And all of a sudden, he was gone. Barcelona bade Andres Iniesta a fond farewell at Camp Nou on Sunday as the midfielder made his final appearance for the Catalan club.
After a long build-up to the game, it was over quite quickly in the end. But the memories will last forever.
Iniesta had announced his decision to leave in April and since then, he has admitted that at times, it is all too much. Despite having previously played 669 times for the Blaugrana, this one was different. “I’m nervous about my last match for Barca,” he said earlier this week.
Never one for the spotlight, he had been nervous on Friday night too as family, friends and illustrious sporting figures joined him for a special event at Camp Nou.
The evening’s moderator, Jordi Evole, a well-known Catalan comic and scriptwriter, said to Iniesta: “Is there no way we can persuade you to stay? I’ll buy lots of wine. Boxes and boxes of it!”
That was a reference to Iniesta’s business deals in China, which is believed to be part of the reason for his departure as he looks to boost his career after football and also safeguard the jobs of family and friends.
And when Gerard Pique took to the stage, Evole said: “Can’t you take a picture with Andres and get him to stay?” The defender replied: “I think he has made his decision. I thought he would be here for longer.”
In fact, he may never have been there at all. The player’s father, Jose Antonio revealed that as a homesick youngster at La Masia, he was ready to drive to Barcelona, pick up his unhappy son and take him back to their village, only for his wife to insist young Andres stick it out for longer.
“On behalf of all Barcelona fans, thanks for letting him stay!” Evole said. And after making his debut in 2002-03 under Louis van Gaal, the midfielder has gone on to represent the Catalan club more than any other player, winning 32 trophies along the way.
Those include four Champions League crowns and Samuel Eto’o, asked to pick his standout Iniesta moment on Friday, said: “Paris (the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal). You came on at half-time and changed everything. If you hadn’t come on, Barca would have one European Cup less…”
Xavi agreed and the former Barca and Spain midfielder broke down in tears as Iniesta struggled through a heartfelt speech thanking family, friends, team-mates and club colleagues past and present. “I have imagined many moments,” he started off by saying. “But I never imagined this one…”
Perhaps Barca’s fans had not imagined it either, although no player can go on forever and Iniesta said as he announced his departure in April that he wanted to leave at the right time and not be a burden for the club that has given him everything.
There was a mosaic before kick-off with the words “Infinite Iniesta” and on the pitch, the midfielder exchanged gifts (on behalf of the two clubs) with Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto, who is retiring at the end of the season.
As the game got underway, a banner was unfurled at one end with images of Iniesta and the words “Thanks for [giving us] so much”. And throughout the match itself, those same supporters regularly chanted his name.
It had been rumoured beforehand that Lionel Messi, who started on the bench, would come on to replace Iniesta in a symbolic change. But the Camp Nou wanted to see the two geniuses together on the pitch one last time and for about 15 minutes in the second half, the Argentine attacker and the Spain midfielder were both there.
Before that, Philippe Coutinho, the player signed as a long-term replacement for Iniesta, had scored the game’s only goal with a superb strike that went in off the post.
But it was Iniesta’s night and with about 10 minutes left, it was announced that Paco Alcacer would come on to replace Andres. The midfielder made his way off slowly, stopping first to hug many of his team-mates, Messi the first. And as he walked off, with adulation from the crowd ringing in his ears, the Barca players simply stood and applauded.
After he had departed, a large group of fans continued to sing his name right up until the final whistle and in the final few minutes, the whole stadium was waving flags and singing his name. It was a wonderful moment and on the bench, it was too much for the midfielder, who was wiping away the tears.
Later, the club captain would back to lift the the league trophy, his last as a Barca player in his final fixture. It was a fitting end to a glorious career for one of the game’s great players. He may be gone, and probably a year too soon, but Iniesta is indeed infinite and he will be remembered by Barca forever.