Andrés Iniesta for El País Semanal

Andrés Iniesta sat down with Luis Martín and Ramón Besa for the El País Semanal (the newspaper’s Sunday magazine).

El País Semanal (la revista del periódico del domingo) ha sacado un reportaje sobre Andrés Iniesta.  He traducido el reportaje al inglés, pero puedes leerlo aquí.

He’s the most loved football player in Spain.  Praised in all the stadiums for his goal in the World Cup final.  He will now fight to win Barça the European throne.  This is the story of a simple boy who became an idol.

Data from Barcelona’s City Hall show that in 1996, of the 11,028 people that settled in the city, 99 of them came from Castilla-La Mancha.  One of those was Andrés Inieta Luján, who was 12 years old and who wanted to be a footballer.

Iniesta realized his dream.  He was able to allow his father to retire at 40 and bought his mom a house when he signed his first professional contract.  Today, at the age 27, he is a World Cup champion, he just became a father, his favorite meal still continues to be chicken with potatoes and outside of the field he still likes to go unnoticed, so much so that, not long ago, someone mistook him for a waiter. He still has to fulfill his promise to walk the Camino de Santiago and, when he can, he’d like to go to India to visit the Taj Mahal.

“I believe in destiny, that things happen for a reason.  I also believe in God, but I’m not a fanatic, but in the right balance.  I don’t practice.”

Andrés Iniesta was named after his paternal grandfather.  In Fuentealbilla (Albacete) there are three Andrés Iniesta’s:  the footballer and two of his cousins, the sons of his father’s oldest brother, José Antonio. Coincidentally, his maternal grandfather is also named Andrés.  Before going to training, Iniesta tells us that Andrés Luján had a bar in town, which was managed by his daughter, and which closed ten years ago.  Dressed in Nike, the brand he signed with as a child, he is now one of the icons of the brand.  When Andrés was a child, his father saved for three months in order to buy him a pair of Adidas Predator boots.

As a child, Andrés Iniesta Luján played football in la pista, what the sports center in Fuentealbilla was known as, with its cement floor, two goals and two baskets. He played there until he was eight, when he passed the entrance exam to enter the lower categories of Albacete, 80 kilometers from home, and which led him to to stop going to la pista and to stop seeing how frogs hopped around the town’s puddles.

I supported Albacete.  Many stories have been told, but that’s the truth.  My father supported Athletic and I supported Albacete and Barça, my second team.  On the weekends, I would go watch Albacete’s games in the first division.  Those were the days of Josico, Salazar, Catali, Oscar played while on loan from Barça, Bjelica, Molina… It was a good year, the year they moved up into the first division.  I celebrated with the town.  I couldn’t go very far.  But one day, I was mad because Barça scored seven goals on Albacete.

He played in Albacete, somewhat anonymously, until he was choses as the best player of the Brunete tournament, organized by José Ramón de la Morena, a journalist for cadena SER.  It was impossible not to notice the boy with such a colorful game and with such a pale face.  There were scouts from the best teams, including Madrid and Barcelona.  Albert Benaiges, head of Barça’s youth football came back to the Camp Nou with a few names in his book, with Iniesta’s at the top of the list.

However, there was a problem.  At the time, children had to be 14 years old in order to enter La Masía and Andrés was only 12.  The club told the family that they would pay special attention to Andrés and would reserve him a spot in three years.

Several weeks later, another boy the same age as Iniesta, named Jorge Troiteiro, who had shone in the Brunete, was accepted into La Masía, after his father took him there to demand his entrance.  “He either stays here or I’ll take him to Madrid, but my boy is a footballer!” the father said. The Professor, as the coordinator of Barça’s youth team was known, came up with the best idea:  to accept Troiteiro and to call Fuentealbilla for Iniesta.  “At least they’ll be able to keep each other company, they won’t get homesick and will have someone to play with,” remembers Rodolfo Borrell.

Andrés’ mother had not even considered letting her son go to Barcelona until her husband convinced her that it was the best option for their son’s sports career.  “My father told me: ‘sometimes, the train only stops by once in a lifetime,’ but I didn’t want to go,” remembers Andrés.  He kept thinking about his father’s advice every time he would climb into bed and see a poster of Laudrup and another of Guardiola.  The subject was not spoken of in the trips he and his father would take three times a week from Fuentealbilla to Albacete.  They would come and go to the training.  Until, one day, Andrés raised his voice and said “Dad, call Barcelona.”

And his father made the call.

The Premio Eroski, the award for the best player of the Brunete tournament included a visit to the Port Aventura amusement park in Tarragona, so José Iniesta took advantage of the trip to visit La Masía, where he spoke to Tort and Benaiges.  “We saw the grounds and the fields.  The people spoke to my father, Oriol Tort, Albert Benaiges, and Joan Martínez Vilaseca and gave us such a good feeling, it was hard to say no.  But since I was just a boy, they also told us that if being away from the family was going to be hard, that we could come back the following year.  They would keep the doors open for us if we decided to return home.”

