Whenever Andres Iniesta is subbed off, normally around the 60-minute mark due to his deteriorating fitness, the usual routine is now observed. Whether it is at the Camp Nou or somewhere else around the country, the legendary playmaker is afforded a standing ovation. It’s been like this since the 2010 World Cup, where Iniesta penned his name into Spanish football history, but there has been an added poignancy to the applause this season.
Increasingly, this season is starting to feel like one big farewell tour for Iniesta, arguably the greatest footballer of all time. Barcelona have tried to tie the 33-year-old to a new deal for over a year now and still he has still to put pen to paper. Now, everyone at the Camp Nou is braced for Iniesta to leave at the end of the season, with China presumed to be his inevitable destination this summer.
Of course, Iniesta’s Barca exit has been mooted for a long time and so the Catalans shouldn’t be completely unprepared. The club record signing of Philippe Coutinho in January was the clearest indication yet that Barcelona are putting plans in place to ensure a seamless transition. But the transition will never be seamless. It will be painful.
Neymar’s departure last summer was one that rocked Barcelona to its very core as a club. The Brazil’s exit was seen to have chipped away at the identity of Barca, resulting in political fallout at boardroom level. But the departure of Iniesta this summer would be an even greater blow to Barcelona’s identity.
Iniesta provides a link between the Barca first team and La Masia, the academy that has served as the bedrock of the club for decades. He, along with Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Sergio Roberto, is the last academy graduate standing in the Barcelona first team. Back in 2011, when the Catalans won their second Champions League title in three years, they boasted seven graduates in their starting lineup.
Indeed, the link between the Barcelona first team and La Masia has disintegrated over the past few years and Iniesta’s exit this summer would be a symbolic reflection of this. The 33-year-old has become the purest manifestation of the famous Barca philosophy, even more so than Lionel Messi, and just as he says something about the club as a whole, so would his departure.
On the pitch, too, Iniesta’s exit would be greatly felt. Without Iniesta, Messi will be denied a supply line that has aided him from the moment he broke through into the first team at the Camp Nou. Their relationship has carried Barcelona to some of their greatest triumphs as a club. Iniesta’s best quality can be found in his capacity for facilitating others. Messi won’t be the only one to suffer should the playmaker leave.
But whether or not Iniesta makes the switch to China this summer, the time will come when Barcelona have to face up to life without the greatest embodiment of their spirit, character and identity as a club. From a Catalan perspective, it’s encouraging that moves have already been made.
Ernesto Valverde’s shift to a 4-4-2 formation this season has been made with Iniesta’s impending exit in mind. Coutinho has been installed on the left side of the midfield four, allowed to drift inside, with summer signing Ousmane Dembele on the right, providing width. And balance.
Iniesta’s exit will prove Valverde with a defining test of his management, and so far he has been smart enough to acknowledge that finding a direct replacement for the playmaker may well prove impossible. Instead, he will have to move the pieces of his team around to compensate. Not even Coutinho, the most expensive player in Barca’s history, is good enough to do what Iniesta did, and still does to this day.
There’s the chance that Iniesta, still an integral first team figure, will be given a fitting sendoff at the end of the season, with Barca La Liga champions-in-waiting, Copa del Rey finalists and still on course in the Champions League. However his Barcelona career ends, it’s guaranteed to be greeted with a standing ovation, such is the routine now.
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