Andres Iniesta: ‘One day I wish to return to Barcelona – but I’m not done winning trophies in Japan’

There is still a romance to the way Andres Iniesta

enjoys a career that, if it were a video game, would

have been completed several times over.

The 37-year-old has a trophy haul which reflects his

status as one of the great midfielders of his

generation – a World Cup and two European

Championships with Spain, four Champions Leagues

and countless other silverware with Barcelona.

But for the past three years the midfielder has called

Japan his home, adding an Emperor’s Cup and

Japanese Super Cup with Vissel Kobe. He recently

committed to a new deal that will keep him playing

until he is almost 40.

Ask Iniesta how he continues to see the seemingly

impossible pass, or wriggle out of the tightest

situations, and he will take you back three decades

and almost 7,000 miles to the instincts honed on the

makeshift pitches of his hometown of Fuentealbilla.

“I consider myself an intuitive player who reads the

game a few steps ahead,” Iniesta tells BBC Sport.

“In the position I play those are maybe my strengths

and I try to exploit them as much as possible.

“There are things happening, things I am processing

in my head. It’s hard to describe them.

They happen in an automatic way – I could have been

learning them since I was young or through repetition.

“In football, if you start thinking you can go too slow.”

Iniesta calls it an “essence”. He scored the winner in

the 2010 World Cup final and has produced

mesmerising moments on the biggest stage, but the

foundations are “stuff I used to do when I was 10 years old”.

“Those essences come out in training or matches

and I am just led by them,” he explains.

“When I was a kid I was basically playing in the

streets of my hometown or in the school playing yard,

and that environment helps you evolve.

“The connection to that environment and who you are

and what type of person you are brings you to being

a certain type of player.

“Nowadays kids are maybe practising football in

more well-prepared fields. In those environments they

need to try to adapt and gain some skills.

Each environment helps you get better.”

Iniesta
Iniesta scored the winner in the 2010 World Cup final and dedicated his goal to former team-mate Daniel Jarque, who died earlier that season. Iniesta has previously spoken about how he battled depression before the World Cup following Jarque’s death and the injuries he himself suffered that season.

The gifted kid from the outskirts of Albacete grew up

following Michael Laudrup and Pep Guardiola, and

was given the chance to hone his raw talent in their

shadows when he was exposed to Barcelona’s

revered La Masia youth academy at the age of 12,

even if he did “cry buckets” on arrival.

He did not know then the influence the latter would

have on his career.

Guardiola admired the understated up-and-coming

playmaker when captain of the Catalan giants,

famously suggesting fellow midfielder Xavi would

retire him and “this lad Iniesta is going to retire us all”,

before as coach making Iniesta a pivotal part of his

all-conquering side.

“Barcelona was like an exam every game and you had

to pass that,” says Iniesta.

“That’s the base and each time you have to adapt to

the environment, mould yourself to the style that is

required of you – but always keeping the essence.

“I’ve had different coaches. I started with Louis van

Gaal and then there was Guardiola, Luis Enrique and

Ernesto Valverde.

All coaches teach you something and you can learn

something from all coaches.

Maybe there are times I played less, but that experience enriched me too.

“It would be hard to point out a coach who has

influenced me the most and that’s the same with the

players I have played with and learned from.

I have been in Barca and Spanish national teams in

very good moments and I have been with the world’s

best players and I have learned from all of them.”

Iniesta pauses for a moment to consider his answer

and then continues: “It’s not only what you have

immediately around you, but an opponent, an

opponent’s system or style of play. I’ve always

thought this motivation to learn is the motor to keep

improving.

“You can learn from everything, not only from your

immediate surroundings but from everything

surrounding your football.”

He highlights the relentless energy of Marcelo

Bielsa’s sides and the challenge of breaking down

Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in El Clasico fixtures.

“I have been lucky to have played a lot of games in

my career and you encounter a lot of teams, a lot of

proponents,” says Iniesta.

“It is not the same in the different competitions that

you play like the Champions League or La Liga or for

the national team.

English teams or Italian teams are very different.

When you played against Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile, that

was a particular team.

“Playing against Real Madrid when Mourinho was

coaching – or Carlo Ancelotti – are experiences which

really enrich you.”

It was Barcelona, though, who inspired coaches

around the world to adopt the principles that made

them so successful – the tiki-taka, the suffocating

press, the focus on technically gifted players at a

time when others were scouting for strong, powerful

athletes.

“Barca has always been characterised by being a

team that wants the ball and wants to keep the ball,”

says Iniesta. “In the time of Guardiola, the football

itself didn’t change but it was a time where teams

were really looking at us and trying to learn.”

Iniesta
Iniesta won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015

Barcelona have not been crowned European

champions since 2015, when a certain diminutive

Spaniard produced a man-of-the-match performance

in a 3-1 win over Juventus, and the club’s current

financial struggles mean that glorious evening in

Berlin feels like a distant memory.

“I will always see Barcelona in a good way because I

still see a different team,” says Iniesta. “Many things

have changed since then. Naturally the players are

different but there is still an idea, a concept.

“Sometimes there will be good times and sometimes

there will be worse times, like it has always been, but

personally I don’t like comparing too much.”

Iniesta is reluctant to criticise a club he still holds

dear and, once his playing career comes to a close,

the Nou Camp is a place he longs to return to.

“Yes, it is something I wish,” he says. “I would like it to

happen because more than anything it is the club I

spent so many years in.

“You don’t know what will happen in the future, you

don’t know in what way I could return or who will be

the people in charge at a certain moment.

“So there are many factors which make it hard to see

what will really happen, but if you ask me if I would

like to, the answer is yes.”

Whether that is in a coaching capacity remains to be

seen. There are training centres in Japan bearing his

name, the ‘Iniesta’s Methodology’ academies, but the

man himself remains unsure of what path he will

take.

“Sometimes I would like to coach, sometimes I think

my interests go into other directions,” he ponders. “I

know I want to stay in football and when I finish as a

professional I would like to get a coaching licence,

but I don’t know if I will use it in the future.

“There’s nothing where I wake up in the morning and

think ‘I want to do this’, so for now I will enjoy playing,

training and will see what happens in the future.”

Andres Iniesta and family after Vissel Kobe won the Emperor's Cup in 2020
Iniesta and family after Vissel Kobe won the Emperor’s Cup in 2020

A two-year deal signed in the summer means he will

reside in Kobe until at least 2023, a city where Iniesta,

his wife Anna and their four children can enjoy a life

away from the limelight.

“It is very hard in your home to find a place you feel

comfortable or enjoy on a daily basis both

professionally and personally,” says Iniesta.

“But I think we have found that place in Kobe.

“It was a difficult decision to leave Barcelona but

from the beginning the way people treated us has

been very, very nice.”

Iniesta is back playing after recovering from a long-

term hamstring injury and is focused on bringing

more success to Vissel Kobe alongside three other

former Barcelona players in defender Thomas

Vermaelen, midfielder Sergi Samper and forward

Bojan.

“From my side, as long as my body can do it I want to

keep competing,” adds Iniesta. “It is important for me

to keep that good condition so I can keep enjoying

football.

“We’ve won the only two titles in the club’s history and

we want to keep trying to make history here this

season.

“We are in a good position and the objective is to

qualify for the Asian Champions League.

In the years I have left, even though it is not easy, I

would like to win some more titles.”

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