Andres Iniesta was in tears as he announced he was leaving Barcelona after 22 years. He also confirmed he would not be moving to any other club in Europe.
Iniesta has spent all of his senior career at Barcelona and is their most decorated player ever along with Lionel Messi, having lifted 31 trophies. They will both move to 32 if Barca clinch the Liga title on Sunday at Deportivo La Coruna.
The 33-year-old first said he could leave Barca after their 3-0 win over Chelsea in the Champions League on March 14, telling reporters he had to decide whether to accept an offer from China by the end of April.
He was given a standing ovation by both sets of supporters when he was substituted after putting in a virtuoso display and scoring in a 5-0 win over Sevilla in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final.
The midfielder is one of the most loved footballers in Spain after he scored the only goal in the 2010 World Cup final when they beat Holland to lift the trophy for the first time.
He is also remembered for his touching tribute to his friend, the late Espanyol player Dani Jarque, after scoring the winning goal, ripping off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt saying ‘Dani Jarque, always with us.’
He also won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012 and is routinely given a standing ovation at every ground he plays for Barca. He even gets a positive reception when playing at hated rivals Real Madrid.
Born in the village of Fuentealbilla in Albacete province, Iniesta moved to Barcelona’s youth academy in 1996, aged 12.
Iniesta has made 669 appearances in all competitions for the club since making his debut aged 18 in a Champions League game at Club Bruges in October, 2002 when Louis van Gaal was Barcelona coach.
He has won four Champions League titles, six Copa del Rey trophies and eight La Liga titles in addition to one World Cup and two European Championships with Spain.
He will be part of the Spain team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after which he is set to retire from international football.
‘We arrived 25 years ago in our family car,’ he said of his trip to Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy with his parents and grandparents for a trial at the club.
‘Now they are here with me as I say goodbye. That journey was emotional but it was also terrible because then I ended up here on my own and I was only 12 years old! But evidently it was worth it.’
There were tears as he thanked his team-mates who packed the press room to watch him say goodbye. There was no confirmation of his move to China at the end of the season but he did confirm that he would not be opting for a Premier League swansong despite interest from Manchester City and his former manager Pep Guardiola.
‘All the options that are not in Europe are possible. But in Europe, no, because I have always said that I will not play against Barcelona.’
Iniesta was asked about France Football’s recent admission that they probably owed him a Ballon d’Or. He made it clear the ball on the pitch was all that mattered to him.
He said: ‘There was no apology necessary. Everyone likes personal prizes but it was never that important for me.
‘I learned, when I first arrived here, that there is a ball and it is very important to take care of it.’
Asked about Barcelona’s future without him, he said he believed they could continue winning. Pointing to the players who had gathered to watch his goodbye announcement, he said:
‘It’s not easy for the club to lose players and it is not easy for the players to leave but I have no doubt that with Sergio [Busquets] and Jordi [Alba] and Ivan [Rakitic] we will go on winning.’
Asked if the decision was difficult, he said:
‘After 25 years here I know what it’s like what this club means. It is the best club in the world.
‘I know that it means to play here season after season and I know the responsibility that goes with playing season after season.
‘I have been honest with the club that has given me everything. I understand that my time has come to and end. This club deserves the best of me.
‘I’ve been here all my life so it’s very difficult to do this. But it’s the natural process. It was getting harder every season to stay on top.’