“There were no embraces, because where there is great love there is often little display of it.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
Spanish Christmas is the best because you get to eat, drink, and sleep your face off. But Spanish Christmas is particularly the best because sometimes you get to meet your one and only soccer idol, check out his childhood home, drink his wine, and try on his World Cup medal.
At 30 years young, I spent my first ever Christmas away from home this year with my in-laws in southern Spain. And Madre Mía thank God I did. Ok, so I didn’t technically meet Andrés Iniesta but I sure as hell had a moment with my man-crush, as well as several other moments that day in his Manchego pueblo (mejor dicho pueblecito). My time visiting Iniesta’s home and bodega confirmed for me not just my reverence for the man, but also the virtue of living a humble, generous life.
Let’s rewind first a few days prior to el Clásico. Side note: I must admit going into that game–and really for the entire first half of the season–I have felt weirdly surprised that Barcelona sits atop the table. The pre-season was clearly an unreliable predictor of where both teams would finish in December. Los Blancos rolled into the 2017 La Liga season coming off a Champions League Championship in May, and although they didn’t bring in any block buster trades during the summer, they had a certain hype around their young bloods, players like Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Jesus Vallejo, Achraf Hakimi, and Mayoral. Barça, on the other hand, dispatched their manager Luis Enrique for a relative outsider in Valverde; were embarrassed by Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup; and swapped one Brazilian named Neymar Jr. for an older Brazilian named something “inho” – an under the radar international who spent last year happily raking in $7B a day in the Chinese smog against players you’ve never heard of.
Yet once league play started, Barça took off barreling through the competition, while Madrid hit some snags during their schedule. So the squad under Valverde may not be the same glossy, Ray Hudson “magisterial” Barcelona of years past, but they grinded out win after win this season by being more organized, industrious and efficient with their pressure and counterattacks. Oh, and lest we not forget they still consist of virtually the same veteran spine of Iniesta, Messi, Pique, and Busquets. A group that are wholly capable of killing off games once they get ahead, just like they did during the 3-0 trouncing over Madrid during the Clásico. Barça’s success this season is also in large part due to a reinvigorated Jordi Alba, Ter “I Am The Wall” Stegen, and of course, my main man, whose full name I now know, the East Asian Brazilian Express, Mr. José Paulo Bezerra Maciel Júnior, commonly known as Paulinho. Undoubtedly, Paulinho has been awesome this season, giving Barcelona defensive teeth in the midfield, and proving his athleticism and ability to get forward and score goals.
And, as I write this, wait ok, T-H-I-S, yes now it’s come through, Barcelona has finally signed Philippe Coutinho, the well-established play-making stud, who is coincidentally expected to one day replace Iniesta. Good luck with that insurmountable task, but still a solid pickup. Ok, that was a rather long side note, but my point is that after Barcelona went up 2-0 in the second half, Iniesta pulled one of his typical “how the hell does he still have the ball?” types of plays. He is always due for at least one of those dribbles, as well as a few passes each half that defy the laws of physics. I believe the play came after the second goal, and Madrid were pressing in Barça’s half. A shot, or cross, was deflected up in the air, along the goal line by “I Am The Wall”, and Iniesta and Modric took off towards the ball before it landed. Iniesta arrived first – obviously due to his positioning and not his speed – but rather than spaz like any normal human would do running full speed with rapidly decreasing options and space, Iniesta brought the ball down in one touch, rode Modric’s challenge a few paces, weaving hurriedly towards the corner flag, until picking out a give-and-go with Alba along the touch line. Once returned from Jordi, Iniesta continued to glide in slow motion for another 50 yards, clearing three defensive lines, until eventually being dispossessed in Madrid’s own half, well away from any danger, and with all 11 men behind the ball. It is plays like that from Iniesta that I cherish every time I witness them live, because I know he is truly the only player alive to “glide” away from problems, unfazed, and with barely a grimace.
