Spanish FIFA World Youth Championship star Andrés Iniesta is coming of age at FC Barcelona.
By Andy Hall
A star of the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship, Andrés Iniesta is now doing battle with senior internationals for a place in the FC Barcelona first team.
On the rise
As Frank Rijkaard's side have made a late surge up the Primera División table, playmaker Iniesta has come into his own. The captain of Spain's Under-20 side in the United Arab Emirates, he is regarded as Ronaldinho's natural understudy at Camp Nou.
Competition for places
And as he told uefa.com, he is relishing playing at a higher level: "It is difficult to get a look-in with the first team, because Barça have a big squad and there is a lot of competition, but you always have to be 100 per cent in case an opportunity arises."
Certainly, there were no complaints about Iniesta's contribution when he scored three goals to take Spain to the World Youth Championship final. That campaign ended in a 1-0 defeat by Brazil, but it was still a valuable experience for the 20-year-old.
'Nobody likes losing'
"Nobody likes losing but we had a good tournament and I'm happy we reached the final," he said. "That was important for us because we were against other countries who fielded very strong sides and I think that overall, Spain's display was very good."
Iniesta's rise to stardom began as a 12-year-old, when he was spotted by Barcelona while playing for Albacete Balompié. He soon signed for the Catalan club and completed his footballing education at their La Masia academy - a major step for a youngster.
"It was difficult to leave my family and start playing at Barça," he recalled. "It was tough at first, being just 12 years old and training in La Masia while my family was back in Albacete but up until now, it has been worth it."
Having captained Barça's 'B' team, Iniesta made his senior debut in a UEFA Champions League tie against Club Brugge KV in October 2002. His league bow came in a 4-0 win at RCD Mallorca the following December, but it was Rijkaard's arrival as coach that prompted his breakthrough.
The Dutchman is an advocate of blending youth and experience, giving the likes of Iniesta, Víctor Valdés and Sergio Rodríguez García the chance to impress. Iniesta said: "It's more or less what the club is trying to do - priming the young players so that we will be ready for when we are needed by the first team."
If the good form of another homegrown talent, Xavi Hernández, is one obstacle in his path, Iniesta is at least profiting from his role as Ronaldinho's deputy. He admits that he has learned a lot from working alongside the Brazilian.
'A great honour'
"For a young player like me, being able to play and train with someone like Ronaldinho is a great honour," he said. "He is the kind of player you can learn a lot from, not just me but the whole squad. He has extraordinary qualities - just watching him with the ball at his feet is unbelievable." Having learned from the masters, Iniesta now has the chance of becoming a player in his own right at Camp Nou.