As we celebrate the Spanish wizard’s 36th birthday, let’s take a look at the hardships midfield maestro Andrés Iniesta rose through, as he painted football’s canvas with his magical art.
The night of 11th July 2010, was a cool and pleasant one in Johannesburg. But in the Soccer City stadium, temperatures were boiling. A cagey and cynical battle ensued between the World Cup finalists Netherlands and Spain, each nation bidding to get their hands on football’s most coveted prize for the first time in their histories. 115 minutes had passed and a penalty shootout loomed ominously with an air of inevitability. But Spain had other ideas for father time and mother fate. Jesús Navas burst into the Dutch half with intent and strung the ball in the centre to Andrés Iniesta. With most other players, crowded by the opposition, the move would have most likely ended there.
Don Andrés cleverly backheeled it into space. Following a sequence of Spanish passes and two fortuitous touches off the despairing Dutch, the ball fell to Cesc Fàbregas. Cesc slid the ball to Iniesta in the box. He took a touch and the ball rose high as time seemed to come to a standstill. It bounced and Andrés Iniesta sent a piercing shot into the far bottom corner to paint the World Cup in Red revelry.
Andrés Iniesta and Dani Jarque’s redemption
Any other player would lose their mind had they scored the winner in a World Cup final. But we all know that Andrés Iniesta was different. He was not only a gem on the pitch, but also off it. Make no mistake, the entire Spanish squad, Iniesta included, went into delirium. However, for the brilliant little midfielder, it wasn’t about the personal glory. It wasn’t about creating history, it wasn’t about fame or anything else. He just had one thing in mind, his dearest friend Dani Jarque.
The former Espanyol captain was so much more than a friend to Andrés. The two shared a deep brotherhood as they grew up together, playing for the Spanish national youth teams together. Despite playing for Espanyol and Barcelona, two teams historically sharing little short of hatred for one another, Dani Jarque and Andrés Iniesta remained portraits of elite sportsmanship and sincerity. But 11 months prior to the World Cup final, Iniesta’s world would be shocked. His beloved friend was sadly no more.
In spite of being the hero, Andrés Iniesta wanted to share his moment of glory | Photo by Imago
Dani was merely 26 when he suffered from a fatal heart attack. He was found unresponsive in his hotel room in Italy. He apparently passed while on the phone with his girlfriend Jessica. A true tragedy which brought about a truly turbulent time in Iniesta’s life. Even Jessica stayed away from public gaze as she was eight months pregnant with her and Dani’s child. One can only imagine the weight of the loss.
So while while an emotional Iniesta ran to the corner flag in wild celebration, he lifted his shirt to reveal the words “Dani Jarque, always with us” written by the team’s kitman Hugo in blue marker. And across the globe football fans and Dani’s dear Jessica, would all be dewy-eyed as Andrés Iniesta paid the most fitting tribute to his dearest friend and himself, was reborn in the process.
An internal war with physical and mental wounds
Sure enough the Iniestazo was a defining moment in Andrés’ life. But he was struggling with more than the weight of loss from quite a while. In between 2008 and the World Cup final, Iniesta suffered from 8 muscular injuries. Even the historic 2009 season for Barcelona, which brings nothing but joyous memories to the minds of culés, wasn’t as straightforward for the magical midfield maestro. Just two weeks before the Champions League final against Manchester United, Iniesta had suffered from a two-centimetre tear in his right femoral biceps. But dedicated that he was, it would not stop him from giving his all for the blue and claret crest in the final.
❛ I told my father that even if it meant playing with a hole in the leg, I would be on the pitch to start the game ❜
revealed what he said to his father in his book ‘The Artist: Being Iniesta’
The medical team warned him, “Whatever you do, don’t shoot”. He was allowed to make short passes and to sprint but caution was still necessary. Nevertheless, despite all this, Iniesta was far more than a passive spectator. He was one of the most important players on the pitch as Barça completed their 2009 season with a glorious flourish.
Yet as he was getting over the physical and mental frustration of injuries, he had to deal with Dani Jarque’s loss. A tragedy that struck him so deeply that he had to seek professional help. He opened up about it in Rakuten TV’s recent documentary about him: ‘Andrés Iniesta: The Unexpected Hero’.
