Andres Iniesta is not only one of the finest players in the world today, but also a master at thriving in high-pressure situations. Who could forget the midfielder’s unforgettable strike that secured Spain the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, or his equally memorable last-gasp goal that saw Barcelona prevail against Chelsea in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2008/09?
Now, as his Barça side prepare for another major assignment, the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011, the mercurial No8 is ready to deliver once again. Before heading to Japan, however, Iniesta made time for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com to discuss the challenge ahead in Japan, this weekend’s mouth-watering showdown with Real Madrid and much more.
FIFA.com: You’re about to take part in your third FIFA Club World Cup. What are your main memories from your first two participations?
Andres Iniesta: I had two very contrasting experiences in the competition, one good and one not so good. The first, which was also in Japan, left a bad taste in my mouth as we lost to Internacional in the final – something that wasn’t part of the plan. Then we made amends at our next attempt in Abu Dhabi. It’s a very important tournament and hard to qualify for, as you first have to win the Champions League – a very tall order these days. Hopefully, we’ll have more good memories after this edition.
During your first tilt back in 2006, you were just settling into the first team. What’s changed for you in the intervening years?
A great deal. And fortunately I think the changes have been for the better; at least that’s what I try for. It’s logical that with the passing of time you build up more experience and do everything more naturally. Back in 2006, I felt great and recall playing in the semi-final and final. On a personal level it was a very good year as I played almost every game, but the abiding memory of that event was failing to win the final.
What can you tell us about the 2009 edition, when Barça finally added the club world title to their trophy collection?
I can tell you we suffered mightily to win that one – in the final we drew with Estudiantes over 90 minutes and only won in extra time. Sometimes what we do appears easy, but it’s not. Our opponents are very strong and very hard to overcome, and we can expect more of the same this year if we manage to win our semi-final.
Would you say Barça are more relaxed heading into this year’s edition after winning it on their previous attempt?
No. Peace of mind doesn’t exist in football. We see it as a great challenge and the prospect of winning it again is something we’re very excited about. Our desire to prevail is huge.
What can you tell us of your potential semi-final opponents, Qatar’s Al Sadd and Tunisia’s Esperance?
To be honest, I know Santos and Monterrey better. They’re hard to play against and are physically very strong as well as technically very gifted. I’ve haven’t seen either of our potential semi-final opponents yet, but the coaching staff will familiarise us with them in the coming days, like they do with every opponent.
Having already experienced Japan, what’s your impression of the county?
I like it a great deal… its culture, its people. I admire the Japanese personality. They cherish respect and companionship, values that for me are fundamental and which I greatly admire.
Moving back to football, Barça have some big challenges ahead, starting with El Clásico against Madrid this weekend. Do you feel the team is as strong as it has been in recent years?
I believe this is the best Barça team I’ve ever played in. That’s down to the way our play evolves, with the teams getting stronger every year. The challenge facing us is to improve day after day, year after year, something we’ve done in every respect – tactically, physically and technically. That’s the way it has to be in football. The team of 2006 were better than the class of 2001, and this year’s team are the best yet.
That said, Pep Guardiola appears to be fine-tuning some tactical aspects, like the 3-4-3 system he’s been employing recently…
We try to work on variations in so far as we can, because we have so many games. We take advantage of training games and even official matches [to work on these]. However, many of us in the current squad are already familiar with the 3-4-3 variant from our time playing youth football, so it’s not that new for us. This familiarity means we can adapt to it quite naturally. Having tactical alternatives for any given match scenario or opponent is important.
That policy has involved rotations, which have seen you play a bit less this year than in other seasons. Are you comfortable with that situation?
All of us want to be on the pitch, and the longer the better, but the coach knows what he wants. What matters is that we all contribute so as to have the best chance of winning honours. It’s a question of squad management, and that’s something I understand.
Looking back, are you conscious of how your crucial goals have earned you a place in the history of world football?
(Laughs) I’m aware that they’ll always be remembered, and that down the years my name will be linked with those magic moments. I feel proud of that. I’m privileged to have been able to experience that in the flesh, as it’s also something that changed my life in a sporting and footballing sense both at a global level and in terms of recognition. That was inevitable and a side effect of such an intense situation. I use that as a stimulus to keep doing things well.
Be honest now, how many times have you watched that goal that won the Spain the FIFA World Cup in South Africa?
Many, many times. I never tire of watching it. It’s so beautiful, not just the goal itself, but its significance and the reaction of my team-mates and the public. I’ll never stop watching it.
Lastly, having won everything there is to win, how do you stay motivated to strive for more?
That’s easy – you never tire of winning and you can better face challenges when you’re winning not losing. The problem, if I can call it that, is that now our opponents prepare [for us] better and it gets harder. But that’s part of the challenge and something I thrive on.