Iniesta shuns limelight before Spain's Euro opener
Andres Iniesta doesn't want any of the limelight during Spain's campaign at the European Championship.
He might not have a say in the matter, however.
Iniesta will lead the defending champions into their Group C opener against Italy at the PGE Arena in Gdansk on Sunday in better playing shape than any of his previous major championship appearances.
But the Barcelona visionary, whose extra-time goal earned Spain its first World Cup in 2010, is quick to dismiss his place in the team hierarchy before his 65th appearance, preferring a hardworking role in a team punctuated with stars.
''I just want to perform my role,'' Iniesta said Saturday. ''I've never considered myself any type of leader.''
Iniesta's leadership qualities will certainly be called upon this month with all-time leading scorer David Villa missing as Spain vies to win a third straight major title. The 28-year-old Iniesta has showed time and again he is a key part of the team's world-class midfield that includes such talents as Xavi Hernandez, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas.
Yet so much of Spain's play hangs on the balance of his boot, as shown in his performance in a 1-0 friendly victory over China on Sunday when his entrance in the second half completely turned the match and led to Silva's late winner.
And there's Spain's most famous goal from the 1-0 final victory over the Netherlands in Johannesburg two years ago.
''I feel good. I feel confident. I feel like its an opportune moment for playing,'' Iniesta said. ''I've always had some kind of problem before the start of a tournament and this time not.''
Iniesta went into the World Cup carrying a leg muscle injury that had left him out of Barcelona's lineup for long stretches. His impact with club and country is nearly unmatchable, with only Spain teammates Iker Casillas and Xavi able to better his tally of Champions League, Spanish league and assorted titles to go with the international honors.
''Every pressure is different. What we feel here has nothing to do with the last event. It's going to be very difficult to win it again, but it's a form of pressure that works for us because it reminds us that there is a challenge ahead,'' Iniesta said. ''We're not thinking about the final or conquering this European title. Focusing on tomorrow is sufficient.''
For Barcelona teammate Victor Valdes, Iniesta can call himself whatever he wants.
''Andres is a player who has never liked the attention that comes with being called a leader, but he is certainly a leader on the field,'' Valdes said. ''His way of playing, his way of being makes him that, it's just that he rejects this aspect of being called a leader by those outside.''
Off the field, Iniesta is active with nonprofit foundations and even bought a piano for his village Fuentealbilla's band ''so they could start playing again.''
Like the rest of his Spain teammates, Iniesta prefers to reject accolades and focus on the collective. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque did the same when asked about Iniesta's importance.
''He's in stupendous shape, really fine. He's playing well like all the players,'' Del Bosque said. ''We're ready and prepared to start the competition tomorrow. All the players have arrived in good shape. Let's see if everything turns out well.''
Paul Logothetis can be reached at: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP