Football: In praise of the puppeteer

Football: In praise of the puppeteer
A hugely gifted and entertaining ball player, Barcelona's midfielder Andres Iniesta epitomises Spain’s swift, counter- attacking style.

Andres Iniesta stands on the shoulders of giants.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi scoop up the accolades, but the Spaniard collects all the cups.

He is a superstar in the shadows; the most prized of puppeteers. He pulls strings behind the curtain. Without him, the Spanish show cannot go on.

He deserves more public recognition, but craves less. He's a string-puller not a shirt-seller.

The fact that the mild-mannered, soft-spoken playmaker achieves both is a testament to his mesmerising talent.

Tiki-taka's popularity might be waning, but Spain's midfield metronome keeps ticking, rarely missing a beat.

Unlike Ronaldo and Messi, Iniesta has won everything for his country. Unlike the golden duo, his performances were pivotal to Spain's historic successes.

The diminutive dynamo doesn't wilt in the spotlight. He flourishes. He captivates like no other in a Spanish jersey. And he keeps on coming.

His Man-of-the-Match heroics in the Euro 2008 semi-final against Russia laid down the template for his totalitarian control in midfield. He never scored, but his domination was total in the 3-0 victory.

When David Beckham and Wayne Rooney's injuries hampered their major tournament preparations, hysterical headlines monitored their progress for weeks.

But it's often forgotten that Iniesta played just half an hour, in total, in the last third of Barcelona's 2009/10 campaign.

And after 116 minutes of the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, he was shattered; physically and emotionally spent after an injury-affected season and an exhausting tournament of possession football where he was always the creative fulcrum.

Somehow, an impudent back-heel on the halfway line launched a late counter-attack. Somehow, momentum carried him into the penalty box. He was playing on muscle memory.

Almost on auto-pilot, he flicked Cesc Fabregas' cross into the air and nonchalantly half-volleyed the ball into the bottom corner of Holland's goal like a cocky kid messing around on a Costa del Sol beach.

ARCHITECT

In 2012, his reality surpassed the dreams of the most idealistic children.

The Euro final was an alleged coming together of the tournament's two great artists ready to leave lasting images on their most ambitious canvas.

But Andrea Pirlo never got a kick. Iniesta was omnipotent and omnipresent; unstoppable and everywhere.

An architect in his aesthetic prime, he was a creator beyond compare. Spain won 4-0. They could've doubled that scoreline as they danced on Iniesta's strings.

But the strings are being stretched. Maybe not to breaking point, but they are certainly brittle.

Iniesta is 30, perhaps in his prime, but his close colleagues are on the other side of the hill. Xabi Alonso is 32 and Xavi Hernandez 34. Vicente del Bosque accepts he must shake up the Spanish cocktail to avoid it turning sour in the Brazilian heat.

The inclusion of the more physically imposing Diego Costa and Javi Martinez suggests the little magicians might have to make room for the muscle men.

It looks like you can teach old del Bosque new tricks after all.

And Spain's opening Group B game is a replay of the 2010 World Cup final. The Dutch are desperate for revenge.

GREAT HOPE

Iniesta cannot take time to acclimatize this time. If the Spaniards lose, they face a Chile reception in their next game and an even chillier one back home if they fail to progress.

Iniesta's role in Brazil cannot be overstated. His position mirrors that of his country. After three spectacularly consistent performances at Euros 2008 and 2012 and South Africa four years ago, it appears greedy, almost ungrateful, to demand such a Herculean effort a fourth time.

But Iniesta remains Spain's great hope.

The two are interchangeable; indistinguishable. In last year's Confederations Cup final, the game mostly passed Iniesta by. And the Brazilians bypassed the Spaniards.

Individually and collectively, there was a sense that the aura had gone. The red swirl that once whipped through opponents like a hurricane drifted away at the Maracana Stadium.

Iniesta has always been the eye of the hurricane; only he can bring it back.

If the master manipulator can make his midfield marionettes dance one more time, then the Flamenco has a shot at silencing the Samba.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 06, 2014.
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