Barcelona are among the most prestigious and well followed football clubs in the world, with a trophy cabinet filled to the brim with numerous La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies.
This global fame is largely to thank for Barcelona’s continued success, with the huge amount of money generated in merchandise, ticket sales and sponsorship deals providing the funds to capture some of the world’s best players. Over the years the club have flexed their financial muscles to lure the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Luis Suarez and Neymar to the club.
However, some of their very best players have been produced for free by the famed La Masia academy, first opened under the charge of legendary manager Johan Cruyff. Since it opened its doors in 1979, the likes of Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi have trained at and graduated from the prestigious set-up.
Another player synonymous with La Masia is Spanish maestro Andres Iniesta, a small boy from Albacete, Castile-La Mancha, who was sent over 500 kilometres from home to develop into one of the game’s true greats.
Perfectly executed run, unbelievable balance, incredible, pin-point passes and the ability to singlehandedly control the tempo of a game - The Brain, The Illusionist, The Pale Knight. Whatever you call him, Andres Iniesta is undoubtedly one of the greatest playmakers of all time.
Iniesta grew up in the small village of Fuentealbilla, Albacete, a place that, despite leaving so early on in his life, he still calls home.
“That’s where home is,” Iniesta once stated. “A large portion of my family are there, the neighbours, our vineyard, and the people from the village who have lived there all their lives and seen me grow up.”
Few stories from Iniesta’s time growing up in Fuentealbilla have been told, but it is known that the Spaniard began playing football at a young age on a makeshift pitch on his school playground, part of which was covered by a large tree. This was the only pitch in close proximity available for the village’s youngsters to play on.
However, the lack of a proper playing surface may have benefited the youngster. Street football is often highlighted as the reason for the superior ball control and skills displayed by many South American footballers, and could well be the reason for the exceptional talent that Iniesta has displayed over the years.
By the age of 10 Iniesta had worked his way into the youth side of lower league Albacete Balompié. Despite his age, within two years the promising youngster would begin to attract the attention of some of the biggest clubs and scouts in the country.
While Iniesta was an avid Albacete supporter, he also supported Barcelona during his early years, largely because it was the club which his icon Michael Laudrup was playing for at the time. However, his allegiance soon switched to their domestic rivals, Real Madrid, after Albacete gained promotion to the top flight for the 1991/92 season. The reason for such a treacherous switch was the heavy 7-1 defeat that Albacete suffered at the hands of Barcelona that year. However, when the opportunity to join the iconic club arose, Iniesta was never going to turn it down.
Iniesta’s parents were convinced to send him to La Masia by family friend and Barcelona youth team coach Enrique Orizaola, despite interest from a number of other clubs. It took just one visit to convince them that the academy was the right choice.
However, Iniesta was less convinced. La Masia is undeniably intense. While most youth footballers return home after spending the day in training, Barcelona’s boys return to their dorms at the academy. While the original farmhouse building has been replaced with the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper as the base of Barcelona’s academy system, La Masia still boasts the same gruelling regime that it did back then. The youngsters eat together, sleep together, train together and learn together, all day, everyday.
Iniesta, a shy child, struggled with the thought of being separated from his parents and thrown into such an intense system. He went as far as to admit that he ‘cried rivers’ upon leaving for La Masia and kept himself to himself once he arrived.
“I had a feeling of abandonment, of loss, as if I had pulled something from inside, deep inside of me,” Iniesta admitted in his autobiography, The Move of my Life, “It was a very tough time, but I wanted to be there because I knew it was best for my future, of course.”
However, he had found a new idol in club captain Pep Guardiola, and he would soon begin to do his talking on the pitch.
Rising Through the Ranks
Despite threatening to quit on a number of occasions, within three years the promising youngster had become the captain of Barcelona’s Under-15s team and guided them effortlessly to the Nike Premier Trophy in 1999. In fact, the 14-year-old had scored the winner himself deep into extra-time, to hand Barcelona the win over Argentine club Rosario Central, and with it the trophy.
“In a few years’ time, I’ll be watching you do the same from the stands,” the official presenting the trophy is said to have whispered to him. He wasn’t wrong - Iniesta’s rise to the heights of professional football would be rapid, and he was already beginning to garner attention from those higher up in the Barcelona ranks.
In fact, a 16-year-old Iniesta would be the subject of one of football’s most iconic quotes. In 2001 the incredible youngster had been invited to train with the Barcelona first-team by then manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, which saw him join the likes of Frank de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo and Luis Enrique on the pitch.
Also on the training field were two players that Iniesta’s name would become synonymous with - Xavi and Pep Guardiola. With the latter's career coming to an end, Xavi was earmarked as the man to fill his shoes. However, Guardiola was so impressed with the young Iniesta that he began to doubt Xavi’s ability as his heir.
