During the build-up towards Fernando Torres’ match winning goal in the Euro 2008 Final against Germany, the announcers noted the variety of playing style in Spain’s midfield. After describing how they were all on the smaller side, the 5’6 Xavi, on cue, hit a trademark through pass for Torres to burst onto and chip the keeper. Two years later, Torres would supply the cross in extra time of the World Cup Finals that eventually lead to Andres Iniesta scoring the most important goal in Spanish national team history. And now, eight years later, the two decisive goal scorers who cemented Spain’s Golden Age are finally leaving their respective boyhood clubs and La Liga altogether.
Iniesta’s goal against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey Final encapsulated the movement, quick thinking and the pauses that defined his career. The standing ovation from both Barcelona and Sevilla fans showed how Iniesta’s graceful style transcended a uniform. It was his 31st trophy in a 15-year career, all with one club. And while that number is impressive, there is perhaps no other player whose statistics convey the least amount of their actual impact and influence on each game season after season. That there is this much adulation for a midfielder with only 62 goals in over 700 career matches is fitting. You simply had to watch him play.
In reviewing those dominant Spain and Barcelona sides led by Messi and Xavi, we can ask when we actually realized that Iniesta was Iniesta. Without the highlight reel goals and passes spoken for, it would have been easy to overlook Iniesta’s subtler shifts and feints to find space and never lose the ball. He was a master of small movements that got lost within a television or laptop screen but whose impact could be seen in how a defender reacted the opposite way. According to some estimates, his transfer value peaked during the 2012-13 season. And while the refrain is often repeated, it rings true in this case: we may actually never see a player like Iniesta again. He could never be recreated in a lab. There was a naturalness to his movement and dribbling that belied science.
As retrospectives of his Barcelona career continue to be published in the following months and years, describing Iniesta’s style borders somewhere between poetry and hyperbole. He’s done a writer’s job for them in opening a vault of metaphors to convey how he would dance past defenders without any worry or distraction. Sergio Ramos said that he should have won two Ballon d’Ors. Zinedine Zidane said that the Spanish midfielder reminded him of himself. It was observed that one of Spain’s greatest athletes was 5’7 and weighed 150 pounds.
Iniesta should add one more league title this season to his accomplishments. But just as telling was his halftime behavior in the second leg of the Champions League quarter finals loss against Roma. Walking alongside Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti, he implored his teammates to change the match or else Roma would pull off the historic comeback. Even at age 33, the 31 trophies weren’t enough. Winning and grace are inseparable.
With only three goals in 23 matches this season, Torres may never get a signature send off moment in front of Atletico Madrid supporters. Although he scored his 100th career La Liga goal, the majority of Torres’ final season with his boyhood club was spent convincing people that there was no rift between him and manager Diego Simeone. When asked if he would retain the striker after the season, Simeone gave a simple “no”. And that was it.
Torres said that he didn’t want his final image at Atletico Madrid to be of him “not playing at all, of not being on squad lists.” Yet the Torres of the Germany final, the one chasing improbable passes and turning them into goals, was gone long ago. After reaching a three-year peak between 2007 and 2010 with 56 goals in 79 matches, something had irreparably changed. He became the most expensive player in Premier League history after moving to Chelsea in 2011, finished with 20 goals in 110 goals, then was loaned to Milan before returning home. Whether it was injuries leading to a loss of confidence or some mixture of both, his inability to finish became its own meme and inspired various YouTube compilations. He’s had just one double digit scoring season since 2012.
Torres hoped to recapture that x-factor under Simeone that made him a dangerous striker after eight seasons away. Compared to Iniesta’s agility, Torres was the more traditional, measurable athlete. He was 6’1, fast and strong. He could score with his head and his feet. He had the desire and work rate to lead a defensive press. Simeone brought him back for the emotional connection with supporters, and Torres could play to his direct strengths once again. It worked for a time - he reached 11 goals in 2016 and started in the Champions League Finals.
It is remarkable how many players from Spain’s 2008 starting lineup in the Euro finals are still playing at the highest level a decade later (of course, this also speaks to the youth of that side, making their accomplishments that much more impressive). Besides Iniesta and Torres, the 32-year-old Ramos captains both Spain and Real Madrid. David Silva continues to pull strings at Manchester City. Cesc Fabregas played in 29 matches for Chelsea this season. And Santi Carzola would surely have made some impact at Arsenal had it not been for a freak Achilles injury.
The starting lineup for the World Cup winning 2010 side is even more impressive. Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets continue to drive Barcelona. Pedro was a vital part of Chelsea’s attacking front three that won the Premier League title last season. The final sequence leading up to Iniesta’s goal was started by Jesus Navas racing up the wing. Iniesta backheels to Fabregas, who finds Torres out wide for a cross. Fabregas comes away with the second ball and plays Iniesta through. That sequence represented four players from Sevilla, Barcelona, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid who started Champions League matches for their clubs this season.
In discussing Iniesta, Ramos also observed that analysts in Spain don’t value Spanish players enough, always looking outside for answers. And both Torres’ and Iniesta’s goals show how the difference between a paradigm shifting dynasty and a very good side is measured in inches and small margins. But Ramos’ point could also reflect human behavior, of how we get bored of greatness, no matter how historic, until it’s gone. And it wasn’t just about winning trophies, but how they were won. Iniesta brought the control, Torres the goal. The numbers are for the record books, but it’s the style that grows in our memories with time.