❛That was like a body blow, something powerful that knocked me down again and I was pretty low, clearly because I wasn’t very well ❜
on Dani Jarque’s death
Iniesta began taking sessions with psychologist Inma Puig. He also said that along with Puig, Pep Guardiola played a massive role in his recovery. Puig recalls that Guardiola said this was the first time he was in such a situation as a coach. He was incredibly supportive and also said that “the most important thing now is Andrés, the person, not the player”.
An unparalleled legacy
As time passed, Andrés Iniesta fought and got better. And his rebirth was finally complete when he scored the goal in the World Cup final. Ever since then, he never looked back. Iniesta evolved as a person and also as a professional. He took much better care of his body and little needs to be said about his legacy on the pitch.
Iniesta remains the only man in history to be named Man of the Match in World Cup, Champions League and Euro finals. Still, above all the numbers and honours, he will be remembered most for the way he effortlessly glided all over the pitch, controlled the ball like it was an extension of his body, played silky passes to his teammates and won the hearts of all those who love football. After all, a blaugrana player capturing the applause of Espanyol and even Real Madrid fans is not something you see too often. Football owes a lot of gratitude to el Ilusionista.
Josep Samitier, the artist and hero of Barcelona’s first golden age
Josep Samitier was a surrealist artist on and off the pitch and a legendary midfielder that brought Barcelona its first successful era in the 1920s, as well as some controversy throughout his career.
Surrealism, a deceptive interrogation of reality that transcends the human subconscious to manipulate or alter the coherent understanding of existence. Josep Samitier Vilalta, or “L’home llagosta” (The lobster man) was the most surreal portrait in the history of FC Barcelona. He was called the ‘surrealista’, because his genius produced the illusions on the pitch that were perplexing to fathom as reality.
History is constructed up on the interdependency of figures and events. Samitier was one of those figures who created a rift in the annals of world football to produce the first reverberation of football in the streets of Barcelona. The footballing revolution in Catalonia peaked in the early 1920s, especially in Barcelona, as it was the beginning of the first golden age.
With the construction of the Les Corts stadium, the club assembled a group of talented, young players. Josep Samitier, along with Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora, Emili Sagi-Barba, Vicenç Piera and Agustín Sancho became the first generation of the club idols. Samitier, among others, was an integral part of Barcelona’s rebuilding of character and went on to become one of the most significant personalities both in terms of sporting and cultural relevance.
Samitier was born on 2nd February 1902 in a Catalan working-class family. As a young boy in the streets of Barcelona where the roads of passion and dreams lead to the grant Les Corts, ‘El Sami’ would kick the ball around waving at the passing commons.
After the club’s establishment, FC Barcelona had quite an attachment with the proletarian class. Especially at the time of industrial unrest, the institution always kept them close and the stadium was always packed with the same working-class populace. Young minds like Samitier who would grow up in the streets of Barcelona always had the ball on their feet and club in their heart.
Samitier started playing for FC Internacional before making his debut for Barcelona at the age of 17 in 1919. The club museum still preserves and cherishes his signing bonuses, a shimmering watch and a three-piece suit. By 1925, Samitier became the highest-paid player at the club and thus became the highest-earning player in the country.
The division of labour was evident in the early years of European football. Whilst the backline remained static to protect the goal, the forward line had to pick and fight the battle on their own. Samitier was among the key figures who created a paradigm shift from this prevailing ‘Basque style’, where the attackers held the sole responsibility to win the ball and navigate their own way to find a goal. Samitier was among the first players to orchestrate the game from the back. He was like a master of the opera performance where he controlled and navigated the rhythm and flow of the game.
Josep Samitier (middle), alongside teammates Emili Sagi-Barba (left) and Vicenç Piera (right) from the successful Barcelona team of the 1920s | Photo by FC Barcelona
Samitier was an exceptional player who could manipulate the ball like a wizard, and he dribbled the ball around the pitch like a ballet dancer. He was the first midfielder general in the history of Spanish football, whose role was the hybrid between a Pivote (central midfielder) and the Leñero (chopper) or sweeper. Samitier was the harbinger of the modern-day box-to-box role. Despite being positioned in a deep-lying role, Samitier was an outstanding goalscorer. It was rather unusual for a midfielder of that time to score an astonishing 184 goals for any club in Europe.
Even though Barcelona was graced with many prolific players, Samitier was the core of the magnificent Barça team of the 1920s. He would hack the ball from the opposition to carry the ball from the midfield to provide a line-breaking pass in the final third. His glorious days at Les Corts were filled with thrilling langosta (lobster) kicks which would eventually evolve into the modern ‘chilena’ or bicycle-kick. Samitier was an entertainer on the pitch. His ostentatious performance attracted the Catalans into the stadium.
