In Barca's big win, Iniesta wins over Madrid smarting fans
ABS-CBN Sports on Nov 23, 2015 10:15 AM
Barcelona's Andres Iniesta fights for the ball with Real Madrid's Luka Modric during the first clasico of the season between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Andres Iniesta has won it all with Barcelona, even the applause of its fiercest rival's fans.
When Iniesta was substituted following his masterful performance on Saturday, many of Real Madrid's stung fans set aside team allegiance by standing up and clapping as he strolled to the dugout.
Guiding Barcelona to a 4-0 win at Madrid's ground is a feat in itself, but Iniesta entered the annals of one of football's most heated rivalries thanks to the respectful ovation at the Santiago Bernabeu.
It was the rarest of honors reserved for very few, and Iniesta stayed true to his reserved demeanor when showing his thanks for the gesture.
"I appreciate what the fans did, nothing more," Iniesta said.
Iniesta remembers the last time Madrid's supporters were forced to give up hope of victory and admit defeat by paying homage to a superior rival.
Ten years ago, a young Iniesta came on as a substitute before Madrid's fans took to their feet to applaud Barcelona's Ronaldinho after the Brazilian star scored the second of two stunning goals in a 3-0 win.
"The spectators liked what they saw despite the fact that their team was suffering," Iniesta said when asked bout Ronaldinho's performance last week.
On Saturday, it was Iniesta's turn to win over Madrid's smarting supporters when he strolled toward the bench in the 77th minute.
Iniesta had long since secured his place as one of Barcelona's most popular players after helping the Catalan club win four Champions League titles and seven Spanish league crowns since his debut at age 18.
He is also one of the most beloved players in the football-crazed country for his leading role with the national team. He received applause from opposing fans across Spain for his winning goal in 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands.
Now he has left his mark on the match that matters most to Barcelona's most fervent fans: the "clasico."
"Iniesta forms part of humanity's heritage, not just for Barcelona's fans," said Barcelona coach Luis Enrique. "I understand the applause. He is a one-of-a-kind player. He has magic, he has eyes in the back of his head."
Iniesta started the match by putting on the captain's armband for the first time against Madrid, and the 31-year-old midfielder saved his best showing for his 32nd "clasico."
Always in control, always at ease, Iniesta orchestrated Barcelona's win by setting up Neymar to add to Luis Suarez's opening goal for a 2-0 lead in the 39th that left Madrid rattled.
He then ended a scoring drought in the league that stretched back to March 2014, when Barcelona won 4-3 at Madrid, by adding the third goal by blasting a powerful strike beyond goalkeeper Keylor Navas after he was deftly assisted by Neymar in the 53rd.
The applause that rained down when he came off four minutes after Suarez had completed the demolition were a prelude for the abuse the angry home fans displayed for coach Rafa Benitez and club president Florentino Perez after the final whistle.
Perez surely also recalls when Madrid praised Ronaldinho in 2005. Three months later he resigned with his team in freefall. He returned to the presidency in 2009.
With Iniesta as the team's veteran leader in place of the departed Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona has taken a big step to retaining its Spanish league title by building a six-point advantage over Madrid.
"There is a long way to go, but we are leaving Madrid very satisfied," Iniesta said.