Earlier this month reporters headed along to a routine commercial event involving Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta not really expecting anything too interesting to happen.
Iniesta generally handles such afternoons with exemplary professionalism and politeness, gives a few decent quotes about his team’s current form or the issues of the day, poses for some cheesy photos, and generally keeps his sponsors happy while avoiding any awkward headlines.
The recent promotion for a luxury Swiss watch company was ticking along precisely as expected, when one journalist present threw out a standard question about his contract situation, not really expecting anything revelatory to come out. Iniesta however took the question seriously, and appeared to have put a lot of thought into the issue.
“At the moment I just want to focus on the three competitions we are in, which is the only thing which keeps me awake at night,” he replied. “Later other things can be weighed up, at the end of the season or whenever it happens. In football everything changes month to month.”
Those present suddenly sensed there was more going on, and pressed for further insight into the 32-year-old’s thinking.
“I’m not saying I am not going to renew my contract,” Iniesta explained carefully. “I always said I would be delighted to finish my career at Barca, but I will never be at this club just to be here. Based on today, I believe I can keep performing.”
The phrase “I will never be at this club just to be here” was the key one, and conveyed a certain frustration with how 2016/17 has gone personally so far. Two knee injuries and another calf muscle problem have kept him sidelined for long spells, and even when available he has rarely looked at 100%. Blaugrana coach Luis Enrique definitely seems to think so - and his skipper has completed the 90 minutes just eight times all season, and just twice since the turn of the year.
The assumption was that the coach was holding one of his most important players to make sure he could use him on the biggest occasions. But that did not look the case when Iniesta was substituted after 72 minutes during the Champions League last 16 first leg humiliation at Paris Saint Germain, and then again just past the hour mark in the return game, so he was not present when Neymar inspired their historic comeback. In Barca’s biggest La Liga game recently, at Atletico Madrid, he was also taken off midway through the second half with the game in the balance. He also only managed 30 minutes as a sub in December’s Clasico at home to Real Madrid.
All of which suggests that Iniesta is not happy with the contribution he has made to the team recently. And the timing is clutch, considering his current contract ends in June 2018, when he will have just turned 34. That deal includes clauses based around performance, which can extend it to 2020, but neither side at the moment look all that keen to take them up.
Barca’s board are a bit short for money for salaries after expensively renewing Neymar and Luis Suarez, and still have to find the cash to secure Lionel Messi [who is also a big priority given his deal ends in 2018 too]. Plus, as club captain with his amazing trophy haul for club and country, Iniesta would expect to remain very well paid even as he reaches his mid-30s, which may be difficult for the blaugrana bean counters to understand.
Another element to consider is the new coach due at the Camp Nou next season, and that central midfield is now the key problem area within the current squad. The new man will surely have his own ideas about where to take things from here, and Iniesta would want to at least hear these before making any decision.
It might seem strange to even consider the idea of Iniesta, who moved to La Masia aged 12 and has been so closely linked with the team’s success over the last decade, pulling on another club’s jersey. But then his former teammate Xavi Hernandez is currently finishing his playing career in Qatar, while there’s a long history of iconic stars at La Liga’s big two [Raul Gonzalez, Pep Guardiola etc] ending a bit awkwardly with their boyhood club and playing a last few years elsewhere.
There is still a large possibility that Iniesta plays a key part in Barca success over the next couple of months, and lifts one, two or three trophies at the end of the season, before ending the uncertainty by signing a new deal. But should things not go so swimmingly then the Manchegan, who is an intelligent guy and more stubborn than he usually gives away, could spring a surprise.
A move to the Middle East or China seems out of the picture at moment, but Premier League teams looking to add some unique experience to their squads and significant glamour to their brands should really be sounding out the possibilities. The next time Iniesta speaks openly about his future, everybody is sure to be listening.