Following their first session together, Guardiola famously whispered into Xavi’s ear, “You’re going to retire me, but this kid is going to retire us all.”
Of course, Iniesta and Xavi would learn to fit into the same side, becoming football’s most in-touch and feared midfield unit under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, by then the manager of Barcelona, between 2008 and 2012.
First he would have to complete a stint with Barcelona B in the third tier of Spanish football. His first full season with the side, the 2001/02 campaign, resulted in his first professional title - the Segunda Division B, which the club claimed courtesy of 21 victories in 38 matches. Iniesta would also spend the majority of the following season with the feeder side. Although, he would also feature in the biggest game of his career yet.
Louis van Gaal had returned to the club ahead of the 2002/03 season, and it proved to be a shambolic affair. Results were largely inconsistent and star attacker Rivaldo had departed the club due to a falling out between the pair during Van Gaal’s last tenure. However, while his part in Iniesta’s rise often goes ignored, Van Gaal was the man who gave him his chance in the Barcelona first-team.October 29, 2002. Barcelona travel to the Jan Breydel Stadion in Belgium to face off against Belgian First Division A side Club Brugge KV in the Champions League. With qualification for the knockout rounds already secured, Van Gaal decides to include the previously uncapped Iniesta in his starting eleven. While the game was largely unremarkable, finishing 1-0 in Barcelona’s favour, for the 18-year-old it was the greatest day of his life.
“I think my first team debut was the most important day,” Iniesta confirmed more than a decade later, having since claimed a phenomenal haul of trophies. “It was the most important because I’d been dreaming about it for so long.”
Iniesta would go on to make a total of nine appearances for Barcelona throughout that season, including a run of five consecutive La Liga matches at the turn of the year. The following season would see him play 14 times, scoring once and assisting three.
However, the 2004/05 campaign would prove to be his breakthrough season. The retirement of key midfield players Luis Enrique and Phillip Cocu, as well as Edgar Davids’ return to Juventus, freed up space in the Barcelona midfield, which would see Iniesta miss just one game throughout the entire season. While the majority of his appearances were from the bench, Iniesta was Barcelona’s most played player, as they romped to their first La Liga title in five years.
Becoming a Star
Over the next few years, Iniesta became a much loved figure around the club due to his ability and willingness to play in a number of different areas of the pitch, from the left wing to a defensive midfield position.
While he had already emerged as a top player at the club, the arrival of former captain Pep Guardiola in a managerial role helped him to become the star man at the Nou Camp. Despite injuries keeping him out for large parts of the season, Guardiola admitted that he was ‘so good that it’s impossible not to play him’, as he showed in the Champions League that season.
As all great players do, Iniesta’s brilliance attracted the attention of the club’s La Liga rivals, Real Madrid, who reportedly offered to pay the midfield maestro’s £60 million buyout clause to release him from his contract. However, Pep recognised his importance and kept him in what would go on to be known as one of the greatest football squads of all time.
Goals have never been a big part of Iniesta’s game, but he was the man who popped up against Chelsea in the dying seconds of the game to send Barcelona through to the Champions League final, which they would go on to win against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to claim the treble in Pep's first season in charge.
Iniesta appeared to retreat into his shell the following season. Although, it was with good reason. The death of Spanish defender Daniel Jarque González, a good friend of the Barcelona man, from a heart attack in August 2009, wreaked havoc on his mental health. The depression of losing a friend was coupled with a deep fear of a similar fate, which caused him to lose his drive and focus.
“There are moments when your mind is very vulnerable. You feel a lot of doubts. Every person is different, every case. What I’m trying to explain is that you can go from being in good shape to being in a bad way very quickly,” Iniesta admitted, although he was never completely lost. “I never felt I didn’t want to continue playing. I knew one day I’d take a step forward.”
Iniesta’s step forward came in the 2010 World Cup final, as he found the back of the net in the 116th minute of extra-time to add the World Cup to the European Championship trophy that they had claimed two years earlier. Amid his celebrations, Iniesta revealed a shirt stating ‘Dani Jarque, always with us’, a moment which, he later explained, helped him to return from a very dark place.
With the World Cup secured, Iniesta had won all but one prize that football has to offer - the Ballon d’Or. He would come close in 2012, when he was voted in third place, just behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the top prize ultimately escaped him.
Even without it, Iniesta will forever be known as one of football’s greats. Not only was he a key figure in one of the most dominant periods in Barcelona’s history, but he is also the embodiment of the club’s famed La Masia academy. It’s easy to forget that crippling homesickness could have brought an end to Iniesta’s career before it had started, but perseverance and determination would eventually make him into a household name.