RARELY IS A FOOTBALLER REVERED ON ENEMY SOIL AS MUCH AS ON HIS OWN ground, but these days Barcelona's Andrés Iniesta inspires adoration all across Spain. True, his extra-time goal to win the 2010 World Cup made him a national icon, but just as important was what happened after his eight-yard strike passed the outstretched arm of Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Iniesta sprinted toward the crowd at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium and, before an estimated worldwide TV audience of 700 million (including nearly 14 million of Spain's 45 million people), tore off his blue jersey to reveal a white T-shirt inscribed DANI JARQUE SIEMPRE CON NOSOTROS. (Dani Jarque always with us.)
In August 2009, Jarque, the captain of Espanyol—FC Barcelona's bitter crosstown rival—collapsed and died of a heart attack at age 26 while training in Coverciano, Italy. That Iniesta would pay tribute to his fallen friend at a moment of personal triumph spoke volumes about his character. He and Jarque had been teammates on Spanish youth teams and won a gold medal in the European U-19 championships in 2002. They had remained close despite their opposing club loyalties. "I wanted to carry Dani with me," Iniesta said after the World Cup final.
That gesture reverberates today. In December fans and players at Espanyol's Cornellà—El Prat stadium gave Iniesta a standing ovation and chanted his name during the derby between their team and the league-leading Blaugrana. Iniesta has received similar outpourings of affection in stadiums throughout Spain and in encounters with fans. "I've been told a lot of stories about the World Cup from people who watched, and none of them have left me indifferent," Iniesta says. "Some of the stories were funny, other affectionate and some just amazing. There are people who got hurt celebrating the goal because others threw chairs into the air in the pubs. There are others who told me they had dreamed about me scoring a goal the night before the final game. But if I had to pick one among all those stories, it would be the one of the divided family that got back together to celebrate Spain's victory."
Family is a large part of Iniesta's own story. He was raised in Fuentealbilla, a village of just over 2,000 people about 170 miles southeast of Madrid, in the province of Albacete. One of his grandfathers ran a village pub, the Bar Luján, where the entire family worked in shifts and Andrés's father, José Antonio, served drinks after his day job as a mason. When Andrés was eight, his parents signed him up for a children's soccer team. He quickly took to the game, and he recalls imitating the movements of Danish midfielder Michael Laudrup, who won four straight La Liga titles with Barcelona in the early 1990s.
At age 12, while playing in a junior seven-a-side tournament in Brunete, outside Madrid, Andrés attracted the attention of a Barcelona scout, who invited the family to enroll the boy in La Masía, the team's training academy in the mighty shadow of the Camp Nou. The shy Andrés struggled with the separation from his parents, sometimes crying himself to sleep. "I was slow to adapt to the new situation," he said. "I remember calling my parents constantly. I needed to see them, be with them, listen to them. The first few months were hell, as I only met with my parents once or twice a month. Whenever they arrived at La Masía, I would hug them, and I was the happiest man on earth. We would spend the whole weekend together, not a second apart, and I would even sleep with them."
Slowly Iniesta progressed up La Masía's ranks. He captained the Barcelona under-15 team to victory in the Manchester United Premier Cup of 1999, scoring the winning goal in the last minute of the final. Upon being named the player of the tournament, he received the trophy from Pep Guardiola, the captain of Barcelona's 1990s squads—a famed XI that included Luís Figo, Rivaldo and Ronaldo—and now Barça's coach. At La Masía, Iniesta pinned a photo of Guardiola above his bunk for inspiration. The admiration was mutual. In a story that is now part of Barcelona lore, Guardiola is said to have told the young Xavi Hernández after watching Iniesta, "You will retire me, but he will retire all of us."
By age 16 Iniesta was a star on Barcelona's B side. He spent two years with that group before making his first-team debut, in October 2002, in a Champions League game against the Belgian club Brugge. He has been a first-team regular since the '04--05 season.
His rise up the national-team ranks followed a similar arc: He played on Spain's U-16, U-19 and U-21 squads before making his senior debut in '06. He was selected for the '06 World Cup squad but played in just one game. Four years later he scored the World Cup--winning goal. "When I revisit [that final]," Iniesta says, "a million feelings, all of them wonderful, come to me. Winning was something awesome, incredible, beautiful."
In March, Iniesta made his 350th first-team appearance for Barcelona, against Arsenal, becoming the youngest player to achieve that distinction. Thanks in no small part to him, Barcelona has perfected a style of play—touch passes, movement off the ball and a pathological focus on retaining possession—that has made it the envy of every other club in the world. Iniesta is the quintessential attacking midfielder, a position that allows him to display his offensive brilliance without forfeiting defensive capability. Watching him pass the ball, former Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard once said, is "like watching somebody hand out sweets."
Few players in La Liga are as adept at keeping possession, that, Iniesta said, "is what we have learned since we were children at the academy. This is the soccer we believe in." The only drawback to his genius with the ball is that it often overshadows his accuracy as a shooter (just ask the Dutch).