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06 Jul 2012 07:34
In a class of his own: Spain’s Andres Iniesta, the ‘englightened one’. (Franck Fif, AFP)
Sergio Ramos dashed past, the last man out of the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, carrying the Henri Delaunay trophy. A Spanish flag was folded up on its top and a medal hung around his neck.
“Sorry,” he said with a smile as he passed an Italian friend.
“I’m not sure we’re conscious of what we have done yet,” Cesc Fàbregas said. Others had already wondered whether they could do it again. It was ever thus. “Four years ago, when we won the Euros, people asked us to win the World Cup,” Iker Casillas said. “When we won the World Cup, they said we had to win the Euros again. I’ve just left the dressing room and people are already asking for the World Cup again.”
There was a pride in his voice but also a certain exasperation. The problem with always winning is that you must always win. Spain’s players denied it but there was a curious sense of obligation about this tournament. Obligation fulfilled, another one was placed before them.
There was something different about the celebrations here. Spain’s dressing room was full of kids. Vicente del Bosque’s son Alvaro, who has Down’s Syndrome and has become almost symbolic of this team, embraced the squad. His father’s emotions showed at last. David Villa and Carles Puyol, men who had been so important in 2008 and 2010 but missed Euro 2012 through injury, joined them. Puyol had insisted on paying for his match ticket; the Spanish Federation refused to let him. Both men tried to hang back; Del Bosque refused to let them, dragging them into the heart of the celebrations.
“The first title brings the most euphoria, the most emotion, because it comes after so many years  of waiting,” Gerard Piqué said. “The second brings a little less and the third is a kind of internal satisfaction. And now? Now for the World Cup qualifiers. This happiness gives us the energy to go on fighting and trying to win more things.”
Del Bosque had said something similar on the eve of the final. “What will you do on Tuesday?” he was asked. This had after all been a draining month, a difficult one, a month in which, in his own understated way, the Spain coach had felt the need to speak out in defence of his team. “On Tuesday?” he replied. “Prepare for the World Cup qualifiers.”
There was a contradiction there. Del Bosque had previously complained that, although he had witnessed other teams celebrating their passage beyond the group, arms aloft, Spain’s players had barely reacted. He wanted them, and us, to appreciate the achievement. After the final the discourse from the players was similar. Slow down, savour this. Appreciate it. This is historic, whatever comes next. “The culmination of everything we’ve done,” as Andrés Iniesta put it. “Now, what we have to do is enjoy the moment.”
He was right, of course. The trouble with “culmination” is that it sounds like the end and no one here wanted to say that it was the end. The question was inescapable: Can this team keep winning? The evidence until now suggests that they can. No one really expected them to come this far.
No one expects any team to. But beyond the talent this is also an extremely competitive group. “Everyone thought that we were finished after the World Cup,” Fàbregas said. “They thought we might ease up but here we are again.”
There is one issue. Xavi Hernandez has embodied Spain’s self-discovery, its identity. He is the ideologue. He is also 32. The next World Cup may be a step too far. “I don’t think he will give it up yet,” Fàbregas said. “[And] there will be a before and after Xavi.” His departure will be the end of an era. Yet the after Xavi period no longer looms quite so darkly as it once did; transition can perhaps avoid trauma.
“It looks like some people will go but the new generation are exactly the same,” Fàbregas continued. “They are humble, they really want to work hard, they believe in our project, the same style, and we’re proud of that. We have Jordi Alba and Busquets, me, Piqué, players who are 23 or 25. Iniesta too.”
Of Spain’s team only three are over 30: Xavi, Casillas and Xabi Alonso.Del Bosque has already quietly carried out a generational renewal and has laid the foundations for more players to come into the squad over the next two years. The transition has been smooth. Of this squad only 11 were involved in 2008. Juan Mata, Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Pedro got less than an hour between them. Thiago Alcantara, Ander Herrera and Iker Munian did not even get in the squad. Last summer they were European champions at under-21 level.
The problem is loading Spain’s emerging players, or even their already established young players, with suffocatingly unrealistic expectation. This is a unique generation and should be judged as such. The next generation, too, must be judged on its own merits.
“Time goes by for everyone,” said Casillas. “As a goalkeeper I can carry on for a bit longer but there are people below us pushing us hard. Us veterans have the responsibility to give way to the players coming through. We have got used to winning from a very young age. We won the under-16s, the under-19s, the under-20s. In a couple of years there will be new players and, although it is true that we have a great under-21 team, you still have to unite that group and make it work.”
There is “work” and there is repeating this treble. That is a near-impossible task for anyone. “This team set the bar so high that the second we drop a few centimetres people say we’re not the team that we were,” said Casillas. “What I will say is that I think it is very hard for any Spanish team in the future to do what we have done again.”
