Spain and Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta makes his UAE football debut

Veteran midfielder appears in second half of Emirates Club's 1-0 loss at Al Wasl

Andres Iniesta started the game on bench as Emirates Club visited Al Wasl. Photo: UAE Pro League
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Andres Iniesta, now aged 39 but still fresh to UAE football, began what was to be his much-anticipated Adnoc Pro League debut on the bench.

The former Barcelona and Spain midfielder, introduced as Emirates Club’s shock signing only 10 days previously, was at first provided a watching brief for his new side’s season opener against Al Wasl at Zabeel Stadium on Saturday.

The most decorated star to grace the Emirati top-flight and all its previous iterations, initially Iniesta sat stationed in the Emirates dugout, sleeveless club training top increasingly damp in the late-evening cloying Dubai weather, his trademark No 8 shirt draped over the back of his chair.

He gulped on water, remained relatively alone in his thoughts, presumably busy picking apart the encounter unspooling in front on him. Most plausibly, Iniesta reckoned he would be introduced before long to snatch back the match in Emirates’ favour.

Newly-promoted, the Ras Al Khaimah side had been largely outplayed, the half-time stats portraying Wasl’s superiority. In terms of possession, a piece of data that probably appeals to Iniesta more than most, Emirates surrendered upwards of 70 per cent in the first half alone.

Wasl had gone close through Salem Al Aziz, the adventurous full-back, striker Nicloas Gimenez, and Fabio De Lima, their lead light, while Haris Seferovic, like Iniesta a recent recruit with time in La Liga in his legs, had a goal ruled out for a barely there offside.

At the start of the second half, defender Alexis Perez headed a corner, somehow, off target. He was completely unmarked. It mattered little, though, for Wasl took the lead just after the hour, De Lima flicking back the ball from a deep cross to allow Ali Saleh to ram home.

Until then, all Emirates had to show for their albeit-commendable endeavour was Ismail Al Hammadi’s push-and-run shot in the 40th minute that arched inches wide.

And so, Iniesta, one of the standout midfielders of his generation and arguably any other, was summoned. He took instructions from manager Mohammed Al Jalboot, washed water across his face, and commenced what is widely expected to form the final stop in his illustrious playing career. To be fair, Iniesta has conceded as much himself.

Clapped onto the pitch by both sets of fans, the 2010 World Cup winner – he ensured his place in Spanish lore by deciding the final - took his place not at the core of the contest, but just behind striker Diogo Costa.

After a few predictably accomplished touches, Iniesta was soon back on the sideline, this time sharing the scheduled “cooling break” with teammates. There, he was handed the captain’s armband, the remit clear. Emirates looked to their luminary, with the track record and all the trinkets, to salvage something from the game.

But Iniesta could not. Emirates never threatened; Wasl never relented. A 1-0 defeat was not how Iniesta or his latest club would have envisaged his league bow, but it remains early days in what many hope will be a memorable contribution to UAE football.

In truth, it already feels as if it has. Iniesta's transfer from Japan's Vissel Kobe has transported Emirates and the Pro League beyond the UAE. Closer to home, in the Zabeel Stadium stands, a fan sporting a Spain national team jersey hugged a sign that read, in his hero’s native tongue: “Iniesta, you are my idol, can I have your shirt?"

Introduced belatedly to the Pro League, but still evidently finding his feet, the initial Iniesta Effect promises more for the campaign ahead, perhaps off the pitch as much as on it.

Updated: August 19, 2023, 5:39 PM