Doubling down on landmark achievements is one way to achieve greatness. If you treble down, then you’re assured of being truly legendary. After winning the European Championship in Austria and Switzerland in 2008, Spain followed it up by winning their first ever World Cup in South Africa two years later. They became only the third team to hold the world and European titles at the same time after West Germany (1972 and 1974) and France (1998 and 2000). It was a remarkable run of form, and they weren’t done.
At the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, Spain secured an unprecedented third major title in a row. It made for an impregnable case as the greatest international team of all time. Their midfielder Andrés Iniesta, who had been voted into the UEFA Team of the Tournament in 2008, would win the Player of the Tournament vote in 2012. It would be confirmation of his status as one of the greatest big game players in the history of world football.
Like Spain, Iniesta was merely adding more layers to his aura in 2012. Two years earlier in the 2010 World Cup Final in Johannesburg he was given the Man of the Match award, after drilling home the solitary winning goal against the Netherlands with four minutes remaining in extra-time. It is the most iconic goal in the history of Spanish football, and Iniesta’s joy thereafter was a release that went far beyond securing Spain’s first world title.
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Andres Iniesta of Spain celebrates scoring the winning goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa

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As he ran away in celebration Iniesta stripped off his shirt, to reveal a vest bearing the handwritten message: “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros” (“Dani Jarque, always with us”). It was a touching tribute to Iniesta’s close friend at Espanyol, who had died of a heart attack on the pitch just a year earlier. Iniesta had also been plagued by a persistent thigh injury for over a year before the tournament. It had debilitated his confidence to the point that Emili Ricart, a physio at Barcelona, prepared a DVD for Iniesta to take to the World Cup as motivation. On it were stories of great Spanish sporting stars who had overcome adversity to win at the highest level. He watched it enough times during the tournament to draw sufficient inspiration to join them.

‘He’s going to retire us all’

Iniesta was always a scorer of significant goals rather than the scorer of a significant number of goals. When he bagged the winner in a global youth tournament in the Camp Nou as a 15-year old in 1999, it prompted the watching Pep Guardiola to comment to Xavi “You’re going to retire me, but he’s going to retire us all.” Iniesta could fulfil any role in the centre of the pitch but would eventually gravitate to being an attacking midfielder. His ability to dribble in tight spaces allied to the vision and selflessness to always play the ball to the open man in the best position made him a devastating threat in the final third.
After graduating from La Masia, he worked his way into the Barcelona first team under Frank Rijkaard and came on as a substitute when they won the 2006 ChampionsLeague Final. Three years later, for his now manager Guardiola, he retired Chelsea’s chances of reaching the 2009 equivalent. In one of the great sliding doors moments of the modern Barcelona dynasty, a devastating injury time strike from Iniesta put Barcelona into the final on away goals.

Andres Iniesta

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They would comprehensively beat Manchester United in that final, a club triumph sandwiched by Spain conquering Europe and then the world in 2008 and 2010. The rise of Iniesta was integral to that success. While his ability was well known in Barcelona as he moved through the ranks, it blew the minds of players coming into the club. “When I joined Barcelona, the media asked me which player had surprised me the most,” said Samuel Eto’o on Take The Ball. Pass The Ball. “And I said Andrés Iniesta. Which surprised them because they all wanted me to say Messi or Ronaldinho. But the player who makes difficult things look easy is Andrés. I’d want Andrés and Xavi in my team until the day they retire.”
A year on from the World Cup in South Africa, the midfield axis of Xavi and Iniesta was pivotal in one of the most devastating team performances ever seen on a big stage. That Barcelona beat Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final was not such a great surprise; since their meeting in the final two years earlier, both clubs had gone in opposite directions in terms of quality. What took the breath away was the manner of the victory. It was a total, utter thrashing. Manchester United were eviscerated 3-1, and it could have been anything; Xavi has since claimed that, with ten minutes left, Rooney told him that they’d won and to stop passing it around so much. Even a Machiavellian genius like Alex Ferguson was powerless to prevent it. “No one’s given us a hiding like that,” he conceded afterwards. “It’s a great moment for them, they deserve it because the play the right way.”
The right way was becoming virtually unbeatable. Only two of the most incredible rearguard actions of all time stopped Barcelona from reaching four Champions League Finals on the spin. Both José Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010 and Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea in 2012, both in semi-final second legs at the Camp Nou, somehow managed to survive an overwhelming disadvantage in possession and territory to stun Barcelona and knock them out.
By 2012 Barcelona’s domination of football was reflected more than ever in the Spanish national side. Iniesta and Xavi were now joined in midfield by their club colleague Sergio Busquets. Striker David Villa, left-back Jordi Alba, centre-back Gerard Piqué and midfielder Cesc Fàbregas had all been signed by the club, while the wide forward Pedro had come through the system at Barcelona. Their hated rivals Real Madrid supplied Spain’s captain Iker Casillas, defenders Sergio Ramos and Álvaro Arbeloa and midfielder Xabi Alonso.
Outside of those clubs, midfielder Juan Mata had just won the Champions League final with Chelsea while David Silva had helped to guide Manchester City to their first league title in 44 years. A further gauge of the depth in Spanish football at the time was the Europa League. Sevilla and Atletico Madrid had won it twice each in the previous six years, with the latter contesting an all-Spanish final with Athletic Bilbao in 2012. Spain was the centre of the football universe, though not all was well within the camp ahead of the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine.

