BARCELONA (Reuters) - Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta called a news conference on Friday and Spanish media reported he was set to announce he will leave the club at the end of the season to join Chinese Super League outfit Chongqing Dangdai.
Iniesta has spent all of his senior career at Barcelona and is their most decorated player ever along with Lionel Messi, having lifted 31 trophies, which is soon to be 32 if Barca clinch the Liga title on Sunday at Deportivo La Coruna.
The 33-year-old first said he could leave Barca after their 3-0 win over Chelsea in the Champions League on March 14, telling reporters he had to decide whether to accept an offer from China by the end of April.
He was given a standing ovation by both sets of supporters when he was substituted after putting in a virtuoso display and scoring in a 5-0 win over Sevilla in Saturday’s King’s Cup final.
The midfielder is one of the most loved footballers in Spain after he scored the only goal in the 2010 World Cup final when they beat the Netherlands to lift the trophy for the first time.
He is also remembered for his touching tribute to his friend, the late Espanyol player Dani Jarque, after scoring the winning goal, ripping off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt saying “Dani Jarque, always with us.”
He also won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012 and is routinely given a standing ovation at every ground he plays for Barca. He even gets a positive reception when playing at hated rivals Real Madrid.
Born in the village of Fuentealbilla in Albacete province, Iniesta moved to Barcelona’s youth academy in 1996, aged 12.
He later described the day he joined the academy as the worst moment of his life, due to the pain he felt at being apart from his family.
The sacrifice, however, paid off as he became one of the club’s best ever players.
Iniesta has made 669 appearances in all competitions for the club since making his debut aged 18 in a Champions League game at Club Bruges in October, 2002 when Louis van Gaal was Barcelona coach.
He has won four Champions League titles, six King’s Cups and eight La Liga titles in addition to one World Cup and two European Championships with Spain.
He will be part of the Spain team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after which he is set to retire from international football.
The only trophy that escaped Iniesta’s grasp was the Ballon d’Or award, given to the best player in the world each season.
Iniesta was runner-up in 2010 and came third in 2012, although the organisers of the award, the France Football magazine, dedicated an editorial to the midfielder this week, declaring: “Of all the absences on the list of Ballon d’Or winners, his is particularly painful.”
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis