Barcelona’s reputation as one of the most entertaining teams in the world is partly founded on its ability to pluck outstanding playmakers from its youth system. The creative talents of Guardiola, De la Peña and Xavi have followed foreign greats such as Schuster and Laudrup in thrilling the demanding azulgrana crowds in recent years. Now another jewel in the Catalan crown, Andres Iniesta, is set to shine at the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003.
More attacking than Guardiola, less risky than De La Pena yet more incisive than Xavi, Iniesta may be in the mould of those Nou Camp darlings but, make no mistake, he is his own man.
Knitting together defence and attack, threading passes through the eye of a needle, dribbling as though the ball were attached to his boot laces by a piece of string and weaving all-round magic on the park, Iniesta has seduced both crowds and coaches alike since he was spotted as a 12-year-old playing in a seven-a-side tournament in his home town of Albacete.
“You don’t teach Iniesta about football, he teaches you,” drools Spain’s senior coach Inaki Saez.
“A fantastic brain and outstanding technique,” raves youth coach Juan Santisteban.
In fact so rich was his talent at such an early age, that there has been a conscious effort from club and country to shield their rising star from those kinds of unwanted attentions that can ruin the most talented of young players.
But they could have few doubts with Iniesta whose strength of will and determination to succeed appear reminiscent of another player who helped Spain to the semi-finals of Qatar 95 - Raul Gonzalez. While a scrawny, 17-year-old Raul was thrust spectacularly into the limelight by Jorge Valdano to play alongside Michael Laudrup, Ivan Zamorano and Fernando Redondo, Iniesta, who cuts a slight figure himself, has played only a bit-part for their great Spanish rivals in the past year before suffering injury at the back end of last season.
A small role, perhaps, yet not without significance. With many commentators predicting a loss against Mallorca late last year would spell the end of former Barcelona coach Louis van Gaal’s second reign, the Dutchman thrust Iniesta into the spotlight, handing the Manchego a debut in place of Argentinian Juan Roman Riquelme. The result: Mallorca 0 Barcelona 4.
Instead Spain’s youth sides have benefited. While question marks still hang over the availability of Atletico Madrid’s Fernando Torres and Sevilla’s Jose Antonio Reyes, Iniesta appears to be a cast-iron certainty to make it to the Emirates for the rescheduled tournament.
he 19-year-old has already inspired Spain to the UEFA U-16 Championship in England as well as the UEFA U-19 Championship in Norway last year – the European qualification competition for UAE 2003.
The Barcelona youngster also captained Spain at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Trinidad and Tobago 2001 in the make-or-break final group game against Argentina. It was Spain’s best match of the tournament but in a heated contest the South Americans came back from 2-1 down to win 4-2, knocking Iniesta and co. out in the process.
As fate would have it, Spain come up against Argentina again in the all-important first match of Group B where, two years on, many rivalries, including those of the coaches Santisteban and Hugo Tocalli, will be renewed.
But the mild mannered Iniesta says he will treat the match like any other.
“I don't see Argentina as a revenge match but we know their capabilities and style of play,” he says. “We will need to be fully focused on the match and not make any mistakes.”
And while admitting the albiceleste would be Spain’s main threat in the group, he is quick to point out that the other sides – Mali and Uzbekistan – could also pose a serious challenge:
“It is a complicated group with Argentina and Mali who are at the highest level. We have to have confidence and put in a good performance like we did at the U-19s.”
Following that defeat to Argentina in 2001, rumours surfaced that the dressing room atmosphere was not always harmonious and may have contributed to their disappointing showing. However he stresses the whole team is united in “proving we are the top U-20 side in the world”.
“I think that Fernando Torres and Reyes will be important for us if they play, but the coach is more interested in the play of the team as a whole rather than individuals,” he says.
And rather like his idol Dane Michael Laudrup, there is no better team player than Iniesta: “It’s a bit strange, perhaps, but I get more satisfaction laying on a goal that scoring myself.”
Crowds in Sharjah, UAE and a watching world would do well to join those in Catalonia and Spain and follow the progress of this teenager.