Radical Vicente del Bosque

After a number of volcanic clashes between the Barcelona and Real Madrid players in recent El Clásico and Champions League matches, there was an icy tension between their respective players in the Spain squad that had to be managed in order for the team to work together. That was the headache for their manager Vicente del Bosque on a harmonious level; a thornier issue was how the team were going to score.
Spain’s main striker, Villa, had not recovered from a broken leg in time for the tournament and had to withdraw. Another, Fernando Torres, was disastrously out of form after a £50 million transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea five months earlier had not worked out. For their first match with Italy, del Bosque went radical and decided to play six midfielders ahead of his back four. Iniesta played to the left of a front three, with Fàbregas the nominal central striker and David Silva on the right. Alonso, Busquets and Xavi made up the midfield three.

Andres Iniesta (R) and Vicente del Bosque head coach of Spain celebrate in the tunnel after the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Semi Final match between Germany and Spain at Durban Stadium on July 7, 2010 in Durban, South Africa.

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It was a hipster’s nirvana, football as free jazz, but the strikerless formation fell behind to Italy after an hour of their opening game. Fàbregas equalised within minutes, but the game finished level at 1-1. Some of Spain’s press, not to mention the world’s, were dismayed by del Bosque’s formation, which seemed a needless over-indulgence of so many pass-first midfielders. One of them, at least, had arrived with a purposefulness to inspire and unburdened by self-doubt. ‘Iniesta is in sparkling form,’ wrote Gabriele Marcotti in The Times afterwards, ‘fit going into a leading tournament for the first time in his career.’
Torres was restored as a central striker instead of Fàbregas in Gdańsk four days later, scoring twice as Spain made light work of the Republic of Ireland in a 4-0 victory. Their final group game against Croatia was delicately balanced. Both teams and Italy could potentially finish on five points, with a range of possibilities of goal difference that could eliminate any one of them.
It was a curious phoney war of a game in Gdańsk, played with a constant eye on what the Italians were doing in the concurrent fixture against the Republic of Ireland in Poznań. Croatia completely surrendered all possession and territory to Spain, who simply kept their opponents at arms’ length for the majority of the match. Spain were through as long as they didn’t lose and played with a caution to match. It was turgid, callow fare. The limit of the Croat ambition was to nick one chance where possible; they missed a couple of good chances and had justifiable appeals for a penalty waved away.

