The French poet and writer Charles Baudelaire once said of dance that it “can reveal everything mysterious that is hidden in music, and it has the additional merit of being human and palpable."
"Dancing,” he said, “is poetry with arms and legs.”
This quote on the art of dance is also a good way to describe the magic of Andres Iniesta and how the new documentary on him, Andres Iniesta: The Unexpected Hero, begins. As shots of a dancer appear on the screen, we hear talking heads–in one instance, Pep Guardiola–narrate what it’s like to watch Iniesta on the pitch.
“He [Iniesta] didn’t touch the ball,” says the former Barcelona captain and manager, “he followed it.”
Then, the camera light shines on another talking head. This time, it’s his close friend and former midfield partner Xavi Hernandez.
“He’s the greatest talent in Spanish football that I’ve ever seen,” Xavi says. “That time-space relationship, when a player’s expecting him to come where the opponent isn’t covering, that’s just wonderful and he even waits for you until the end. He waits for you and says, ‘I’m going to get you,’ and then he does.”
Luis Enrique also chimes in: “He didn’t have two eyes, he had four. ... He was like Harry Potter with his magic wand.”
And of course, there's Lionel Messi. “Special. I think Andres is a special person. As a player and as a person, too.”
Anyone who is anyone enters the frame, ready to talk about the great, the wonderful, the beloved, Andres Iniesta. From star players such as Neymar, Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Buffon, David Villa and Samuel Eto’o to managers such as Louis Van Gaal (the man who granted Iniesta his debut with Barcelona’s first team) and his World Cup-winning coach Vicente del Bosque, they’re all here to pay tribute to the midfield maestro.
The film, produced by Rakuten TV in collaboration with Spanish production company Producciones del Barrio, is essentially a cinematic love letter to the former Barcelona star and one of the greatest midfielders the sport has ever seen.
It’s important to issue an important disclaimer, though. Rakuten, owned by Japanese businessman Hiroshi Mikitani, is Barcelona’s main sponsor and owner of J1 League and Emperors Cup champion Vissel Kobe, Iniesta’s current club. In addition, Mikitani, who also appears in the film, is Iniesta's business partner, so it’s natural to expect a project that’s less investigative and balanced and more romanticized. Iniesta is hardly a polarizing character and is seemingly universally adored, but the potential for a conflict of interest is stark.
A smart decision by the production team was hiring journalist Marcos Lopez to write the story’s arc. Lopez, alongside El Pais’s Ramon Besa, wrote Iniesta’s biography "The Artist: Being Iniesta," which took four years to produce. Thanks to Lopez acting as composer and guide, the documentary reaches a humanity seldom achieved by other productions. The result is an empathetic film centered around one of the sport’s good guys. Iniesta is soccer’s artistic dancer, the game’s Mikhail Baryshnikov, but he’s also a quiet, introverted, caring family man. You need a delicate pen that chronicles his talents, and in this case, his career. Thanks to Lopez, the film, released on Thursday and available to view on Rakuten's streaming service, achieves this task.
When it comes to sports documentaries dealing with a single subject, the narrative needs more of a microscopic lens in order to fully offer the audience a complete picture. Asif Kapadia, director of Maradona and Senna, excels at this, as he meticulously uses an immense amount of footage and paints a beautiful, raw visual collage of his main character. Unlike other recent soccer documentaries, this isn’t a multi-episodic story with numerous characters chronicling the ups and downs of a team (Take Us Home: Leeds United) or a city (Sunderland Til I Die), so the directors (in this case, Jordi Evole and Ramon Lara) need to simplify and use what they have in order to create the portrait of a player.
This is where Rakuten’s influence comes in, creating a winning recipe by getting star power in numbers to appear in the film. As mentioned, there are many legends of the game more than willing to talk about Iniesta as a person and player. Most importantly, you have Iniesta himself speaking throughout and giving access to his life in Japan, alongside his wife Anna Ortiz (who is a constant, valuable presence throughout the film) and his four children.
The film shows you that, as a person, the remarkable characteristic about Iniesta is that he is extraordinarily ordinary. And that's a compliment. For him, a family man, life is about enjoying its simplicity, and that’s partly why he decided to move to Japan and enjoy the values he couldn’t always relish in Spain.
“Leaving Barcelona and coming here has given me a lot of freedom in many ways,” says Iniesta, as the backdrop shows him fishing with a local man in town.
His wife agrees. “Just sitting on a bench and watching people is something we’ve never been able to do,” Anna says. “And going for a walk with your kids, brings a lot of peace you haven’t had for many years.”
There is, of course. the football side, too, as the film–thanks to the voices of his parents, his coaches, his former teammates–takes us back to his childhood days in Fuentealbilla. His father, Jose Antonio, always wanted him to be a player, but his village didn’t have a team at the time, so he could only play in the schoolyard. He would spend six hours playing until his mother, Mari Lujan, would have to call him for dinner.
“He’d eat, and be back at school, back on the pitch,” she remembered.
The story also reminds us of how the Iniesta we know now came so close to not happening at all. Here he was, spending his first night at Barça’s famous academy, La Masia, and he would cry himself to sleep. But what the film reminds you is that his father was the one that truly couldn’t handle being separated from his son.
“When I left Andres alone in La Masia, and I was in the hotel I said to myself, ‘My god. This is impossible, I can’t live here.' I fell to the floor like a 10-year-old. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t do anything.”
He was close to taking Iniesta out of the academy until Mari Lujan intervened, stating that if they were to take him out of the academy, then all the hard work would be for nothing. The sacrifice, she stated, was hard, but she implored her husband to see the light at the end of the tunnel and let him stay.
