Adios, Andres Iniesta: Maestro to leave Barcelona
A badly kept secret was confirmed on Friday when Andres Iniesta announced this will be his final season at Barcelona. The midfielder didn't divulge his next destination, but he is expected to join a Chinese club.
Iniesta's imminent departure is a major blow for Barcelona fans, who had to say goodbye to his partner in crime, Xavi Hernandez, only three years ago. What was a golden era for the club's famous La Masia academy is now drawing to an end. As well as Iniesta and Xavi departing the Nou Camp, Victor Valdes left and Carles Puyol retired in summer 2014. Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, meanwhile, are all aged 30 or close to.
Iniesta is among a small group of players rarely criticised. Barcelona fans adore him, rival Spanish supporters show love for his achievements in the national shirt while neutrals from all over the world regard him as the ideal role model for youngsters. The Barca icon is the complete package, both on and off the pitch.
Iniesta is small, yet his sublime technique more than makes up for lacking physically. He never had much pace, but his brain works faster than any opponent's legs. He always seems capable of finding a way to receive the ball in space.
During his 16 years at Barcelona, Iniesta became one of the most decorated footballers in history. He has won eight La Liga titles (number nine looks certain this season), six Copa del Reys, seven Spanish Super Cups, four Champions Leagues, three UEFA Super Cups and three FIFA Club World Cups.
Iniesta's success has rightly led to him earning legend-status at Barcelona. It's somewhat a rarity, though, as he is among a small band of La Masia players who don't originate from Catalunya.
Iniesta delivered a major career highlight in 2010. The script is easy to recall. With Spain and the Netherlands locked at 0-0 in the World Cup final, the ball falls to the Barca magician, who then buries it in the corner past Maarten Stekelenburg to ensure the Spanish are crowned world champions for the first time ever. The moment produced an act of humility rarely seen on a football pitch. While many players would have chosen to bask in their own glory, Iniesta unveiled a message on his vest paying tribute to Daniel Jarque. The defender passed away the previous year after suffering a heart attack at Espanyol's training ground.
Scoring the World Cup winning goal made Iniesta a hero in Spain. He was applauded at every opposition ground while playing for Barcelona, including the home of fierce rivals Real Madrid. For many, his feats for club and country will always be remembered.
In an era where natural athletes filled football, Iniesta was an exception. He played the game with grace. His technical ability was everything. Barca's creator produced the most beautiful of passes, found space to help a teammate and also managed to glide past players as if they were invisible. His quick feet and even quicker brain were a joy to behold.
Iniesta will be a huge miss to Barcelona, Spain and all European football followers. He stands alongside the greatest midfielders over the last decade. Deciding to leave the Nou Camp at the season's end rather than let the ageing process determine his departure shows the man's class.
Iniesta can prolong his playing career for a few more years yet. Barcelona's loss will be China's gain.