And it was that same play that I kept re-running in my head during the drive to his home a week later. Iniesta’s province, Castilla de La Mancha, is a territory in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula. The area is most famously known as the setting for Don Quixote. Personally, I don’t remember much about that book. Something about a dude that rides around on a donkey, tripping balls and hallucinating about windmills. On that particular day, I too felt my eyes were playing tricks on me. The clouds sat low and were brushed with a rosy hue from the few pockets of sunlight that poked through and refracted off the red dirt earth. I don’t know if it was from the colors of the countryside, my nerves, or my suegra’s (mother-in-law’s) 300 mph Spanish during the 2 hour car ride, but pulling into Fuentealbilla felt like an outer body experience. As expected, Iniesta’s town wasn’t much of a town at all. We parked the car, and took maybe 10 steps and you could see his grandparent’s bar (virtually untouched but now adorned with his pictures), what I assume was his parent’s modest house, and a diminutive statue of the man himself. I loved it. The whole place looked like it hadn’t been updated in 30 years. And while I was gawking at the virtual nothingness of Fuentealbilla, and taking selfies with his statute, that’s when it went down. My back was turned to the “road”, and all of a sudden I hear “¡mira, Iniesta!”, and my first thought was “ya dude, I know, this is his statute”, but then when I turned around I saw this unassuming, bright blue BMW with tinted windows slowly roll right by me, and there inside, my beautiful, balding, genius looked up at me, waved, and carried right on into the sunset like goddamn Zorro himself.
I peaked. The chance encounter was nothing and everything to me, and I could have left Spain that instant a happy man. Later that day we took a wine tour at Iniesta’s Bodega. I didn’t really care about the wine, but what I thought was particularly baller was that his family started that entire project well before he made it big. It started more as a co-op, and over time they grew the winery bit by bit, and made a rule that they would only hire people from the area. The workers at Iniesta’s Bodega made it clear that there is not much reason for industry to set up shop in town, and that his particular operation was much appreciated by the people. Feeling fearless now from my once in a lifetime encounter earlier that day, I started chatting up the tour guide, professing my love for the player and person, and retorting that I travelled thousands of miles to be here. Jokingly, he remarked that after the tour he was going to show me Iniesta’s World Cup medal. I thought for a second that he just meant he was going to point it out to me with the other hardware he had displayed in the lobby. My Spanish is pretty good, but sometimes if I zone out for a second, or somebody throws me a weird euphemism I’ve never heard of, I usually wind up missing a statement entirely. When these moments happen, I usually just invent sentences that I think would be funny or logical to finish off the exchange, but that’s definitely not going to help you with your foreign language acquisition. Anyways, after the tour the guide brings me down to the lobby, unlocks one of the trophy cases and lets me try on his World Cup medal. Ok, so you may be thinking, “it was probably a fake medal, get over it”, but then he went behind the reception desk, and busts out a shoe box full of other trophies and medals, Champions League, Copa Del Rey, etc. Housing all of your trophies for other people to see and hold, is partly a solid marketing tactic for the Bodega, but you cannot deny that Iniesta leaves all his awards there because he was born, and has always remained, incredibly humble. A few days after my trip I saw CR7 posing on Instagram, oiled up, with all his trophies like a complete tool bag.
Aside from gawking at Iniesta’s footballing abilities, what I’ve learned most about him these past few years, and what was confirmed during my visit, is that he continues to be just a solid, normal, boring dude. And I use boring as a form of endearment because most modern footballers today often come off as metro-sexual, potty-mouthed, selfie-obsessed d-bags. Iniesta confronts the same human struggles we all do, just in different shades. In his book, “La Jugada de Mi Vida”, he goes into detail about his struggles leaving his family as a child to join Barcelona, and also the semi depression he went through following the loss of his friend, Dani Jarque. He eventually pulled himself out of that dark period thanks to his surrounding cast of family and friends. It’s incredible as well that in Spain you would be hard pressed to find anybody that dislikes the man. Even his opponents like him. Sergio Ramos admitted that he cannot really foul Iniesta too hard, or if he does, he just feels bad because he is such a good guy. That’s crazy. I’ve seen games where Sergio Ramos has tried to scalp forwards simply for glancing in his direction.
For me, Iniesta’s story isn’t just about his goal in the World Cup, or his entire career playing for one club, it’s more about his ability to be himself, all the time. One of the most important things in life is being able to change as you grow older, but also recognizing and accepting the limits of who you are as a person. That’s why, for me, Andrés Iniesta is the Last Real Footballer.
…Would have been cool though to play keepy-uppy with him.
Author: Sean Malvey