The identity of the world’s greatest ever player is one of football’s most pointless, and flawed, debates. Is it Pele? Is it Diego Maradona? Or is it, as most current evidence points towards, Lionel Messi?
The doubters are having none of it. Win the World Cup Leo, like Maradona did, and then we’ll talk. It’s an albatross Messi will wear around his neck for the rest of his remarkable career.
But if the measure of true greatness is winning international tournaments, and the World Cup in particular, then we need not worry about this debate at all. For the greatest must surely be Andres Iniesta.
The beautiful footballer
As fans of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo continue to squabble tiresomely about who’s the better player, the Spanish maestro simply continues to be his usual self, the most beautiful, and beautifully effective, footballer on the planet.
From one astonishing performance to another, he neither seeks, nor needs, affirmation. Yet he gets it all the same.
Here’s a footballer that few fans disagree on. No one dislikes, or quite frankly is even allowed to dislike, Iniesta. It is not an option.
Iniesta does not have the goal-scoring stats of the Argentine and Portuguese duo, not even close. But he more than makes up for that in sheer influence on Barcelona and Spain.
On Friday night, reigning champions Spain put on the first truly outstanding team performance of Euro 2016, destroying Turkey 3-0 in Nice. Iniesta was simply sublime, time and again shredding the Turkish defense and playing a decisive role in the third goal.
All of sudden, Spain are once again favorites to win the title. It would be a fitting end to what is likely be Iniesta’s last international competition.
A peerless record
As captain Iniesta recently won his eighth La Liga title with Barca, in the first season after the departure of long-time partner in crime Xavi Hernandez. In the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, Iniesta was practically unplayable, the 2-0 extra time win securing his fourth triumph in the competition.
There’s been four Champions League medals for his club, and he has been central to his country’s two previous Euro wins, in 2008 and 2012, when he was named the player of the tournament.
And then there is the little matter of scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against Holland.
Now, at the age of 32, he has been Spain’s stand out player at Euro 2016 by some distance.
The comparison with a fine wine would be an obvious one, except that would somehow suggest there was a time when the captain of La Roja was not this vintage. There hasn’t.
It is likely that some time in the distant past, Iniesta may well have misplaced one of his passes, but no one can be certain. And what passes they are; as assured as Xavi’s, as deadly as Messi’s, and beyond the capacity of the rest.
Has there ever been a player who’s dribbling genius is taken so much for granted? Playing in the same team as Messi perhaps diverts some of the spotlight away from Iniesta, but few players move with the ball with such effortlessness.
No one makes football look as easy as Iniesta does.
In the first half of England’s 2-1 win over Wales on Thursday, a match succinctly likened by a colleague to a poor Premier League match, the players struggled to master even the most basic of football skills. At times like this, as when watching Sweden struggle to post even a single shot on goal in their two matches, the football is made to look complicated.
By contrast, Iniesta seems to play a different sport altogether. It’s as if, like Neo at the end of The Matrix, he has attained a higher level of consciousness, allowing him to see things on the football pitch that other players can’t.
He skips past opponents like a downhill slalom champion evading plodding uphill skiers. Witness how often the word “glide” is used in in reference to his movement. Not many footballers float like butterflies, never mind sting like bees.
In age where there is no more mystery is football, in which every player’s style has been overanalyzed to death, Iniesta still has the capacity to surprise the adoring public as easily as he bamboozles defenders.
Footsteps into history
Iniesta now stands to create more history, a third successive Euro title with his country.
Should Spain lift the cup on July 10, it would be a feat unlikely to ever be repeated. As would Iniesta’s achievements be beyond the reach of mere mortals.
In his book Football in Sun and Shadow, the great Uruguayan author, and lover of the beautiful game, Eduardo Galeano, tells a story variously attributed to Argentinian striker Enrique “El Chueco” Garcia for Racing Club, or Uruguayan Pedro “El Mulero” Lago, the Penarol forward.
“Half a century ago, or a little more, Lago or Garcia scored the perfect goal, one that left his adversaries paralyzed with rage,” Galeano wrote in 1997. “Then he plucked the ball from the back of the net and with it under his arm, he retraced his path, step by step, dragging his feet. That’s right, raising lots of dust, to erase his footprints so that no one could copy his play.”
It’s not something Iniesta ever has to worry about doing. For he leaves no footsteps at all for others to follow.