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Season Review: Barcelona

Barcelona
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Barcelona vs. Real Madrid a reminder of Andres Iniesta's impact on El Clasico

Over all the recent seasons in which there have been genuine football reasons to be critical of Florentino Perez, that's all it has been. Merely constructive analysis of a Real Madrid president who has been idling in his ability to understand and adapt while a generation of home-bred talents have made Barcelona soar beyond Los Blancos to win millions of hearts and minds around the world.

But nobody ever said that Florentino doesn't dream big. His football vision, such as it is, is of Alfredo Di Stefano, Michael Laudrup, Hugo Sanchez, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. He looks to the superstar, superman footballer who has emerged and learned his trade elsewhere but who opts to move to the Santiago Bernabeu in order to add flourish and filigree to his bank account, his trophy collection and his professional reputation.

Johan Cruyff was very nearly on that list, of course. In 1973 it was with Real Madrid, already passionately supported by the 26-year-old Florentino, that Ajax agreed a fee to sell the European player of the year. Cruyff rebelled, of course, but he was one of the few that got away over the years. In the buildup to another tense, vital Clasico, I loved that Florentino paid homage to the man, the visionary and the all-time great, rather than play the politics of division, when he flew through to the Camp Nou to officially give tribute to Cruyff's life last week.

It was pure class. And while he was at Barça's stadium, I'm sure he allowed not just a wistful thought about what life might have been like with Cruyff's lifelong influence and teaching at Real Madrid, but a wistful glance towards another one who "got away."

Andres Iniesta was in Barcelona rather than with Spain when "Don Florentino" flew through last week. Barça's magical captain is nursing an injury that made him miss the 2-2 draw at Villarreal and both of La Roja's warm-up friendlies these past few days.

Why the wistfulness from Perez? There are three good reasons.

The first is that while Iniesta's favourite teams were always Albacete (nearest his Fuentealbilla home) and Barcelona, the latter did the former such damage one season that young Iniesta angrily decided to dump Barça and support Real Madrid "with all my strength" instead.

It was April 1991, Albacete were in the top division and Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team" were about a year away from winning the club's first-ever European Cup. Young Iniesta's beloved team went to the Camp Nou and were torn to shreds, losing 7-1. Back at home with his ear pressed against the radio, the 6-year-old was appalled. His adoration for Hristo Stoichkov (who scored a hat trick), Ronald Koeman (who scored a penalty) and Jose Maria Bakero (notched a brace) evaporated.

All his Barcelona paraphernalia was dumped, he told all his friends and neighbours that he was no longer a culé and that he was more "blanco" than milk in a bottle. It was a huff, a youngster's fit of pique, but two years later when his all-time favourite footballer, Michael Laudrup, refused to renew with Barcelona and crossed the country to sign up at the Bernabeu, it was further fuel to the fire of Iniesta's new ardour.

Andres Iniesta has won 14 and drawn eight of his 32 career clashes with Real Madrid.

Unfortunately for Madrid they didn't spot him before the Camp Nou scouts did. Had they done so, he'd have bitten their hands off. He'd also have been living closer to the home he missed so much when he moved to La Masia next to the Camp Nou. Easier for his parents, easier for home visits.

But that opportunity came and went, not that young Iniesta was embarrassed about all this. In his very earliest television interview in the late 1990s, part of a focus on emerging youth talents at La Masia, the little kid from Albacete had absolutely no qualms about grabbing the microphone and admitting "I used to be a full-on Madrid fan." Not the standard behaviour for either an emerging Camp Nou starlet, nor for someone who would go on to be one of Barça's all-time legends.

It was an anecdote he liked to play down for a long time but having won his first treble under Pep Guardiola in 2009, he went on a Catalan chat show and came clean. "Barcelona did that to my Albacete so although Barça had been my second team ... something had to change!"

"What can I say? Sometimes kids don't know what they're doing!" he concluded, smiling.

At that point, the talk show host stages a telephone call to his desk in the midst of this live interview and pretends it's Florentino Perez calling. "Hang up!" Iniesta jokes. "I'm now as culé as it's possible to be...!"

Real Madrid president Perez tried on several occasions to lure Iniesta from Barcelona but never succeeded.

It was all good clean fun, but Florentino's wistfulness wouldn't need to stop there. Urban legends spread and the multimillionaire business tycoon soon heard the "word" that Iniesta, tormenting Madrid ever since his Clasico debut, a 3-0 win in 2004, was a closet fan of Los Blancos.

In Florentino's mind, this was the ultimate coup. Di Stefano had briefly played for Barcelona before becoming Madrid's greatest star. Luis Figo had caused brutal shock when he jumped ship in summer 2000 as part of Florentino's first month in office: the beginning of his Zidanes and Pavones "Galactico" era. But to snatch a homegrown La Masia player who looked like being a footballer of epic talent? That would be the cherry on the icing for Madrid's president.

I'm quite sure that no football rules were broken, but there are ways and means. Both Barcelona and Iniesta's family were well aware that Florentino Perez wanted to buy him and offer him vast wages to test the level of Iniesta's reputed Madrid sentiments. Every time, from the player's entourage at least, the answer was a resounding no. It became something of an obsession for the Madrid overlord: the kind of "no" that rich, powerful, successful men are not used to hearing. A stone in his shoe.

Something to be wistful about now, at least, because it's never going to happen. That said, I'm quite sure the third level of "if only" sentiment that must have occupied Florentino's mind as he stood solemnly with his opposite numbers at Barcelona last week ready to show respect to the departed Dutchman would be the impact Iniesta has regularly made on the Clasico; the latest of those epic, explosive, attractive and world-famous battles takes place this Saturday.

Despite struggling to be fully fit, expect Iniesta to play a major part in Saturday's latest Clasico.

Whenever he was asked, Iker Casillas always used to say that the opposition player he'd most like to remove from any Clasico, any time in his long career, was Xavi. But I'll wager that some around Iker, Florentino included, would feel identically about Iniesta.

Since making that debut against Madrid nearly 12 years ago, the man Xavi believes to be Spain's greatest ever talent has lost fewer than one in three of the all the Clasicos he has played. That's 14 wins and eight draws in 32 tussles with Los Blancos for whom, quite conceivably, he might have been playing.

It took "Andresito" nine years of Clasico clashes to be booked, five years to win at the Bernabeu and 16 of these footballing wars before he scored. But he has never been sent off in one, his first win at the Bernabeu was that epic 6-2 victory, every time he scores against Madrid it ends up being a win and his last two goals have come when Barcelona have not only been victorious at Los Blancos' home, but they've scored four each time.

Now he faces his first Camp Nou Clasico as Barcelona's club captain. He has spent the past fortnight getting in character. Getting fit, getting mentally ready ... effectively challenging himself to see whether Barcelona's all-time most implacable rival can be put to bed in La Liga.

But win, lose or draw, you'll see a wistful look in the eyes of the Real Madrid president when the camera catches him, perched in the front row of the VIP box, at the Camp Nou this Saturday night.

Can you really blame him?

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.

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