Ini­esta takes pun­ish­ment, then delivers it

Ball-con­trol wizard, pushed and shoved, nails game-win­ner

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG, South Africa — The boys from Barcelona did it, and the small­est of them stood tallest at the end.

An­dres Ini­esta, so pale he is the tar­get of op­po­nents’ jokes, so frail he looks the ex­act op­po­site of a pro­fes­sional ath­lete, on Sun­day scored the goal that won Spain the World Cup.

In do­ing so, he earned undy­ing fame for him­self and also for six com­rades-in-feet, each of whom cel­e­brated with him in un­re­strained joy long af­ter the fire­works had faded from the night sky.

This was what they had dreamed of on those un­cer­tain child­hood nights when they called a cen­turies-old farm­house in Barcelona home while their real homes and fam­i­lies were far, far away.

This was what they had imag­ined on those twi­light evenings when long shad­ows al­ready lay across the play­ing fields but they stayed to train just the lit­tle bit longer, to per­fect this move or that, to build the friend­ships of a life­time.

Ini­esta was only 12 when he left his Fuenteal­billa home in Castile-La Man­cha to join FC Barcelona in 1996. Oth­ers, com­ing from all parts of Spain but es­pe­cially Cat­alo­nia, were al­ready there or joined soon there­after.

They in­cluded fel­low mid­fielder Xavi Her­nan­dez, who had ar­rived as an 11-year-old; goal­keeper Vic­tor Valdes, who was 13; and de­fender Car­les Puyol, an old-timer at 17 when Barcelona claimed him.

Three more were to fol­low: first de­fender Ger­ard Pique and mid­fielder Cesc Fabre­gas, both 10 years old when they fell un­der the spell of Barcelona’s famed blue and claret col­ors, and also mid­fielder Ser­gio Bus­quets, who was 17.

They are the Barcelona boys, prod­ucts of the world’s best youth soc­cer sys­tem. All played their part in Spain’s tri­umph Sun­day, but Ini­esta stole the show.

He spent as much of the night on the ground as on his feet, the con­stant tar­get of trips, shoves, shoul­der charges, hacks, kicks and ev­ery other form of pun­ish­ment from a Dutch team that, for what­ever rea­son, chose to play ugly.

But Ini­esta stuck with it and, more im­por­tantly, four min­utes from the end of ex­tra time, stuck the ball in the back of the net.

Ini­esta, all of 5 feet 7 and as mod­est as the day is long, was tak­ing part in the postgame news con­fer­ence when Puyol, Fabre­gas and Pique burst in on him, beers in hand and chant­ing, “You’re the best, you’re the best.”

Ini­esta grinned, but he is, in fact, the best.

There is not an­other player in the world who can drib­ble out of tight spa­ces as well as the man from Castille-La Man­cha. His abil­ity to read the game, to pro­vide pin­point passes, to weave his way past op­po­nents, is phe­nom­e­nal. Small won­der the Dutch tar­geted him. Stop Ini­esta and you are half­way to stop­ping Spain.

But the Dutch could not stop him for the full 120 min­utes of reg­u­la­tion and ex­tra time. With his strike, Ini­esta be­came only the 19th player in his­tory to score a World Cup-win­ning goal. “I sim­ply made a con­tri­bu­tion to my team,” he said.

After­ward, he raced to­ward the corner flag, pulling up his Spain jersey as he went.

Printed on the white T-shirt be­neath were the words: “Dani Jar­que: siem­pre con nosotros” — “Dani Jar­que: al­ways with us.”

Ini­esta and Jar­que were team­mates on Spain’s youth teams for sev­eral years. Jar­que, who played for Barcelona’s other team, Es­panyol, col­lapsed and died at age 26 last year.

“I wanted to carry Dani with me,” Ini­esta said. “We wanted to pay trib­ute to him and we thought it was the best op­por­tu­nity to do so.”

The move was typ­i­cal of the man.

An­dres Ini­esta might be the small­est of the boys from Barcelona, but to­day he is a world cham­pion. In many ways.

Martin Meiss­ner

An­dres Ini­esta cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing a goal, with the words ‘Dani Jar­que, al­ways with us’ writ­ten on his un­der­shirt.

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