Monday, August 1, 2011

Five Favourite Footballers - Iniesta

I lived in the age when Championship Manager was the touchstone for football wisdom. My real knowledge of football was mediated through a computer game. In fact, what was true in the game became absolute truth. It didn't matter that Ibrahim Bakayoko was an incompetent fool when I saw him playing for Everton. He was a Championship Manager jewel, and that was the most important thing about him. It didn't matter that I had never seen Marc Emmers play before. He guaranteed me an 8/10 in most games, and that was the only truth I cared about. In fact, so real did Championship Manager become that two of my most treasured players in the game were actually created by the game itself - fictional Scandanavian's called Magnusson and Skulason - legends when played "in the hole".

Which brings me to Andres Iniesta. I have always been known as a manager who gives youth a chance. In 01/02, my eye glanced over the attributes of a teenage Iniesta, and I liked what I saw. He was versatile, and was above average in a lot of areas without excelling in any one facet of the game. In time he became a fixture in my midfield, with a keen eye for a goal. The decision to start him was perhaps more sentimental than anything else. I adopted him as my computerised son, and wouldn't let any charges of nepotism get in the way of his journey to stardom.

With my passion for Championship Manager waning, I had the unique experience of finally meeting Andres Iniesta in the flesh. The best analogy I can think of is the move  from online dating to a real life meeting. What does he look like? Is he as talented as the computer says he is? Iniesta's substitute appearance against Chelsea -- in the game made famous a) for being brilliant and b) for that Ronaldinho goal -- allayed all of my fears. He forced a marvellous save out of Cech and (I think) hit the post. He was a short, slight, pale 20 year-old who looked like a boy among men, but who played with the confidence of someone who knew he belonged on any football pitch. Crucial goals in a Champions League semi-final and a World Cup final only confirm that confidence he has.

Iniesta is gifted with a velvet touch and the ability to see things that most players just can't see. Those two attributes are no more present than in these few seconds against Athletic Bilbao.

I like to think of Iniesta as a fusion of Messi and Xavi., combining precise dribbling skills with a perceptive passing range and the wisdom to know and control the flow of a game. Someone said that Xavi "plays in the future". But he doesn't play there alone. Iniesta is right beside him, which is why the two together control every game they take part in. "Geometry in motion", said George Hamilton during Barcelona's triumph over Manchester United in Rome.

Iniesta is a player reared under the conviction that giving the ball away is the ultimate sin. Living under this conviction might stultify a lesser player, but with Iniesta you are left to marvel at the creative ways through which he not only retains possession of the football, but also nears it to the opposition's goal. A dink, a lob, a backheel, a chip over the top, a through ball along the ground, a mazy dribble followed by a last second off load with the outside of the foot, and of course his signature quick shift of the ball from one foot to the other. Every game produces moments that are worth watching again and again, and are worth trying to replicate.

Iniesta is known as the "anti-galactico". He is an unlikely superstar, but he is now regarded as one of the best players in the world, a vital component to the two best teams in the world. But to me he will always be my Championship Manager prodigy who came good - the anti-Bakayoko, if you will.

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