The idea was not to return, at least not for a year, but that phrase “the train only comes once in a lifetime” kept running through Andrés’ mind.  Two weeks later, right before starting school, Andrés Iniesta Luján decided to become one of those 99 manchegos who would go to Cataluña in 1996 to achieve their dream.

“After thinking about it a lot and talking to my parents, I said I wanted to come.  Once I said it, I convinced myself that regardless of how hard it would be, I would stick it out.  It’s who I am, it’s the values I grew up with.  If I take a decision that I know will go well, and even if I know that it will be very hard, I don’t look back. It’s the same in life or in football.  When I first rose into the first team, I didn’t play much, but I knew that I would win and that I had achieved my dream.  There was talk of a transfer, but I preferred being here and playing, even if it was for five minutes.  I knew that with hard work and enthusiasm, that I would reach my goals.  That’s why, when I told my father ‘we’re going,’ I knew that there wouldn’t be a return trip.

The trip there was hell.  In a dark blue Ford Orion, the same car where he made the decision that would change his life.  He never imagined that the trip would lead him to where he is today.  Andrés, his parents, and his maternal grandfather traveled to Barcelona in that dark blue Ford Orion and Andrés couldn’t stop crying.

“We stoped in Tortosa to eat.  No one ate anything.  My mom cried, my dad wasn’t hungry, my grandfather was trying to cheer me up… but I couldn’t eat.  I didn’t even look down at my plate… the first memory I have of La Masía was that of Joan Farrés, the director.  He introduced me to José, a youth goalkeeper, who was over 6’2, and took me around La Masía.  I kept thinking ‘¡Dios mío!’  I couldn’t stop crying during dinner. The next day, I went to school, and my parents took me and said: ‘we’ll be waiting here for you when you come out.’  When I came out, they were already gone.  It was the best way not to prolong the agony.  After that, I kept crying, but if they had stayed, it would have been much worse.”

Those goodbyes happened every 15 days.  The parents would arrive on Saturday, see their child, they would leave him on Sunday night at La Masía and would lie to him:  “tomorrow, we’ll come back to take you to school.”  And Andrés already knew that he would be going to school by himself.  On weekends that his parents couldn’t come, Andrés he would go to Benaiges’ house and would watch a movie, a football game, or would have a chat, until Sunday night.  Then, he would cry again, because he felt alone in a house full of adolescents.  That’s where he met Víctor Valdés.

“Apart from Troiteiro, there weren’t any other children.  Victor would take care of us.  He was great with us.  Troiteiro was very good, but there are many circumstances that you can’t control, everyone has their own history and moments.  He didn’t achieve his dream of playing for Barcelona, but has lived football.”

Iniesta was “saved by his mentality,” Benaiges has said.  “I have met some really good players, even those who were 19 years old, who have not endured two weeks at La Masía.  Andrés’ technical profile and intelligence were perfect for Barcelona – he plays the same way as he did when he was a kid – but we weren’t sure if he would be able to make it.  He saved himself.  He held on, adapted, and achieved it.”

The credit was indeed Andrés’.  Until recently, there had been doubts in Barça about the footballer.  Even brands were sure if they should bet on Joaquín or Iniesta.  He wasn’t part of an extraordinary generation, like Cesc, Messi or Piqué, and he didn’t have an influential coach in club decisions.  Llorenç Serra Ferrer and Louis van Gaal failed to win over the fans and the president, and good old Frank Rijkaard often left him on the bench.  Iniesta survived because destiny had saved a stellar moment at each stage of his life to keep the dream alive.

It’s interesting to note that you have practically done a solo career.  However, your coach, Pep Guardiola, has said that you scored the goal at Stamford Bridge with which Barcelona reached the final in Rome was due to all of the barcelonismo was on your right leg.  This explains why, in added time, your shot was so accurate.  

Perhaps, in those decisive moments you need something extra, to feel positive things, it’s possible.  Sometimes I sense things.  It happens on and off the field.

You also sensed it during the World Cup goal. 

I knew that it had to be the World Cup of Spain.  I was convinced.  It had to be this time or never, it had to be for the coach, for the players, for the feelings, because it was our turn.  That’s how I visualized it.  I had a horrible time during the season and I knew that there wouldn’t be a better stage for me to find myself again.  And at the end, I felt like a footballer again, I was happy again.  The World Cup freed me from a terrible year on a personal level.  I suffered a lot in order to have those few minutes of glory, for this goal, for the last bullet.The goal helped me change for the better, to gain confidence, to have continuity.

