Four and a half years after he left Barcelona, Andres Iniesta is in a good place.
“I would not say I am happier now, as here too in Barcelona I was the happiest guy in the world,” Iniesta tells The Athletic. “In the end, everyone looks for, or at least I look for, balance in all senses: doing things that you like surrounded by the people you love, and being able to enjoy them.”
Aged almost 39, Iniesta still plays for Japanese top-flight side Vissel Kobe, while also enjoying time with his wife Anna and four young children, and making space for other projects, such as promoting his new football boots and equipment brand Capitten — the reason The Athletic has been invited to his company’s office in central Barcelona.
He has achieved harmony in the latter years of his career, having experienced tough times along the way, including personal loss, but after coming through that pain he understands what is important in life.
“It is not easy but you have to try and achieve your own balance,” Iniesta says. “In the end it is about trying to work it out, to find the things that can end up hampering you, learn how to channel them, to do things in a different way.
“For all this there are also many professionals who can help you to find that line, and from there, to work on it.”
The end of Iniesta’s time as a Barcelona player was impeccably planned.
Through the first six months of the 2017-18 season, he started most of their games but rarely finished a full 90 minutes due to a succession of niggling muscle issues.
At 33, he was still capable of leading the team to glory — in the April, he scored a fine goal in a 5-0 win over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final. As club captain, he then lifted the trophy, the sixth Copa triumph of his career.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu had agreed to renew his contract for another year at least, and coach Ernesto Valverde was also happy for him to continue.
But just a few days after those Copa celebrations, Iniesta made the final call on a decision he had long been mulling. It was also a couple of weeks after a result that now looks like a harbinger of problems to come, when Barcelona somehow blew a 4-1 lead from the first leg and were eliminated in the Champions League quarter-finals by Roma.
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A press conference was called to announce his departure and the following weekend the crowd at Camp Nou gave Iniesta a standing ovation as he entered as a late substitute in a 4-2 victory over Deportivo La Coruna, sealing his ninth La Liga title.
Sixteen seasons in the Barcelona first team had brought 674 games, 57 goals, 138 assists and 32 trophies in total. But he felt he could no longer play at the level the team needed him to. And almost five years on, he feels no regrets over quitting.
“Yes, that was the right decision. I had to take it,” Iniesta says. “I was happy and convinced that it was the right moment. And time has, fortunately, shown me that I was correct. (It was) the right decision — on a sporting level and on a family level.”
He then had plenty of offers to continue his career in Europe but chose to join Vissel Kobe, partly for the attractive financial package, but also to provide a more normal existence for him and his family.
It is another decision over which he has no regrets.
“There is another type of life there (in Japan) that allows you to think about other things,” he says. “I am also older now than when I was here (at Barcelona). My career as a player is winding down. And everything outside has a lot of importance.”
While Iniesta has been achieving balance on the other side of the globe, his former Barcelona team-mates have been struggling.
The Catalan giants have won just two trophies since he departed — the following season’s title and the 2020-21 Copa del Rey.
The decline in their on-pitch fortunes has been painful to watch. Iniesta’s long-time colleagues Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were unable to perform consistently at their previous levels as they grew old, in footballing terms anyway.
Iniesta has followed events back home from Japan and says he felt for his friends as they went through experiences they had never known earlier in their careers, such as the 8-2 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich in UEFA’s pandemic-enforced mini-tournament in Portugal in August 2020.
“You feel bad when you see team-mates and your team suffer, when things are not going well,” he says. “You know that those inside suffer the most, but those of us outside suffer too, in a different way.”
When The Athletic suggests that Pique managed to have two full-time jobs for a while — top-level footballer and global entrepreneur — Iniesta chuckles, then takes his time to compose his answer.
“If you can find that balance we were talking about, and one thing does not hamper the other… well, it is always welcome,” he says. “Although, the job of being an elite player demands that you focus practically everything on football. People can find a way to combine these things, but everyone has to know where the limits are.”
Two months ago, a 35-year-old Pique finally bowed to pressure from the directors to step away and end his Barcelona career in the middle of a season, renouncing over €20million in salary he was due to earn over the final year and a half of his contract, after showing he could no longer compete at the top level during a Champions League group game against Inter Milan.
That left two remaining former Iniesta team-mates — Busquets and Alba — still on huge contracts which were initially given out during Bartomeu’s time as president, and which the current board, led by Juan Laporta, have openly admitted are a huge drain on the club’s troubled finances.
Asked if Busquets and Alba might follow Pique’s lead and leave before those contracts end, Iniesta pointed out that both had already made significant sacrifices.
“I am aware that they have already given a lot from their side to the club,” Iniesta says. “The situation of the club, and of every individual, I do not know, so there is little I can say.”
The first chapter of The Artist: Being Iniesta is titled The Abyss.
Iniesta begins his autobiography by reflecting on the “worst moment” of his life, which came along just as his career appeared to be hitting its peak.
Aged 25, he had overcome injury to play a key role as Barcelona won a 2008-09 treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey. The following summer, however, he was already “feeling bad”, and then his close friend Dani Jarque, who played for local rivals Espanyol, died of heart failure during pre-season.
In the book, Iniesta describes the feeling as being a “dark tunnel” in which he felt “trapped”.
“I felt like I was in freefall, like everything had gone dark, I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says.