The raw material may be there, the identity too, and they will certainly try. “It is not easy to keep winning but we have done that,” Iniesta said. “Now we have a challenge: to carry on.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Iniesta – the magician
First it was Andres Iniesta versus Italy, then it was Andres Iniesta versus Croatia. One man taking on two entire teams: two virtually identical photographs that seemed to define him, revealing the respect and the fear that he provokes in opponents like Luka Modric, who referred to him as “the best in the world in his position”. The man from La Mancha surrounded by defenders, no way out. Except that for Iniesta there is almost always a way out.
The pictures, reminiscent of that famous photograph of Diego Maradona faced by the Belgian defence at the 1982 World Cup, did the rounds, reaching everyone. Including Iniesta. “When I saw them I felt a bit like a character in the cartoons I grew up with,” he says. “It reminded me of Oliver and Benji.”
The character is Tsubasa Ozora from the Japanese animation Captain Tsubasa – better known in Spain, where it is wildly popular, as Oliver and Benji. In the Spanish version, Ozora is Oliver Atom, the schoolboy who can do amazing things, flying past crudely drawn, stationary opponents; the boy who takes his football everywhere and survived being hit by a bus because the ball took the impact. No wonder he says: “The ball is my friend.”
The ball is Iniesta’s friend, too. That, like the photo, is almost the perfect definition of him. Iniesta said the pictures were anecdotal, a moment caught on camera, but they are not entirely coincidental.
Most players at Barcelona and for Spain move the ball on rapidly and much has been made of playing with a single touch. Or even, as Xavi recalls the Barça coach Charly Rexach insisting, with mig toc – half a touch.
Iniesta is the opposite; he often moves it on fast but he also holds it, carries it, waits with it. Until the right moment. As one of Pep Guardiola’s former collaborators explains: “He knows exactly when to release it. And he holds it so long, inviting pressure on himself and taking responsibility because, somewhere deep down, he knows that he is better than them.”
Some create space by moving away from the ball; Iniesta creates space by moving others towards it. Opponents are drawn in, shown the ball, offered it. And then, when the moment is right, a sudden, almost imperceptible acceleration and he has gone. Or the ball is. “My team-mates would have an easier life if I always had five men on me,” he says, saying much.
“Iniesta,” the former Barcelona manager, Frank Rijkaard was fond of saying, “hands out sweeties.” The first time Guardiola, who until the end of last season was Iniesta’s coach at Barcelona, saw him play, while he was still a player at the Camp Nou, he reported back on a kid that “reads the game better than I do”.
After Spain defeated Croatia, the midfielder Ivan Rakitic was asked what it was that made Iniesta different. He replied: “The authority with which he plays.”
“Iniesta,” he says, “is the best. We saw that we can play against all of them, but against Iniesta it is different. They are such a good team anyway but he is another level again. He has everything: he’s so fast, he thinks so quickly, he’s in control.”
“When he has the ball, it’s like everything else stops,” says Fernando Torres. “Like the camera is going in slow motion. He’s decisive.”
A glimpse of the speed of movement, the cartoonlike way he leaves others in suspended animation, is offered by a Nike skills video filmed in Barcelona. The drill sees him shifting the ball from one foot to the other with a youth teamer acting as an opponent. He is supposed to be walking it, breaking it down. Doing it slow. Iniesta approaches his man, talking viewers through it and then, suddenly, it happens: right-left-right. It is so fast there is actually a gasp from the few people watching.
His performance in the World Cup final, even beyond the 116th-minute winning goal, was especially stunning. In extra time, he took control and took responsibility.
It is a responsibility that grows. Spain’s possession is increasing and it is taking them longer to shoot. Control has become the obsession; defences have become more populous, space harder to find.
Iniesta offers control but more than anyone else he offers that cutting edge, that flash of creativity. Sergio Ramos describes him as the “enlightened one”, a man “touched with a magic wand”.
At Euro 2008, Spain had 56.6% of the ball and shot every 27.4 passes; in South Africa, that was 65.2%, a shot every 34.2 passes. This time round it is 67.4%, with Spain taking a shot every 42.9 passes.
In that environment Iniesta has become even more important.
“He imposes so much respect on the pitch,” Ramos says. “As a football lover, I am proud to have played with him. He makes the difference and does things that no one else can do.”
“He gets better with every game,” says Cesc Fabregas. “He has not had an easy season with injury but he’s in extraordinary form now. He carries the ball, he has creativity, the final pass, he’s good in front of goal. He is a reference point for us. He is creative, different, and he assumes responsibility. The team looks for him during matches.”
There is a simple reason: he is reliable. And in the big games even more so. “I’ve been playing with him since we were 15,” says Torres, “and I have never, ever seen him play badly.” – Sid Lowe © Guardian News & Media 2012
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