Iniesta to leave Barcelona at end of season, what it means

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The Andres Iniesta era at Barcelona is set to come to an end.

The midfield maestro and club captain announced Friday morning that he will leave Barcelona at the end of the season. It ends a run of 22 years with the club, first as a youth player after he joined from Albacete and then the last 16 years in the first team, where he grew to be arguably the best midfielder in the world during his prime.

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The soon-to-be 34-year-old has played a smaller role for Barcelona this season, being subbed off 19 times in 21 starts as his age has started to show. It’s been sad to see a decline of a career that’s delivered delight and great memories to Barcelona fans, Spain National Team fans, and overall just fans of free-flowing soccer and the beautiful game.

Iniesta has been rumored to be considering a contract offer from either a club in China or one in either Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Iniesta’s former midfield partner Xavi played for Al-Sadd in Qatar after leaving Barcelona, while Javier Mascherano left the Blaugrana in January for China.

It’s the continuation of the end of an era for Barcelona, where during Pep Guardiola‘s reign (2008-2012), the club were by far the best in the world, winning the UEFA Champions League twice, three La Liga titles, and two FIFA Club World Cup crowns.

If Lionel Messi was the ruthless goalscorer and creative magician and Gerard Pique was the defensive destroyer, Andres Iniesta was the heartbeat of the club during its magical last 12-14 years. Iniesta leaves Barcelona with as one of the club’s most decorated players, with 31 separate titles (and room for 32 with Barcelona’s expected La Liga title this year, where he’ll loft the trophy at the Camp Nou one last time as captain).

He’s won the UEFA Champions League four times, La Liga nine times (including this year), and six Copas del Rey. And that’s just for Barcelona.

Without him, Spain doesn’t win the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, and of course the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where Iniesta’s goal was the difference in a 1-0 win over the Netherlands.

Playing in his favorite left side of midfield, Iniesta was always able to pull a rabbit out of his magician’s hat. His quick footwork always gave him a yard of space, and his precision passing, even just from side-to-side, kept defenders always moving, as he probed for an opening to play Messi or the rotating cast of world class forwards the club has had.

Wherever he goes next, Iniesta will always be remembered in Barcelona as a legend, and he’s leaving before it’s clear that he can’t play at the highest level.

Perhaps he’ll reunite with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City for one or two more years in the UEFA Champions League? Or maybe he’ll ride off into the sunset, pick up one last mega contract and enjoy the twilight of his career.