Barcelona's Andres Iniesta confirms plan to leave club after 22 years
BARCELONA -- Andres Iniesta has confirmed his plans to leave Barcelona at the end of the season after 22 years with the club, though the midfielder said he will not be joining another European club.
Iniesta, who turns 34 in May, called a news conference on Friday to announce his decision, with Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu, coach Ernesto Valverde and teammates all present.
Supporters have chanted for Iniesta to stay in recent weeks but he explained that he wants to walk away while he's still at the top of his game, making it clear that he doesn't want to become a hindrance on the club he joined as 12-year-old in 1996.
"This press conference is to communicate that this will be my last season at Barcelona," the midfielder, who only signed a lifetime contract with the club earlier this season, announced at the club's Ciutat Esportiva as he fought back tears.
"After 22 years here, I know what it means to be a player for the best team in the world. I know the responsibility I have as the captain and the responsibility [I have] to be honest with myself and the club by bringing my time at the club to an end this season.
"If I'd imagined how my career would end here, this is it. I leave feeling useful, feeling important, starting games and winning titles. It's a very difficult day for me. I've spent my whole life here. It wasn't easy to reach this decision.
"To say goodbye to what has become my home is complicated. But this is life. It's increasingly more difficult [to maintain the same level]. I wouldn't forgive myself for putting myself and the club in an uncomfortable situation. I don't deserve that, and the club don't deserve it, either.
"I don't want to cheat myself or anybody else. I would not feel good not being able to give my best for this club. I know what I'm capable of, and I know that from now on, because of nature, and the law of life, I would struggle to keep giving as much."
Iniesta has been heavily linked with a move to the Chinese Super League with Chongqing Lifan. But when asked about his next move, he replied: "The season has still not finished... There are still things to be sorted, to be talked about.
"I have said I will never play against Barca, so I won't play in Europe. All options outside of Europe could be possible. [My next move] will be finalised when the season ends."
Iniesta will end his 22-year-old association with the club after winning eight La Liga titles -- with a ninth likely to follow imminently -- six Copa del Reys and four Champions Leagues as an integral part of the club's most successful era.
For many years, he formed a domineering midfield partnership for Barcelona and Spain with Xavi Hernandez and the pair were among the three finalists for the 2010 Ballon d'Or, which was won by teammate Lionel Messi.
France Football apologised earlier this week for never awarding Iniesta the Ballon d'Or, but he says individual glory was never what he aspired to.
"It is not something which I am bothered about," he said. "To be there on the podium, with Xavi and Messi, was magical. But my happiness doesn't depend on the Ballon d'Or. What stays with me is the respect and love everyone has given me throughout my career and being happy on the pitch. I prefer that."
Saying goodbye has become a familiar feeling at Barca, with Iniesta joining a list of players which includes Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano to leave the club in recent years.
However, Iniesta knocked back the suggestion his departure could finally signal the end of an incredible era of success on the Catalan coast: "I have no doubts that the club can keep going at the same level and winning things in the future.
"Look at the players still here, [Lionel] Messi, [Sergio] Busquets, [Gerard] Pique, Jordi [Alba] and more. There is plenty in place [to] continue the legacy. They will keep winning."
Messi and Luis Suarez were his only teammates not present to receive Iniesta's thanks on Friday. The club said they had personal commitments they could not break.
And while he's trying not to look too far into the future, he admitted he would like to return to the club in a non-playing capacity one day.
"It's too soon to talk about [coming back]," he said. "It's an emotional day. I've spent months thinking about this moment and the main thing now is to finish this season. We're one step away from winning the league, which would complete the double, Then there's the World Cup [with Spain].
"I hope one day I can come back to the club, though, to keep on enjoying myself and to give back everything I have learned here."
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.