BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Andres Iniesta means so much more to Barcelona than the 30-plus titles he helped add to its trophy case.
The Spaniard, who is leaving the club at the end of the season, was pure elegance with the ball, and a popular player off the field.
As Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu put it, ”Andres is the son any father would love to have.”
Lionel Messi has been the driving force that made Barcelona into one of the best teams to ever play the game. But more than any player at the Camp Nou in the last 15 years, Iniesta provided the human element that made him exemplify Barcelona’s motto of being ”more than a club.”
In an emotional news conference on Friday, Iniesta did not reveal what his next club will be, only saying it won’t be in Europe.
Iniesta, who turns 34 on May 11, decided it was time to go out on top after likely securing a domestic double.
Wearing Barcelona’s burgundy-and-blue, Iniesta scored in a 5-0 victory over Sevilla to claim a fourth consecutive Copa del Rey last weekend. That was his and Messi’s club record 31st title with Barcelona, and the team just needs to win one of its last five matches to clinch the Spanish league title.
Iniesta’s departure after 16 trophy-rich seasons will leave Messi as the last link to the group of players that started Barcelona’s incredible winning era with a Liga crown in 2005.
Iniesta and Messi were rising talents on that team coached by Frank Rijkaard and featuring Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o.
Barcelona won the 2006 Champion League title, which started a golden era for Barcelona with Iniesta and Messi leading the way to three more Champions League titles and a collection of domestic trophies that displaced Real Madrid as Spain’s top team.
For a club which prides itself on producing the world’s top playmakers and passers, there has been no one quite like Iniesta.
Deceptively sleek with his dribbling skills and uncanny knack for a game-winning pass, Iniesta was a master at unlocking opponents’ best-laid defenses. He combined the smooth dribbling skills of Ronaldinho and the precision passing of former midfield partner Xavi Hernandez.
While never a prolific goal-scorer, Iniesta has come through in the biggest moments for both club and country.
Ask any Barcelona fan what their favorite goal is and more than likely Iniesta’s dramatic stoppage-time strike that stunned Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League will be mentioned. With Barcelona seconds from elimination, Iniesta’s laser-beam shot with the toe of his right boot kept Pep Guardiola’s side on course to the European title.
When asked by Spanish national television in February about that classic goal, Iniesta said it was ”as if destiny wanted the ball to go in.”
Iniesta was also in the right place at the right time to score in extra time to give Spain the World Cup title in 2010 with a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands. He also played a key part in Spain winning the 2008 and 2012 European Championships to complete an unprecedented run of dominance for Spain and its tiki-taka tactics modeled on Barcelona’s ball-possession style.
His thoughtful character was seen when Iniesta dedicated his World Cup winning goal to the late Dani Jarque, his friend and Espanyol defender who had died of a heart attack.
This mix of grace and excellence earned him the respect of opposing fans when Barcelona was playing away from home. They regularly applauded him when he was substituted.
Iniesta joined Barcelona’s training academy at age 12 after leaving his village in southeastern Spain. He has become an unquestioned favorite of Barcelona’s supporters, even with Catalans who sympathize with the region’s secessionist movement.
Iniesta never won the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player. He was second in voting behind Messi in 2010. France Football, the magazine behind the award, recognized that Iniesta had deserved to win in an editorial published this week by director Pascal Ferre entitled ”Sorry, Andres.”
But true to his demeanor, Iniesta has never complained.
Instead, through the years, he has lost his hair, gotten married, become a father, and looked toward the future of his family by investing in a vineyard, ”Bodega Iniesta,” in the village where he was born.
Last year, Iniesta became the first player to sign a lifetime contract with Barcelona, a deal that allowed him to keep playing for the club as long as he remained fit.
But sensing the end was near, Barcelona paid a club-record 160 million euros ($192 million) to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool in January.
Coutinho has settled in during his first four months with Ernesto Valverde’s team, but the 25-year-old Brazilian has very big boots to fill.
Once Iniesta plays his remaining five matches with Barcelona, Iniesta will head to Russia for this summer’s World Cup in what could be the end of his glorious career with Spain.
”At the end, the football fades away and what is left are the people, the relationships you have had with people and teammates,” Iniesta said on Friday. ”And that is all I have tried to do, to be both the great player and the great person that this club deserves.”