Adios, Andres – The greatest player in Spain's history

With Andres Iniesta leaving Barcelona, Omnisport's Joe Wright assesses the legacy of one of the football's most admired figures.

Lionel Messi embraces Andres Iniesta   -  Getty Images

Like most major events to do with Barcelona, Andres Iniesta's Copa del Rey final farewell was best summed up by Lionel Messi.

They had combined for the goal of the game. Iniesta glided forward, fed Messi, collected his return pass, dummied exquisitely past David Soria and fired home. After the jumping fist pump and the player huddle came Messi's tribute: eyes closed, he hugged his long-time team-mate, the image a silent reflection of the headline that would follow in AS the next day: "Iniesta, don't go!".

Messi knew, though. The news was confirmed on Friday, but it comes as no surprise: Iniesta will leave Barcelona at the end of the season, after 22 years at the club. He is expected to head to China, becoming the crowning jewel in the nation's star-studded Super League, where he will wind down his playing career with a deal said to include a handsome pay cheque and the chance to grow his business interests off the pitch.

The decision has brought sadness, a sense of an era coming to a close, but also frustration. Last week's final showed everyone the 33-year-old still has plenty to offer European football. But if anything, that will only strengthen his resolve that the time is right: like Xavi three years ago, Iniesta is leaving on a high, his powers intact, his legacy immovable.

His achievements are almost ridiculously numerous. The Copa was his 34th career trophy; a 35th will follow soon. He scored the winning goal in a World Cup final; he was named player of the tournament at Euro 2012 as Spain defended their title; he became the first man to assist a goal in three different Champions League finals. "This kid will retire us all," Pep Guardiola famously told Xavi. He wasn't far wrong.

"If Andres was called Andresinho, he would have two Ballons d'Or," Sergio Ramos said this week, after France Football apologised for never giving him the prize. If he wins a second World Cup this year, they might just correct that oversight. "World heritage" was how former boss Luis Enrique described him, and such is the global respect for a player who has had standing ovations at the Santiago Bernabeu, in Turin and at the Wanda Metropolitano in recent visits, a popular vote for the Ballon d'Or seems plausible.

He is not the perfect midfielder, if there can be such a thing.

He should have scored more goals; he never reached double figures in a single season. He has registered only six assists in LaLiga across the last three campaigns, although that's a stat impacted by the change to a functional midfield set-up under Luis Enrique and Ernesto Valverde.

But watching Iniesta gather the ball, execute a change of pace and set an attack underway has always remained one of the joys of the sport. It is majesty in motion, apparently simple yet uncommonly hard to do, and he's done it every 90 minutes, every week, since 2002. "I've known him for 15 years and he's never, ever had a bad game," Fernando Torres once said.

"He's fantastic. He's the most talented Spanish player of all time. He's an amazing player and a wonderful person with a huge heart," Xavi told about his old midfield partner, his cohort in a generation-defining partnership. He once wrote: "Sometimes I get the feeling Andres doesn't realise how important he is: one day he'll retire and we'll see the magnitude of what he has done."

Iniesta is not finished yet, but reflections and tributes have already shown what he means to Barca and Spain.

He will leave LaLiga a rare figure indeed: a universally appreciated and admired footballer. He is the greatest Spain have ever produced, for his longevity, his triumphs, his elegance, his dignity. He has come far from the boy who cried when he joined La Masia at the age of 12. He teared up during the Copa final, too; perhaps that was a fitting bookend.

Iniesta won't be remembered as Barca's finest youth product. That honour belongs to Messi, a man who dominates headlines for feats that sometimes defy all logic, with even players of Iniesta's calibre left in the background. 

And yet, for Messi, that's precisely what makes his old friend a master of his craft. In the midfielder's book, The Artist: Being Iniesta, Messi said: "I know how difficult it is to do what he does. He does everything well, with simplicity. At times, it may look like he's not doing anything, but in fact he's doing it all.

"Everything is different with Andres. The hardest thing to do in football is to make it look like everything is easy, effortless, and that's Andres."

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