Amid all the surprising criticism that they have attracted during UEFA EURO 2012, finalists Spain can at least reflect happily on the universal admiration shown for Andres Iniesta. In a team of compulsive passers, Iniesta is the one player who can be relied upon to provide the dribble or the sudden forward dash that can tear opposition defences asunder.
A shimmying, shimmering presence in the group phase, the Barcelona midfielder has been slightly less influential during the knockout rounds, but he remains Spain's most consistent attacking midfielder. In the quarter-final against France, it was his carefully delayed pass to Jordi Alba in the 19th minute that allowed the marauding left-back to deliver the cross from which Xabi Alonso put Spain ahead.
On Wednesday, against Portugal, Iniesta was the player who came closest to breaking the deadlock, with a close-range effort in extra time that forced goalkeeper Rui Patricio into serious action for the first time in the game. Iniesta it was as well who steadied the reigning champions' nerves in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, calmly tucking the ball past Patricio to put Spain 1-0 up after Xabi Alonso had failed with his first attempt.
"He's had a difficult season with injuries, but he seems to be getting better and better with each match," says Cesc Fabregas, Iniesta's team-mate at both club and international level. "He's creative, he gives us something different, and he helps us drive the ball forwards. He takes responsibility during matches and the team looks to him because of that."
As the man who scored the winning goal in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ final, Iniesta strongly symbolises the Spanish dominance of the last four years and he has defended Spain against criticism that their play has become predictable.
"The truth is that when you have a team that always attacks, and you attack against closed defences that leave no space, of course it's not as attractive as an open match between two teams that want to win," he said this week. "But this is the style that has brought us success and it's the style that we can identify with. Don't forget, a few years back, this style changed the history of Spain forever, and I think that's enough."
An unassuming figure when the media spotlight falls upon him, Iniesta has nonetheless come to assume superstar status due to his exploits with Spain and Barcelona over the last four years. Along with his partner in crime, Xavi, he embodies the unstinting prioritisation of touch and technique that has turned the Spanish model into an approach the entire world now seeks to emulate.
Described by Wayne Rooney as "the best player in the world" after his display in Barcelona's victory over Manchester United in the 2009 UEFA Champions League final, the 28-year-old is a player who unites opinion like few others.
With Xavi short of form and neither Fabregas nor David Silva assured of a place in Spain coach Vicente del Bosque's starting XI, he will once again have a crucial role to play in Sunday's EURO 2012 final against Italy in Kiev. Spain, they say, have become boring, but with a mere shuffle of the hips and a change of pace, Iniesta is liable to remind football fans the world over why they fell in love with the game in the first place.