family are quickly adapting to life in his new home city of Ras Al Khaimah.
In his first start for his new side on Friday, Iniesta scored a late penalty in a dramatic 4-4 draw against Ajman Club. He had previously made his debut after coming off the bench in a 1-0 defeat on August 19.
“At my age, I still have the dream of playing, to train and to have fun and that’s why I take care of myself,” Iniesta said.
Before signing for Emirates Club, there had been reports that Inter Miami was looking to attract the Spanish legend to the MLS.
The club has rejuvenated its starting XI this year with the signing of three of Iniesta’s former Barcelona teammates – Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Messi, in particular, has certainly not disappointed since moving to North America, but it could have been very different for the Argentine superstar.
After his relationship with former club Paris Saint-Germain broke down, Messi had been linked with a sensational move back to Barça.
Iniesta said the move back to Catalonia would have been “amazing” but respects both his friend and his former club’s decision.
“It would have been very special and great if Lionel Messi could have gone back to Barcelona. It would have been amazing,” he said, adding that he hoped the Catalan club will work its way back to the top of the European game.
“But at the end of the day, it is his own situation and of the club, and these are by themselves. But of course, it would have been great if he could have come back.”
‘We want the football to grow’
Over the next year, Iniesta said he is focused on building the reputation of soccer in the UAE, something which is happening across the Gulf.
Many of Europe’s biggest stars, such as Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, have already moved to Saudi Arabian teams this season as the region looks to lay the foundations of a soccer revolution.
While such moves have come under scrutiny, Iniesta said players like himself are just trying to build the sport in the “best way” that they can.
“Football is a global sport, it’s a world sport where everybody would like to have different football players,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we want the football to grow at the level of fans, at the level of training. And we have very good football players that have played in Europe for a long time and now they are coming to this region or to some other regions.”
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