Memories of Andres Iniesta: Luis Enrique and Arnau Riera on the early days of the Barcelona great
As the midfielder finished his career with the Primera Liga champions on Sunday, two of his former teammates tell Andy Mitten of his early days at Camp Nou
“I was rooming with Andres Iniesta when he got called up to the first team,” recalls former Barca B captain Arnau Riera.
“He was a really nice guy and we became close friends. He was my warm up partner too. He was sensible and polite. We studied together as well, we had classes two or three times a week.
"Like me, he came from a working class background, his dad was a builder. We were both midfielders, both outsiders who had moved to Barcelona and I met his parents many times. They kept his feet on the ground."
“As a footballer he made everything easy. No situation was too complicated for him. If he had three players on him he would turn and twist out of it.
"Only special players could get out of that and avoid getting kicked. He controlled the pace of the game. He was a far better player than me and (the coach) Louis van Gaal spotted that.”
Iniesta was selected for Barca’s first team for an away game at Mallorca on December 21 2002. Riera also flew to Mallorca that day – to return home to the island for the winter break.
While Riera’s career would see him leave Barcelona to play in England and Scotland,
Iniesta would play 675 times between 2002 and Sunday evening, when he made his emotional final appearance in Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.
Perhaps fittingly, Philippe Coutinho, the man to replace Iniesta, scored a wondrous goal.
Back in 2002, Iniesta was reluctant to leave the second team.
“He went to the door of the stadium and was standing with the second team,” recalled Luis Enrique, a former Barca teammate, and later manager, to Iniesta.
“I told the doorman to bring Iniesta down to our dressing room. I introduced him to the other players in a manner which I would have liked to be introduced had I been him. I didn’t really know who he was, but that’s what should happen for any new player. I saw Iniesta, pale skin, slight. But oh, what a player.”
In Iniesta’s final season at the club, Barcelona have played 59 games, won 40 of them, drew 13 and lost five. Ernesto Valverde’s side won the league and the cup, they scored 141 goals and conceded 42 – 20 of them in the last 12 games. Barça kept 32 clean sheets, including 19 in the league.
They were unbeaten in that competition until the 37th of 38 weeks. Another quarter-final defeat in the Uefa Champions League stung, but it was still a hugely successful season.
After two cruciate injuries curtailed his career, Riera worked as a hotel receptionist close to his Mallorca home before becoming a qualified social worker, working with children from challenging backgrounds.
The young boys he deals with adore him and he finds it immensely rewarding. He is proud of what his former roommate went onto achieve, but he does not tell the children he helps that he roomed with Iniesta, nor that he was Lionel Messi’s first captain in professional football.
Iniesta is a reluctant hero, too, but he is one of the greatest footballers of the modern age, one who won everything there was to win.
He scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final for Spain and celebrated by revealing a T-shirt in memory of Espanyol’s captain Dani Jarque, who had died the previous year.
Inter club rivalries can cut deep in Spain, but Iniesta is the only Barcelona player who gets applauded at Espanyol and around the country. He’s respected for being modest and of course for his game changing performances that helped Barca win nine Primera Liga titles and four European Cups.
Sunday night at Camp Nou was all about Iniesta. A collage and giant flags were unveiled to reveal ‘Infinit Iniesta’ as a homage to his long and distinguished service to the club.
“After Messi, Iniesta’s the most inventive player in Spanish football,” Luis Enrique, told this writer. “He’s like Harry Potter. 1-2-3, and whoosh, he’s past the player. It’s like he has a magic wand.”
Tears flowed from his face after he was substituted to a huge standing ovation and numerous renditions of ‘Ini-est-a’. At the end of the game, the 34-year-old took to the microphone and told the 85,000 crowd: “Today is a difficult day but it’s been a wonderful 22 years.
"It’s been a pride and a pleasure to defend and represent this badge which is for me, the best in the world…I arrived here as a boy, I leave as a man. I will move on and keep you in my heart forever. This week has left me speechless. Visca Barça, visca Catalunya and visca Fuentealbilla.”
Two hours later, he was spotted alone in the Camp Nou centre circle, barefooted and still in his Barca kit.
Very few make it to the top level in football. Even fewer excel at that level, scoring the biggest goals for club and country. Iniesta did that.
Updated: May 21, 2018 04:59 PM