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ON SOCCER

Spain's little man comes through in the biggest moment

Andres Iniesta, all 5 feet 7 of him, makes Spain a World Cup champion with his goal four minutes from the end of overtime against the Netherlands.

July 11, 2010|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

From Johannesburg, South Africa — The boys from Barcelona did it, and it was the smallest of them who stood tallest at the end.

Andres Iniesta, so pale he is the target of opponents' jokes, so frail he looks the exact opposite of a professional athlete, on Sunday scored the goal that won Spain the World Cup.

In doing so, he earned undying fame for himself and also for six comrades-in-feet, each of whom celebrated with him in unrestrained joy long after the fireworks had faded from the African night sky.

This was what they had dreamed of on those uncertain childhood nights when they called a centuries-old farmhouse in Barcelona home while their real homes and families were far, far away.

This was what they had imagined on those twilight evenings when long shadows already lay across the playing fields but they stayed to train just the little bit longer, to perfect this move or that, to build the friendships of a lifetime.

Their story would be improbable if it were not true.

First, however, the cast of characters, each of whom on Sunday night sported a gold World Cup winner's medal around his neck and a smile that could light up one end of the Ramblas to the other.

Iniesta was only 12 when he left his Fuentealbilla home in Castile-La Mancha to join FC Barcelona in 1996. Others, coming from all parts of Spain but especially Catalonia, were already there or joined soon thereafter.

They included fellow midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who had arrived as an 11-year-old; goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who was 13, and defender Carles Puyol, an old-timer at 17 when Barcelona claimed him.

Three more were to follow, first defender Gerard Pique and midfielder Cesc Fabregas, both 10 years old when they fell under the spell of Barcelona's famed blue and claret colors, and also midfielder Sergio Busquets, who was 17.

They are the Barcelona boys, products of the world's best youth soccer system. All played their part in Spain's triumph Sunday, but it was Iniesta who stole the show.

He spent as much of the night on the ground as on his feet, the constant target of trips, shoves, shoulder charges, hacks, kicks and every other form of punishment from a Dutch team that, for whatever reason, chose to play ugly.

But Iniesta stuck with it and, more important, four minutes from the end of extra time, stuck the ball in the back of the net to give the Spanish their 1-0 victory.

In the bedlam that followed, all of Spain and all of Spain that was in Soccer City went berserk. It's not every day that a country wins the World Cup for the first time, and members of Spain's royal family up in the luxury suites were as beside themselves as fans in the stands.

All the Spanish players were mobbed, but Iniesta was the favorite target of photographers who tracked him across the field and asked him again and again to kiss the medal he wore or to lift the golden World Cup just one more time.

Iniesta, all of 5 feet 7 and as modest as the day is long, was taking part in the postgame news conference when Puyol, Fabregas and Pique burst in on him, beers in hand and chanting, "You're the best, you're the best," in English and Spanish before being ushered out.

Iniesta grinned, but he is, in fact, the best.

There is not another player in the world who can dribble out of tight spaces as well as the man from Castille-La Mancha. His ability to read the game, to provide pinpoint passes, to weave his way past opponents, is phenomenal. Small wonder the Dutch targeted him. Stop Iniesta and you are halfway to stopping Spain.

But the Dutch could not stop him for the full 120 minutes of regulation and extra time. With his strike, Iniesta became only the 19th player in history to score a World Cup-winning goal. "I simply made a contribution to my team," he said.

Afterward, he raced toward the corner flag, pulling up his Spain jersey as he went.

Printed on the white T-shirt beneath were the words: "Dani Jarque: siempre con nosotros" — "Dani Jarque: always with us."

Iniesta and Jarque were teammates on Spain's youth teams for several years. Jarque, who played for Barcelona's other team, Espanyol, collapsed and died at age 26 last year.

"I wanted to carry Dani with me," Iniesta said. "We wanted to pay tribute to him, and we thought it was the best opportunity to do so."

The move was typical of the man.

Andres Iniesta might be the smallest of the boys from Barcelona, but today he is a world champion. In many ways.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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