It is not easy to shine when your team-mates include such luminaries as Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto'o and Leo Messi, yet that is exactly what Andres Iniesta has managed to do. By dint of patience, hard work and tremendous natural ability, the young midfielder is more than holding his own in the star-studded squad at FC Barcelona.
Precisely at a time when Frank Rijkaard's all-conquering team are showing some signs of vulnerability, Iniesta's influence and responsibility have become even greater. The 22-year-old, who spent his teenage years developing his skills in the club's youth academy, has really blossomed over the last two seasons, emerging as a player increasingly capable of turning games. Shortly after arriving at the Camp Nou this summer, veteran French defender Lilian Thuram said tellingly: "One of the players who has most surprised me in this team is Iniesta."
Andres Iniesta is very much the complete midfielder. Not only does he excel in a creative role, but he also does a tremendous amount of work trying to stifle opposition attacks and recover possession. His superb vision and ball control enable him to make frequent pinpoint passes, while his gift for dribbling and well-honed finishing skills combine to make him a real handful in and around the area.
As recently as last Saturday, in his side's league match against Deportivo la Coruna, Iniesta's full range of skills were on display. The player won back possession nine times in midfield, provided the assist for Saviola in the move that led to Barca's penalty and came close to scoring himself after an impressive solo-run that saw him waltz past three Deportivo defenders.
Dedication from an early age
Though the player has continued to improve over time, his remarkable ability with the ball at his feet was obvious even when the young Iniesta graced his home town team of Albacete as a 12-year-old.
Playing at a youth tournament in Madrid, he was quickly spotted by some visiting Barcelona scouts, and soon after was offered a place in Barcelona's La Masia Training Academy. Though still a boy, Iniesta needed no second invitation, and in 1996 he left his family home in Fuentealbilla to chase a distant dream in Cataluna.
Once installed at the academy, his personal and footballing development continued apace, and he gradually made his way though the various youth sides. By 16 he was already the undisputed focal point of the Barca B team.
Along with many other hopefuls battling away in the youth and second teams, Iniesta remained utterly focused on his ultimate goal of making it into the club's first team. As fate would have it, the Spaniard would not have long to wait, and he made his debut with the senior first-team in their victorious UEFA Champions League tie against Bruges in October 2002, almost capping the occasion with a goal. The then coach Louis Van Gaal, keen to nurture the youngster's development, called him up to train with the senior squad from time to time.
Two of the player's best traits are his patience and quiet effectiveness, qualities which have helped establish him in the first team. There has never been any doubt about his footballing ability, as he proved at under-age level with the national team. Iniesta was a key member of the Spain U-16 side that won the 2001 UEFA European Championship, before moving up to the U-19s, who he helped fire to European glory in 2002.
Although it was Van Gaal who first opened the door for the midfielder at Barcelona, it was another Dutchman who invited him in. Under the astute guidance of Frank Rijkaard, Iniesta was given more and more first-team football and assumed an increasingly important role, particularly in the championship-winning 2004/05 season, when he made 37 appearance in La Liga (2 goals) and another 8 in the Champions League.
A good year
A serious injury to fellow midfielder Xavi at the start of last season allowed Iniesta to consolidate his position in the centre of Barca's midfield. A regular starter both at home and in Europe, the man from Albacete made a significant contribution to the team's Spanish and Champions League double, even if he did suffer the disappointment of not starting last May's thrilling final against Arsenal.
In spite of that, there was not a word of recrimination from the player, just a steely resolve to get back out on the pitch and prove himself. Nor is he one to get caught up in media controversy either, preferring instead to sidestep the cameras in much the same way as he does tackles in a game. For the unassuming Iniesta, football is what happens on the pitch not off it.
"If I were the coach, I'd pick myself all the time, but I have to put myself in the shoes of the manager," he said recently. "It can't be easy with a squad full of players who all want to play every week. We all need to be at our best when our turn comes and make sure that, with our contribution, the team stays at its current high level."
His exploits last season also earned him another prize: a call from Spain coach Luis Aragones to join the squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, where he made his competitive debut in the team's final group game against Saudi Arabia.
With the new season well underway, Iniesta has naturally set himself a host of new challenges. "The team is still hungry for titles, and when you have that desire and the right attitude, results generally follow," the player said in the light of his side's recent irregular form.
One thing is certain though - Iniesta is sure to let his feet continue to do the talking.