Iniesta sought help, both from Barcelona’s medical staff and external professionals. The club’s then-coach Pep Guardiola gave him the time and space required. He also had support from his partner (now his wife) Anna Ortiz, his parents and a circle of close friends.
“I did get support,” he says. “It is very important that your club or the people who are closest to you understand the situation and are aware that it is not easy to take on, and above all that they support you.”
The issues were not made public, but it was October before Iniesta started a La Liga game that season. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque managed the situation carefully leading up to the following summer’s World Cup in South Africa — a tournament where Iniesta ended up scoring the winning goal in the final.
Still, nobody outside his close circle knew what Iniesta had gone through a year before. It was 2016 before he detailed the experience in his book and in a very raw interview on Spanish TV news show Salvados.
By then, he and Anna had been through further tragedy.
In March 2014, Anna was eight months pregnant when the baby she was carrying died. Most people who go through similar personal trauma get significant time off work to recover, but Iniesta, then 29, returned quickly to the team at a crucial moment of their season.
Within a fortnight he had assisted a second-leg goal as Barcelona won a Champions League round of 16 tie against Manchester City 4-1 and scored one goal and assisted another at the Bernabeu in a 4-3 Clasico win over Real Madrid in La Liga.
This would not have been possible, Iniesta says, had he not known to reach out and receive significant professional support to help him deal with what he was going through.
“In the end, we are all people and the personal situation of each one has an effect,” Iniesta says. “You try for it to have the smallest effect possible on what is your job and your performance. You try to surround yourself with professionals who help you in difficult situations.”
He says he hopes footballers who go through anything similar today can publicly share what is happening if they wish — as Cristiano Ronaldo did after his partner Georgina Rodriguez lost an unborn baby in April last year.
“Bit by bit, there is more talk about the normal things that can happen to a footballer, or to any player, during their lives,” Iniesta says. “And that is positive — for people to talk about things, for us all to be aware of it.”
Throughout his conversation with The Athletic, Iniesta is well aware of the track the interview is taking.
He is keen to stress he is still a professional footballer as he faces turning 39 in May, and still fully committed to a club owned by the huge Japanese conglomerate Rakuten, which was Barcelona’s shirt-front sponsor from 2017-22.
In four and a half seasons at Vissel Kobe, Iniesta has scored 26 goals and assisted 25 in 128 appearances. He has won two trophies — the 2019 Emperor’s Cup and 2020 Japanese Super Cup — and played a crucial role as Vissel reached the semi-final in their first-ever Asian Champions League campaign in the December of the latter year.
The 2022 season was not as exciting, personally or collectively, with Vissel 13th of the 18 teams, four points clear of the relegation zone, when the campaign ended in early November – Iniesta scored two goals while starting just half of their 34 league games.
Iniesta has renewed his contract for another 12 months and says that he and his team are capable of having a much better 2023 J-League campaign.
“We have had a bit of everything over the years,” he says. “Last season we suffered a lot in the league. In football, you always have to demand the maximum from yourself, so that each year can be the best.”
Meanwhile, he has continued his interests outside football.
Bodega Andres Iniesta wine, from the family vineyards near his home village of Fuentealbilla, near Valencia, is widely sold in Japan. Since 2019, he has been involved with the Japanese footwear brand Mikakus, which has a shop in central Barcelona and sells its products online globally. And now there’s Capitten boots and gear — officially launched in Tokyo last September.
“In the end, it is my brand, so I get involved in everything I can,” Iniesta says. “Whether that’s the design, the sales, or where they are produced. I like to be very committed when I get involved in any project.”
During the Japanese league’s off-season, Iniesta was at the recent World Cup, where he did some work with Spanish media.
He was especially happy to see old team-mate Messi finally experience the joy of winning the trophy and scoring in the final, as he did when Spain squeezed past the Netherlands in extra time in Johannesburg 12 years ago.
“(South Africa) 2010 is always present and whenever any World Cup comes around, even more,” Iniesta says, smiling. “With the World Cup that Leo played, and Argentina, it was totally deserved. In this moment of winning the World Cup, the joy that he had was immense.”
There’s another smile when The Athletic suggests he should ask his friend to promote his new boots range.
“Messi I don’t think will wear Capitten — maybe his son,” Iniesta says. “It would be difficult for Leo. We are not looking to compete with (Adidas or Nike), we are not that crazy. But the idea is that players can also wear them, in the Champions League or any competition.”
Another former team-mate, Xavi, also left Barcelona to finish his playing career elsewhere. He joined Qatari side Al Sadd in preparation to return to coach Barcelona, where he is now dealing with the challenge of bringing their old team back to the level it was a decade and more ago.
“It is a difficult moment when (Xavi) came back, it is a challenge that he took on,“ Iniesta says. “Things have been improving and hopefully they can win trophies this year.”
Iniesta is not involved with coaching at Vissel Kobe, not yet anyway, but he is regularly linked with a return to Camp Nou in some kind of off-pitch role. His life would change again if he did rejoin his former club.
He says Laporta has not talked to him about such a development, without ruling it out completely.
“At the moment I have spoken to nobody about that as it is not really something I think can happen soon,” Iniesta says. “I don’t know about the future; maybe it could happen, but we will see if it happens.
“If I return to Barca, it would be in a different way to when I was a player. We will see what the future brings.”
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