- Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja's Historic Treble
How Andres Iniesta almost missed the 2010 World Cup
The following is an extract from Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja's Historic Treble, by Graham Hunter
As Captain Guillermo Gomez-Paratcha got Spain's Airbus 340/600 airborne, destination Johannesburg and the 2010 World Cup, Andres Iniesta knew he was extremely lucky to be on the flight to South Africa.
This had been the most soul-destroying year of his career. A thigh injury first sustained 13 months before the World Cup had since flared up on four further occasions. In the final third of Barca's league season, he had played approximately 30 minutes of football. With this track record, 99 percent of footballers simply wouldn't have been selected for the tournament.
Spiritually and psychologically Iniesta had been in pieces. While all of Spain has been praying he'd be fit in time, a darker question had long been tormenting Iniesta: Might he be fit in body, but shattered in spirit and bereft of self-belief?
In his carry-on luggage, Iniesta had a DVD upon which success or failure for Spain in the World Cup would turn.
Ten days before the 2009 Champions League final, Iniesta suffered a 2cm tear in his thigh during a match against Villarreal. He played against Manchester United in Rome, 60 percent fit and with his thigh muscle so precariously held together by tiny fibres that club medics ordered him not to shoot at goal, in order to protect against more serious damage. He was sublime, but not only did he lose a huge part of season 2009-10 because of the same injury repeatedly returning, it corroded his confidence.
Late in the summer of 2009, Iniesta was struck a devastating blow. His great friend Dani Jarque collapsed and died during Espanyol's pre-season training camp. The Barca genius and the Espanyol captain had grown up together within the Spanish federation's youth training scheme and Jarque's sudden death precipitated a deep personal crisis. As he lost confidence in his body, now Iniesta also examined questions of mortality and faith.
Iniesta said: "I'd managed to create, let's say, an image of an Andres Iniesta who played at quite a good level and the fact that I suddenly couldn't perform like that really overshadowed my life. I got to the stage where I no longer had confidence in myself. I'd lost certainty that I could still do the things I'd always done - it was very tough. I'm pretty sure people outside the club didn't realise how bad it got".
Then came what felt like total disaster. Twice between December 2009 and March 2010 he broke down, but by mid-April he was training flat out. On Tuesday April 13, seven days before the first leg of the Champions League semifinal which Barcelona lost to Inter and two months before Spain's World Cup kick-off, Iniesta was completing a shooting drill when his right thigh ripped again. Even before his momentum took him off the pitch, he was already in tears. While the drill continued, he staggered over to the corner of Barca's Joan Gamper training ground and the physios, trotting over, saw his diminutive frame wracked with sobs.
"That day was a killer, soul-destroying," he remembers.
Iniesta missed all but four minutes of the remainder of the league season, his fragile confidence once again in tatters. There was now a firm chance that he would not make the World Cup.
Naming Iniesta in the provisional squad was a gamble based on medical projections, not current fitness, but Vicente del Bosque believed the midfielder's presence was of transcendental importance.
So, in a double seat next to Victor Valdes, his great friend and confessor from his very first days at the Camp Nou 14 years earlier, Iniesta was on the flight. The fact that he once again aggravated his injury when Del Bosque dared to play him in a World Cup warm-up win over Poland was not the only problem he carried on board. Physically he was healing, psychologically he was not. After dozing for the first half hour, he unzipped his hand luggage, reached for the DVD which had been put together to save his World Cup.
When Iniesta pressed play he saw the work of Emili Ricart. A physio at FC Barcelona, Ricart handles the recuperation and rehabilitation of that club's great stars post-injury. He knows that repairing the muscle, however long it takes, isn't always sufficient. If the injury has done damage to confidence and psyche, then physical rehabilitation will not come close to completing the healing. "Things had reached a stage where Andres felt like this was a problem which was never going away -- he was sinking," Ricart recalled.
The first images Iniesta saw were of Manuel Estiarte, Pep Guardiola's right-hand man at Barcelona for the previous two years. The footage was from his previous existence, as the Leo Messi of water polo, one of the greatest players ever in a sport hugely popular in Spain. The team he led failed to win gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, conceding a winning advantage over Italy in the final with nine seconds left, then losing in extra time, provoking tears from a tough guy. The DVD jumped forward four years and Estiarte had fought back to win gold with Spain at the Atlanta Olympics.
Next, was footage of Fernando Alonso's 150mph crash at Interlagos in 2003, his car disintegrating and the Spaniard being stretchered off the track. But that cut to the Asturian driving to his first Formula 1 world title in 2005, celebrating madly on the podium in Brazil, the scene of his terrible crash two years previously.
Then there was Rafa Nadal beating Roger Federer to win a four-and-a-half hour epic final at the 2009 Australian Open. The Spaniard's first hard-court title left Federer in tears, unable to complete his loser's speech. The images flashed forward to Federer fighting back to win the French Open later that year, becoming the sixth man to win grand slam titles on all three surfaces.
Finally there was Iniesta himself, down and out during a match against Villarreal in 2009, holding his thigh muscle, his face betraying the agony of the injury and the knowledge of its likely consequences. The counterpoint was him burying the ball into the top corner of the Chelsea net, stripping off his Barca top and running, like crazy, towards the corner flag.
As it turned out, there would be more of that to come.
Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja's Historic Treble, by Graham Hunter, is available to buy from November 15