Pep Guardiola turned to Xavi and uttered the now famous prediction: “You will retire me, but this kid will retire all of us.”
The year was 1999, and that kid was Andres Iniesta.
Eighteen years later, Guardiola’s words have proven prophetic. The boy from Albacete is still going strong as Barcelona and Spain captain.
Since making his senior debut in 2002, Iniesta has played under Louis van Gaal, Radomir Antic, Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino and Luis Enrique. He will play under another new manager, Ernesto Valverde, when the 2017-18 La Liga season kicks off on August 20.
“Valverde for me was a very good choice – he has done a great job at his previous clubs,” said Iniesta. “Barcelona is a big step forward in his career, and we will all be working hard to make sure his time here is a successful one. The start of a new season is always exciting because it is a fresh opportunity to be successful and win trophies.”
Valverde has three Superleague titles and two domestic cups to his name at Olympiacos in Greece, and in 2007 guided Espanyol to the final of the Uefa Cup.
It hardly needs stating that far more is expected of him at the Camp Nou.
It has not been the smoothest of pre-seasons for him. Barcelona have yet to land any major big names and the fans’ worst fears have been realised with Neymar’s imminent world record move to PSG.
Even before that development, Iniesta, entrenched in Barcelona’s team ethic, did not see the team’s success purely dependent on the MSN.
“Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez are the best I have ever seen,” he said. “For me I don’t think there has ever been an attacking trio like them. But it can’t be down to only them. We play as a team, we win trophies as a team, it is up to all of us to work hard and make sure this is a successful season.”
In his time at Barcelona, Iniesta has seen many great players come and go. Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and now Neymar.
One, however, stands head and shoulders above all others. For years, the Xavi and Iniesta came as a package, the ultimate midfield partnership and embodiment of the ideals that Johan Cruyff insiteed at the club. Together with the peerless Lionel Messi, the Spanish duo have been at the heart of arguably football’s greatest ever club side over the last decade.
“It was a privilege to play with Xavi both for Barcelona and Spain for so many years,” Iniesta said. “He was such an important part of the success both Barcelona and Spain had. It was emotional when he left, but in football things move on.”
Iniesta, however, has no interest in winding down his career in the Middle East or in China.
“I understand players decisions to want to go and experience playing somewhere else, but I have always said I would like to retire at Barcelona,” the 33-year-old said. “I have been at the club since I was 12, I feel I have years playing at the highest level, so Barcelona is where I hope to be for a long time.”
Iniesta, Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are currently the last of the truly great players that Barcelona’s famed academy, La Masia, has produced. Few have made a breakthrough since, but the captain is understanding of the challenges facing today’s crop.
“La Masia can be tough – you have to get used to living apart from your family as a young boy and that is not easy,” he said. “It will make you though, it is one of the most special places in football, that has produced some fantastic players and I know it will produce many more.”
Iniesta sees a bright future for Spain, with the nation’s age group teams continuing to excel at international level.
“We have some very exciting young players,” Spain’s captain said. “Alacer, Deulofeu, Niguez, Asensio, all have very bright futures with the national team, and I am sure can play a big part in Spain winning more major trophies.”
Many believe that Iniesta should have claimed at least one Ballon d’Or award for his relentless excellence. It’s unlikely such things keep him up at night and where it really matters he remains one of the most decorated players in the history of the game. His haul of 29 major honours includes eight La Liga titles, five Copa del Rey medals and four Champions League wins. Not surprisingly, he is equally proud of all.
“It’s so hard to choose,” Iniesta said. “The aim of Barcelona is to win every trophy and they all taste good. I think there is something very special about winning The Champions League though. I have been fortunate enough to win it four times, but I don’t want to stop there.”
At international level, he has been part of one of the finest teams of the modern era. The European Championship was won in 2008 and 2012.
In between came Iniesta’s finest hour; scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands in South Africa.
“There is a limit to happiness, and that day we surpassed it,” Iniesta would say of that memory later.
Adoration, everywhere he goes, followed at home.
“It’s an honour to see all fans come together because of their passion for the national team is very humbling,” he said. “Every time I have got applause from opposition fans or in an opposition stadium I have been truly humbled.”
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia less than a year away, does he ever allow his mind to wander back to that unforgettable night, and that volley, in Johannesburg?
“There is no time for reflection,” Iniesta said. “When I am retired I can look back and reflect but for now it’s about looking forward to success with Barcelona and Spain. Every season is a new chance for success and the past is not relevant to any success I hope to have this season.”
Eight years after leading France to their first and only World Cup triumph, Zinedine Zidane led his country to the 2006 final against Italy. Next summer, Iniesta has an opportunity to emulate that achievement, but his ambitions don’ts top there.
“We would like to go one better than the final, the aim for Spain is to try and win the World Cup,” Iniesta said. “2014 was not a good World Cup for us, but that is behind us now. We have a good mix of experience and very talented young players coming through and our ambition in Russia will be to win the tournament. It will not be easy with the quality of the other nations, but that is always the ambition,”