An art installation: Man Trapped in an Inverse Rondo

One of the only memorable moments from that evening is a still of Iniesta with the ball, surrounded by six Croat defenders. It looks like an art installation entitled Man Trapped in an Inverse Rondo and is eerily reminiscent of a similar shot of Diego Maradona facing down six Belgian defenders at the 1982 World Cup. With two minutes to go, Iniesta helped settle Spanish nerves, the game and the outcome of Group C. After collecting a scooped pass over the defence from Fàbregas, he squared it to Jesús Navas who tapped in from close range to put Spain into the quarterfinals.
Once there, they flicked aside France in Donetsk with contemptuous ease. Alonso, making his 100th appearance for Spain, headed them in front from an Alba cross after Iniesta had opened up the play on the left. He then sealed the victory with a penalty in injury time. The French had offered insultingly little by way of a contest, “The truth is we did well and controlled the game," said Del Bosque. "Iker Casillas hardly had anything to do and that speaks of the good defensive performance of the team.”
For the quarterfinal Spain had restored Fàbregas and started the match without a recognised striker. They were now dominating possession so thoroughly in games that it was becoming impossible to see how a team could get enough of the ball, with enough energy left to use it, and beat them. As impressive as it undoubtedly was, it lacked spectacle. Like when Greece won Euro 2004, but for different reasons, Spain were frequently dubbed boring. It sometimes felt that achieving the moral victory of keeping the ball in a 90-minute, full-pitch rondo was more important than reflecting their superiority via an emphatic volume of goals.
The Sevilla forward Álvaro Negredo came into the team for the semi-final against Portugal; this time Spain failed to score at all. They managed to keep Portugal’s chief threat Cristiano Ronaldo at bay and ensure his team didn’t get a shot on target all night. Yet Spain couldn’t muster an effort on goal themselves until the second half in a match that lacked the sense of event a semi-final usually provides as a matter of course. Negredo was withdrawn for Fàbregas to return to the midfielder-heavy complement, but it made no difference.
The match went to a penalty competition, in which Iniesta smartly converted his by sending Rui Patrício the wrong way. Ronaldo had positioned himself to take the potentially decisive fifth penalty for Portugal, but it didn’t get that far; his teammates João Moutinho and Bruno Alves missed, leaving Fàbregas free to slot the winning kick. Spain were in the final, just. “By their own sky-high standards, Spain have disappointed at Euro 2012,” wrote Oliver Kay in his match report for The Times. “By anyone else’s standards, they are worthy finalists.”

The worthiest of winners

In the final against Italy, they would be the worthiest of winners. Del Bosque restored Fàbregas to the starting line-up, a two-fingers to all of the critics who castigated him for not playing a regular forward. On the night Iniesta was sensational. Just as he had done at the 2010 World Cup Final, he claimed the Man of the Match award. It was his third of the tournament, despite being played out of position for its entirety. In the 14th minute, Iniesta set Spain on their way. A gorgeous, laser-guided through pass found Fàbregas, who cut into the penalty area and crossed for Silva to nod Spain in front.
Xavi fed Jordi Alba for a second before half time, as Spain ran and passed the legs off Italy in the final. Their opponents were shot well before being reduced to ten men through injury after using all their substitutes. Even Italy’s majestic midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who’d played a wonderful tournament, was unable to impose himself. Torres and Mata added two late goals to complete a 4-0 rout, the biggest ever margin of victory in a European Championship final. As a rebuttal to their detractors it couldn’t have been any more defiant.

Euro Icons - 2012: Andres Iniesta - the player who retired them all

Image credit: Eurosport

“There was criticism from some quarters about our style,” Iniesta later said, “but we were always convinced we were doing things well. Maybe we needed a game like the final to leave a good taste in our mouths. It wasn't easy at all against Italy, even if at times it may have seemed so.” In Kiev they played with a beautiful and clinical simplicity. Spain had secured their third major tournament victory in a row and became the first team to retain the European Championship.

The greatest player never to have won the Ballon d’Or?

Later that year Iniesta finished third in the Ballon d’Or voting behind Messi and Ronaldo, the fourth year in a row that he had finished in the top four. Had he flourished at any time outside of the goals-to-games arms race between Messi and Ronaldo, he surely would have won the award at least once. Given his powerful influence on one of the greatest-ever club sides and the most dominant international team of all-time, Iniesta may well be the greatest player never to have won it.
Instead, he collected more winners’ medals than any Spanish player in history – 35 in all, including another Champions League title in 2015. Three years later he retired from the national side after Spain were knocked out of the World Cup in Russia, and left Barcelona for Vissel Kobe in Japan. The usually timid and unassuming Iniesta broke down in tears when he announced his decision to depart from the club he had helped to elevate to new heights. The 2012 triumph had owed so much to Barcelona, and Barcelona owed so much to Iniesta.
Guardiola calls Iniesta a master of space and time. In August 2008, he was also a master of timing; the quiet ones have a knack of picking their moment. Guardiola was in his office, mulling over his first two games in charge of Barcelona that had yielded just one point and one goal. It had been a poor start to his intended revolution of Barcelona’s approach, but his methods were about to get all the validation they would ever need.
There was a knock on his door, and to Guardiola’s surprise it was Iniesta. “Don’t worry, mister,” said Iniesta, who had poked his head into the office. “We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, OK? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything.”
Guardiola didn’t change anything. Accordingly, Iniesta was instrumental as Barcelona and Spain changed everything.
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