Departing Iniesta praised by Zidane, Guardiola, Lopetegui

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has paid tribute to Andres Iniesta, who had announced his decision to leave Barcelona, and believes that the Spanish midfielder should have won the Ballon d´Or in 2010.

Iniesta announced on Friday he will be leaving Barca at the end of the season, bringing an end to a 22-year association with the club. He is expected to move to China but is yet to name his next team.

The 33-year-old has enjoyed a glittering career, winning eight La Liga and four Champions League titles, but has never claimed football’s most prestigious individual award.

Iniesta was beaten to the Ballon d´Or by Lionel Messi in 2010, despite clinching the World Cup that year with Spain, and scoring the decisive goal against Holland in the final.

“What I’m going to say will maybe make headlines tomorrow,” Zidane said with a smile on Friday.

“I think he really deserved to win the Ballon d´Or when he won his World Cup, he had an exceptional year and he finished the World Cup by winning it, by scoring (in the final), so obviously that year he would have deserved it.”

It was the period when Iniesta was arguably at his best, as Barcelona won three consecutive league titles under Pep Guardiola, as well as the Champions League twice.

“I could spend a lot of minutes talking about him, he’s another part of the history of Barca in the last 15 or 20 years which would not be possible without him,” Guardiola said.

“I just want to say 'thank you' because he helped me to understand the game better.

“Just watching him do what he does on the football pitch despite the amount of tackles, the way he’s a professional... I thank him so much for what he has done.

“When he decides to retire, maybe a decade from now, he will come back into football – at Barcelona especially – and he can teach others what he’s shown on the pitch.”

Iniesta is expected to announce his international retirement after this summer´s World Cup, when he will be hoping to go out on a high by winning the tournament again with Spain.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui has no doubt about Iniesta´s motivation in Russia.

“Andres is a player absolutely in the first class,” Lopetegui said.

“I would not speak of Andres in the past, I speak of him in the present. The recognition he has had at all levels of international football is not earned by chance.

“How he has won and how he has behaved in victory makes him loved in all the stadiums in Spain and abroad, and that is a treasure very few players in history can have.

“He has maximum motivation to be at the World Cup and to finish well with his team like he did with Barca in the Copa del Rey final.” – AFP

Andres Iniestabarcelona