“It was thanks to my mother, who thankfully was stronger than my dad,” recounts Iniesta’s sister, Maribel. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think Andres would have made it at Barcelona.”
Iniesta echoed that sentiment, saying, “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what would have happened to me."
There are key moments that stand out during the documentary, including his final big game for Barcelona in 2018 against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final. That performance, including his goal, was pivotal as Barça overwhelmed its opponent, 5-0. “I felt like I was flying, gliding round the pitch, that it all went my way from the whistle,” he recalls. “Even now, when I play that farewell moment, when I get subbed off, I’d be lying If I said I haven’t shed a few tears over that moment. With the whole crowd singing your name, with all the Sevilla fans mostly standing up and clapping.”
Months earlier that year, when he announced his intention to leave the club in a press conference, it was emotional. A packed room, filled with his teammates, journalists, executives and everyone and anyone who had a relationship with Iniesta and Barcelona was there.
Ivan Rakitic recalls it as one of the saddest days for the club and himself.
“You just can’t imagine Barça without Andres. I can’t imagine a daily life without my friend,” Rakitic said.
Last year, during a conversation with Sports Illustrated, Sergio Busquets mentioned that there will come a time when he realizes he can’t give 100% to Barcelona, and that would be the time to leave.
“I’ve always said that I won’t be a Barcelona player for 20 years with a secondary role," he said. "The moment that I feel my ambition is fading or that I am not able to deliver physically, I will step aside and leave feeling privileged and content of what I gave to the club.”
And that’s exactly how Iniesta felt when he made his decision to leave Barça.
Despite the star cameos, the most interesting voices in the documentary outside of Iniesta's family are those who understood his makeup the best.
There is the well-respected Paco Seirul-lo, professor and expert trainer who was a key factor during Barcelona’s success in the Guardiola era, who discusses the ultimate riddle: what makes Iniesta different to any other player?
“The brain is the center of everything, of course, and he has organized that brain-body relationship in a special way to move in whatever way he wanted,” says Seirul-lo.
The greatness, therefore, comes from within. Iniesta mystifies the opponent with his ability to see the game before anyone else, and just like a painter who envisions the masterpiece before it’s on the canvas, Iniesta does the same thing with a ball.
“It really seemed like you were seeing two players who weren’t playing the same match” says Buffon, laughing. “It seemed as if he was playing in a different match than the others. That’s his specialty.”
In many ways, especially during his best years, Iniesta defied the meaning of an athlete. He wasn’t muscular. He wasn’t a giant nor was he overwhelmingly fast. There was no intimidation that came from merely looking at him, so what was it about him that made him so special? It was his mind.
But while his mind was producing beauty on the pitch, off of it was a different story. The heart of the documentary truly comes out when Iniesta delivers honest, touching words regarding his biggest obstacle: mental health.
The year was 2009, Barcelona had just come off a historic treble and Iniesta should have been on cloud nine. But it was the complete opposite. He wasn’t himself.
“It’s not unusual that after a period of brilliance or intensity, one feels a moment of emptiness, a comedown, to put it in layman’s terms,” his psychologist and therapist, Inma Puig, says while describing his mental health concerns and how they dealt with it. “We could compare it to postpartum depression. There are times when you live with great intensity. You prepare a long time for it and when you get it, you feel a certain emptiness.”
The clouds became even darker when his close friend and Espanyol defender Dani Jarque passed away from a heart attack. He was 26.
Iniesta continued a downward spiral and eventually began treatment to deal with depression. It was a team effort, from his therapist to his family, his teammates and especially his manager.
Guardiola was instrumental in helping him, becoming a major part in his support system.
“They’re people and this very human thing, which befalls around the world, they have to know we’re there for them,” Guardiola said. “I’m not a doctor, no idea how to treat it. No idea. But the club was of course there to lend a hand.”
Pep would talk to the therapist and ask for advice. “I don’t know what to do,” he would tell Puig on a regular basis. “But to me, the most important thing now is Andres, not the player, for me the person comes before football.”
Little by little, Iniesta returned, and in 2010, when Spain defeated the Netherlands in the World Cup final on his goal in the 116th minute, the moment became cathartic for more than one reason.
Iniesta finished off a move that he started with a back-heel pass, and upon celebrating, he revealed an undershirt with the words, "Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros" (Dani Jarque, always with us).
There aren’t many times when a professional athlete can literally and figuratively strip away and abandon anything that could hold them back and decide to just simply bask in the moment. But when Iniesta speaks of his mental health and what it took for him to get better, we see a beautiful message of raw emotion and gratitude to his loved ones.
“When I explain this it’s not to say, 'Look I’m Andres Iniesta, a footballer, I’m a celebrity and I’m going to tell you how to overcome depression and anxiety,'" he says to the camera. “Am I a celebrity? Of course, but many people, or in this case, some people, have said to me ‘because you talked about this, many people have talked about it’ or ‘people have come for treatment and said, we heard Andres Iniesta talking about it and it encouraged us. It’s welcomed, I’m glad. But I have always tried to be a normal person within what is a special world that I live in.”
In the end, Andres Iniesta: The Unexpected Hero, may not wow you with cinematic grandiosity or never-before-seen footage, but what It does give you is a touching, honest tribute to one of the greatest introverts we'll ever witness on the field. A family man, a caring husband, father and friend. A person of few words who says much more when he dances with the ball. An artist who made us see beauty in places where we thought nothing could be created.