Iniesta: So wonderful that even Madridistas liked him…

SPORTS

Sunday’s 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou may have had little riding on it in terms of the league table, but the game itself did not lack any of the intensity, vitriol, controversy or brilliance we have come to expect from any meeting between these two eternal enemies.

What was unusual, though, was that fans of both sides found themselves in agreement on two things. Firstly, that referee Alejandro Hernández Hernández had an absolute shocker and secondly, that homage should be paid to Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta on the occasion of his final Clásico.

Although Real Madrid refused to acknowledge their rivals’ recent title triumph with the customary guard of honour, senior figures at Real Madrid joined many Real Madrid fans in paying their respects to Barcelona’s departing captain, who recently announced he would be leaving the Catalan side at the end of the season, bringing a 22-year association with the club to an end.

Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said that the game would be remembered as ‘Iniesta’s Clásico’, and that the Barcelona great would be missed. The pair are of course long-time international team-mates, but have both been key protagonists in this most intense of domestic rivalries. It is clear that beyond their club rivalry, they have a great mutual respect, and recognise in each other a kindred spirit.

Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane waited for five minutes in the tunnel after the game to personally congratulate Iniesta, and was effusive in his praise for the little magician in a recent interview, stating that Iniesta deserved to win the Ballon d’Or following Spain’s World Cup triumph in 2010.

The pocket of Madridistas in the crowd at Camp Nou applauded Iniesta off the pitch when he was replaced by Paulinho after 57 minutes on Sunday, and there have been numerous tributes from rival fans on social media in the wake of the announcement of his departure.

It is extremely rare for any Barcelona player to be respected by Madrid fans, such is the enmity between the two clubs, and in this way (as in many others), Iniesta is truly one of a kind.

His popularity throughout the whole of Spain could be attributed to the fact that it was his goal eight years ago in Johannesburg which brought Spain their first World Cup, but that only tells part of the story. The goal alone would not be enough to override domestic tribalism. Would Gerard Piqué be admired by Madrid fans if it was he who scored that goal? Not likely. Would Barça fans start to like Sergio Ramos if he had scored the goal? No chance. The fact that Iniesta has conducted himself with class and humility throughout his career, being consistently brilliant in a dignified and understated way, has contributed more to his universal popularity than that crucial goal. From a cynical point of view, it also helps that he is not Catalan, and has remained neutral in the debate over Catalan independence.

As the curtain begins to fall on his career in Spain, it is not yet known what his next move will be. He seemed to be set for a move to Chongqing Dangdai Lifan of the Chinese Super League, but in the last few days Japanese side Vissel Kobe have emerged as his most likely destination.

His performances this season for club and country leave absolutely no doubt that he still has the quality to play at the highest level for any top European club, but when announcing his departure Iniesta said that staying in Europe would not be an option, as he could never bring himself to play against Barcelona. Fitness is also an issue; at nearly 34 years of age, he can no longer play every minute of every game, which has been a key factor in his decision to leave. Back in October, he was given a ‘lifetime contract’ with Barcelona, but has chosen to leave now while at the top of his game, preferring to bow out while he is still “feeling useful”, in his own words.

He would undoubtedly have liked to add another Champions League title to his collection before leaving, but a league and cup double is definitely not too shabby a way to sign off. He could yet end his career as an ‘invincible’, as Barça are just two games away from going the whole season without being defeated. As he has won just about every title available, this would be a fitting final flourish for the Man of La Mancha.

Once Iniesta’s farewell tour concludes after the home game against Real Sociedad on May 20, Barcelona will have to face up to life without their influential captain. Philippe Coutinho is expected to fill his position on the pitch next season, but there are many ways in which Iniesta can never truly be replaced. Players of his talent, personality and class are almost impossible to come by, and the departure of Don Andrés Iniesta will be lamented not just by Barcelona, but by Spanish football as a whole.

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