One September night in Belfast in 2006, a young Andres Iniesta sat among the substitutes as sorry Spain were somehow beaten by David Healy’s hat-trick for Northern Ireland.
That night ended not only with an embarrassing setback, but with furious calls for the sacking of national team manager Luis Aragones.
And while it wouldn’t be long before Spain – with Iniesta in a starring role – took home their first trophy in 44 years by beating Germany in the European Championship final in Vienna in the summer of 2008, nobody would have expected it back then.
Less so a few weeks after Belfast when - in a must-win game away at Sweden - Spain did the unthinkable and lost again. That night, only Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez in Spanish colours played their club football for Barcelona.
But over the course of the next few years, the entire paradigm of Spanish football – and world football in general – would change based on what was happening at Camp Nou. At the forefront would be Iniesta and his great friend Xavi.
Northern Ireland was a landmark night - not only in the sense of hitting rock bottom - but also for the fact that it was the last time Raul, the captain, would wear the Spanish shirt.
As the Madrid poster boy, Raul enjoyed total backing among the capital’s press. Aragones’ decision to exclude him was met with fervent and persistent calls for his reinstatement from Raul’s favourite publications.
But Spain were moving on without him even if those on the outside couldn’t accept it and even if it was taking a long time to get results. Aragones was going to rely instead on David Villa for the goals and on something completely different to master games.
A few months on from that loss to Sweden, Spain embarked on a record run of 35 games unbeaten, a sequence that only came to an end at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
Spain had spent decades earning their nickname of la Furia Roja – the Red Fury – and that description best typified how they set about their competition. They were an urgent and often untamed team. Once Aragones’ remodelling of the team was complete they would not need that nickname any longer. There was still an edge; Aragones’ Spain could foul with the best of them but most of the fire was put out in favour of control.
That’s because Spain had something else - something new and different - and the wise old Aragones was clever enough to recognise it.
"It was a traumatic revolution because the team made a complete change of direction, but the players didn't feel it,” Euro 2008 winner Carlos Marchena tells Goal.
“The one who had the vision and was brave for introducing these changes was Luis. He deserves all the credit because us players didn't perceive how things were about to change."
Villa is no giant. Iniesta isn’t either. Xavi was never going to boss games based on his physicality. Marcos Senna became the team’s rock-solid base despite his own slender makeup. David Silva was trusted to work his magic. Santi Cazorla featured too.
What those Spain players lacked in stature and in physical size, they made up for in their seemingly innate ability to circulate the ball.
This was a new Spain; more together, less fractured, and with a manager not embarrassed to lean on developments at Barcelona and adapt them for his own purposes.
The hallmarks of the Barca education in Xavi and Iniesta – as well as Victor Valdes, Puyol, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Pedro Rodriguez - were already well-established. It’s no coincidence that so many of La Masia’s graduates ended up starring for the national team as well. They were asked to play as they were taught and the rest – under Aragones’ tutelage – went with it.
“The Barcelona style influenced Spain in the sense that both teams had the same man directing the game,” said Marchena. “In both teams, the players followed Xavi's diktat on the pitch and that brought a lot of success everywhere.”
And where there was Xavi, there was Iniesta. And where the two were in tandem, success swiftly followed.
It took a while for Iniesta to attain his worldwide fame and his prominence within the game. Moments like Euro 2008 certainly helped him on his way. He was the only Spain player to feature in every game and set up a goal for Xavi in the semi-final against Russia.
While he was not quite ‘bit-part’ at Barcelona, he was certainly not the fundamental part of the machinery he ultimately would become under Guardiola.
He didn’t start the 2006 Champions League final for example and due to his versatility, he had to settle for filling in in the wide forward positions on many occasions. Just before the 2006 World Cup he forced himself into the Spain reckoning while deputising for his injured colleague Xavi in midfield.
And it was in the centre of the field that he would make his name and make history for club and country.
There was Chelsea 2009; that goal propelled Iniesta into the stratosphere. That controversial late goal at Stamford Bridge set Guardiola and Barca on the road to an unprecedented sextuple. For club and country he was becoming a standout not only in his own right but was making everybody else play better too.
While Xavi set the tempo, Iniesta influenced games with his passing ability, his intuitive one-twos or with a through ball or a late run. It took a run of trophies that grand to finally give the reluctant superstar the plaudits he deserved.
There have been four Champions Leagues in total, two Euros, and countless other trophies. Capping it all off was the World Cup in 2010.
It was a difficult tournament for Spain to begin with. They hadn’t been at their best and Iniesta struggled in the early stages with injury. But as Spain picked up steam, so too did the playmaker.
When the final rolled around, it was Iniesta who provoked the late red card for Johnny Heitinga which helped swing the balance in Spain’s favour. And it was Iniesta – four minutes away from a penalty shootout who settled the match.
For such a quiet, unassuming player, it is remarkable to note that the two celebrations he will be forever associated with were shirts-off, over-the-top efforts more associated with peacocks like Cristiano Ronaldo.
First came Chelsea 2009 and then Cape Town 2010. Even then, while sprinting to the corner, he was sharing the moment with others. Dani Jarque, Espanyol’s deceased captain, was remembered by Iniesta in a memorial on his undershirt. It must mean that there was a sense of destiny about Iniesta’s preparations for that game; that Spain were going to win the World Cup and he was going to score. That confidence does not always flow naturally but Spain – and Barca – were in the winning groove.
No longer hopeful, they were expectant. The groundwork laid down by Johan Cruyff all those years ago, by Aragones in the national team and by the king of winning Pep Guardiola took effect. In Iniesta, they had living proof of their methods. Patience, belief, conviction; if all these elements were maintained then the success would naturally follow.
More success and more individual accolades followed at Euro 2012. Spain were so dominant by that stage that much of the world’s press were labelling them boring. Xavi and Iniesta were at the height of their powers, Iniesta carted off the Player of the Tournament award.
In the years since it’s fair to say that performances have not been up to standard. The 2014 World Cup was a washout and one tournament too far for the likes of Iker Casillas and Xavi, not to mention the manager. Fragile confidence appeared to afflict the squad as a whole in Euro 2016. As long as it took Spain to have the courage to win, they have lost that habit almost twice as quickly.
Del Bosque will forever be revered but Julen Lopetegui was chosen as the one to take them forward after the failure in France. Spain look stronger now and perhaps crucially they are not carrying the tags of favourites.
Even as players aged and the ageing process took its effect, Spain were burdened with expectation. That is a consequence of their success. Now maybe they are back to where they were before Euro 2008.
By now most of the 2008 crew have fallen by the wayside but a few remain in place for this tournament. There’s third-choice goalkeeper and cheerleader Pepe Reina, there’s Sergio Ramos and David Silva. And possibly for the last time there’s Iniesta.
He will no doubt go out to impress. His performance in the Copa del Rey final – his last big meaningful game for Barca – brought out the best in him and was perhaps his greatest individual display of the past three years.
He knows time is running out and will want to leave a mark. And he will look around the squad and see guys 10, 12, 14 years his junior. He will see guys who look at him and all he’s seen and done with the same kind of eyes he looked upon Guardiola and Xavi.
They have seen him win the World Cup – the one and only World Cup for Spain – and will dream about following it up. Who knows, it might be Iniesta himself with one last intervention before leaving the scene forever.