Andrés Iniesta is now a national hero, a permanent fixture in Barcelona, a celebrity due to his goals at Stamford Bridge and Johannesburg, the best ambassador of the country in the world.  “More than anything, I feel privileged, but I don’t look beyond a player who can sometimes be seen by a lot of people.  It’s curious, in any case, when the fans applaud even when their team is losing. Other things have more value beyond football and results.”

Do you feel like a universal player?

I’m from Fuentealbilla, I was born in Albacete, but I feel Catalan.  I have spent more time here than in Albacete, and I identify myself as both.  I was raised here and I am a very grateful person:  Barcelona and Cataluña have given everything to me and my family, and we feel like we are from Cataluña.  I know where I am from and were I come from.

Spain as a country or as a team?

It’s complicated.  Everyone is free to have their opinion and show what they feel, but always respecting each other.  Beyond feeling Spanish, Catalan, or Andalusian, there needs to be respect.  There shouldn’t be any conflict because of different feelings.  We need to live the best way possible.

Nowadays, the kid who chased his dream to Barcelona has a street named after him in Fuentealbilla and 140 hectares of grapevines.  During the first week of September, the Iniesta family will have their first harvest, and it should be a good one, since the grape requires a lot of patience and there’s no one more patient than Andrés.

“My father and my brothers worked in the field.  For us, it was very complicated having what we can now afford.  That’s why we’ve named the farm Carril de Iniesta, because through it, runs a road from Fuentealbilla to Iniesta, a town of Cuenca.  it was a coincidence, but what better name for my farm, right?  I like it, I’m learning, it’s my world.”

He’s a simple person who lives for the passion of football, so much so, that he tends to watch the games the same night as he plays them.  He sits in front of the television, with his friends, among them the two brothers that make up Estopa. He loves listening to “Como Camarón” because it calms and inspires him.  He combines football with his studies of INEF and his English classes.  However, right now, his main focus is Valeria, his first child born out of his relationship with Anna.

“Fate,” he insists, as he explains how the night of Sant Joan of 2007 he had no desire to go out.  The season was over, his body was in pain.  Finally, a friend dragged him.  Fate.  “I was lucky again… Ana gave me life.  2007 was a difficult year.  As a person she’s a 10.  I can offer very little in return for what I get.  Sometimes people make mistakes and she made one with me.”

Iniesta lives in a semi-detached chalet in Sant Joan, historically a working class neighborhood of Barcelona, and is neighbors with the brothers David and José Manuel Muñoz, of Estopa.  He could live in a mansion, on the beach or in the best neighborhood of the city, Pedralbes.  In 2000, when he signed his first contract with Barcelona, his father claimed authority and wouldn’t let him buy a house anywhere else.  After becoming a father, he’s about to move.  But he won’t go very far.

“Everyone is searching for happiness, of a way to live, of living with the people, and this is my happiness.  I’m happy as I am, no better or worse.  I like my own things, to do things quietly and to enjoy them as much as I can.  Sometimes, I like to sit in the corner and watch a television show or a movie.  Actors?  Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe.  I keep more to myself than I give out, that’s my happiness and my way of being.  The image that people have of me is how I am.  I don’t like to be the center of attention, although many times I have to be.  I like to enjoy my own things.  I have so much that I can’t not be happy.  Being happy as a person is above any triumph.  How you play on the field is a reflection of what your life is like.”

You’re hooked on the internet and you like conversation.

I have friends who are cultured.  Sometimes, I don’t understand why many things happen.  Natural disasters, like the floods in Australia or the earthquake in Japan, make me sad, I’m sad that horrible things like that continue to happen.  But there are also other things… what happened in Egypt, what’s happening with Gaddafi… those things sadden me.  I don’t like injustice, when children are abused, when women are mistreated…

Sad, yes, but rarely have we seen you angry.

I get angry when I get stepped on with malice.  There’s no need to yell to know that you’re pissed.

You weren’t angry when you didn’t get the Balón de Oro?

I never thought I was a favorite for the Balón de Oro or anything.

Is Messi better?

He’s better.  The team needs a Messi, but Messi also needs the team.  We have all been very lucky to have Pep Guardiola as a coach.  He sees football like no one else and he knows all of us.  He’s the key to this team winning what it has won and being able to win it again.  El míster is our light.

Andrés still has the boots his father saved three months to buy.  When he sees them, he remembers la pista and those trips to and from Albacete, the Brunete tournament, the saddest meal of his life in Tortosa, the shelter that Valdés and Benaiges provided him…

“When I see them, I remember where I come from,” he says as a closing statement.

Hopefully, the next time he stops by his parents’ house, there will be a hot plate of chicken and potatoes, his sister will be there, and Ana, the woman that changed his life, will be with him, along with his little girl, Valeria.

That way, Andrés Iniesta will feel good and will prove, once again, that his dream came true.

And his mother, always protective of him, will be happy.


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