His glittering thirteen years in a blaugrana shirt were decorated with 11 Catalan Championships, 5 Spanish Championships and the first Spanish league that began in 1928. Moreover, his time with Barça was embellished with title-winning goals in the Copa del Rey finals of 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928.
Pepe Samitier’s momentous career at Barcelona transformed him from a sporting figure to a cultural icon in Catalan society. His reputation at the club produced a strong political outline for himself among the intellectuals in the society. It was an unprecedented period in the socio-cultural scenario of Europe. The entrée of subjective art and understanding by Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh among other artistic prominence overtook the existing concepts of impressionism and naturalism.
Samitier aligned with surrealism, indulging the spirit of subjectivity. He reflected this both in the game and in his outside loyalties. His acquaintances mostly consist of radical artists and political figures of the time, including the tango maestro Carlos Gardel, Mauricio Chevalier, Salvador Dalí and, in contrast to his idol figure in Catalonia, he also had a close relationship with the dictator Franco.
In 1933, after a dramatic feud with the Barcelona management, an ageing El Sami dropped from the first team. Real Madrid, then called Madrid CF, took advantage of this dispute and were able to convince him to join the club. However, it was his secret allegiance with General Franco that helped Madrid to accomplish the operation.
Even though his short stint at Madrid wasn’t really celebrated, Samitier did guide them to win the La Liga title in 1932/33 and the Copa de España in 1934. But he played a significant role for Madrid, not as a player but as a super-agent in a decade-defining transfer of Alfredo Di Stéfano, whose intended destination was Barcelona. This signing was the inflexion point for Madrid in the 1960s, as Di Stéfano would go on to score 216 goals and play an important role in their European domination. Although Samitier’s allegiance with General Franco was visible, this transfer saga threw the relationship open into society.
Real Madrid’s signing of Alfredo Di Stéfano (right) changed Real Madrid’s history forever | Photo by Staff / AFP via Getty Images
Before the Spanish civil war burst out in 1936, Samitier spent a brief time in managing Atlético de Madrid, succeeding Fred Pentland in the middle of the season, but failed to keep them in the first division. Nonetheless, the season was scrapped as soon as the civil war started and Samitier, who had strong ties with the nationalist side, found himself blacklisted and arrested by the anarchist militia.
Eventually, he was released by the militia and fled to France. His exile to France was later utilized by the Franco regiment to spread the anti-communist propaganda by portraying this event in a film titled ‘The Stars Search for Peace’, where Samitier enacted himself. During his time in France, Samitier joined OGC Nice as a player, where he would unite with his old teammate Zamora. He went onto score 47 goals in 82 matches. In 1939, he retired as a footballer and briefly managed OGC Nice in 1942.
After two years and 8 months, the civil war ended and the nationalists alliance under General Franco demolished the second Spanish republic to establish the new Spanish state. Josep Samitier returned to Spain in 1944, and he took charge of Barcelona. His homecoming was celebrated as he guided Barcelona to win their second-ever La Liga title in 1945 and lifted the Copa de Oro Argentina by beating the Copa del Generalísimo winners Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Subsequently, Samitier became the chief scout of the club and his keen vision in recognising the talent resulted in the discovery and recruitment of Ladislao Kubala, a player who went on to become a legend at Barcelona. The recruitment of Kubala was the status redemption for Samitier, who had lost its shine after the Di Stéfano transfer saga.
In 1972, Samitier rested his soul and left his showmanship and sorcery to cherish in the memories of Catalans. Despite serving Madrid and his close relationship with General Franco, he was given an honourable state funeral as a Catalan hero. Samitier was the most symbolic player in the history of the club. His close affiliation with both the cultural and sporting context of Barcelona formed an irrevocable stature of him in the Catalan society.
Samitier, as a footballing visionary, is a reference to the modern-day midfielders and, on the other hand, he was an imperative cultural icon who embraced a revolutionary socio-cultural movement in his life. Samitier’s journey from being an ambitious boy in the streets of Barcelona to a footballing legend remains one of the inspiring and reviving narrative in the history of the game. Even today, walking down the Josep Samitier Street, one could still gather an enigmatic chanting celebrating the greatest artist in the history of Barcelona.