x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

On international stage, Spain's Andres Iniesta is unrivalled

Lionel Messi remains arguably the best player of all time while Andres Iniesta, otherwise known as Spain's Mr Nice Guy, is the best player right now.

Nice guys, contrary to perceived wisdom, not only finish first, they score winning goals in World Cup finals, too. Just ask Andres Iniesta.

The man who scored Spain's goal against Holland in the 2010 final has since that night been greeted, game after game, with standing ovations by appreciative fans around his country.

Even fans of Barcelona's bitter city rivals Espanyol were moved to suspend hostilities in December, 2010, after Iniesta had earlier that summer celebrated the greatest moment of his career by revealing a message of remembrance for his close friend, and Espanyol captain Daniel Jarque, who had died of a heart failure the previous year.

"Dani Jarque – siempre con nostros", it said. Always with us.

As Iniesta walked off the pitch five minutes from the end of an ill-tempered match, and despite Barcelona leading 5-1, the capacity crowd at Espanyol's Estadio Cornella-El Prat rose as one to give him the most emotional of send-offs.

Everybody, it seems, loves Iniesta.

As the world champions prepare to meet Italy in the Confederations Cup semi-final on Thursday night, Spain's Mr Nice Guy is also the world's best player. Fans of certain Argentine and Portuguese players will dispute it, but Iniesta's influence on the international stage over the last five years is unrivalled.

Lionel Messi remains arguably the best player of all time. Iniesta, however, is the best player right now. Of course, you do not have to win the World Cup to be the best, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Iniesta has effortlessly translated individual brilliance into tangible team success. World champion in 2010; European champion in 2008 and 2012, the latter of which he was named player of the tournament. To many, he also deserved last year's Ballon d'Or, which went to Messi. Now, another international title is in his, and Spain's, sights.

The Confederations Cup in Brazil may not be to everyone's taste, or convenience, but those who stayed up to watch Spain's 3-0 victory over Nigeria on Sunday evening were treated to one of the best individual displays of recent times.

Iniesta on his day, which is mostly always, is a dream to watch. Against Nigeria he at times seemed to float on air, in a realm of his own, the outstanding player in a team brimming with outstanding talent. Every move flowed through his magical feet, as if the ball were seeking his stamp of approval before he deemed it ready to go about its business elsewhere.

For a time, Nigeria gave as good as they got, but as the game wore on had no answer to the quick movement and relentless passing of their opponents. Spain, these days, are more direct and, whisper it, imaginative. Last summer's European Championship and the 2010 World Cup, were both won mainly by not allowing their opponents to play.

These days, Spain grudgingly share the ball, sometimes. But not for too long; Nigeria had several chances and missed them. The world champions took their ball back, and won easily.

Watching Iniesta conduct operations against Nigeria, another thing became apparent; it is now he, not his footballing soulmate Xavi, who is the main man in Spain's midfield.

How other international managers must envy such comparisons.

The two maestros are in good company, too. Spain's squad is packed with similarly skilled, and built, midfielders such as Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, David Silva and Santi Cazorla.

Indeed, in every position, the Spanish production line shows no sign of slowing. The Under 21s won the recent 2013 Under 21 European Championship in Israel by calling on the likes of David de Gea, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Christian Tello and Alvaro Morata. Above all they had Thiago Alcantara and Isco, the heir apparents to Xavi and Iniesta.

The future of international football looks set to be red for sometime yet.

Football is cyclic, great teams usually thought to have a lifespan of three years. Modern Spain are well into their sixth. It seems illogical, or at the very least counter-intuitive, to expect Spain's dominance to go on indefinitely. Yet it is difficult to look beyond Spain for next year's World Cup, and Euro 2016. Even the 2018 World Cup in Russia looks achievable. Can anyone stop them?

On Thursday, Italy in a repeat of last July's Euro 2012 final, will be the latest to try, but few people expect anything other than a Spain victory. As their performances against Uruguay, Tahiti and Nigeria have shown, they are getting better. With tiki-taka revamped, the cynics do not even have the "boring" stick to beat Spain with any more.

Not only are they the best, now they command love, too.

At this rate by next summer they can become the greatest international team of all time. And even the most popular.

Well, at least one player will be.

akhaled@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE