Andres Iniesta: The Best Player in Europe

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There's a great picture doing the rounds in the wake of the UEFA Best Player in Europe presentation.

As Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta collects his award, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - the odds-on favourites - share a sheepish glance.

For Ronaldo, it's another case of the Barca bias, while Messi's trophy cabinet is already creaking under the weight of silver - I'll let you have this one, Andres.

Nobody denies Messi and Ronaldo are the world's two best players. Even the most mathematically challenged can recognise that the achievements of these two superstars on the pitch verges on the superhuman.

With 64 domestic goals apiece, the individual seasons inked into the record books by the Barca-Madrid duo are truly extraordinary personal achievements.

But they are, primarily, individual accomplishments. In a team sport, the true representation of a successful year is measured not in goals, but in trophies.

And Andres Iniesta has won them all, as the key player in the world's best international side, and a integral cog to one of the best club side's the world has ever seen.

His performances with Spain this year were sensational - he travelled to the tournament as his country's most in-form player, and the hopes of a 2008 repeat rested largely on his sleight shoulders.

With David Villa out injured, and Fernando Torres suffering from an acute confidence crisis, the Spain of Euro 2012 was a completely different side from the 2010 version.

But it worked, and it worked because Iniesta was sublime. The Spaniard was named the Best Player at the Tournament as the Iberians completed an unprecedented treble of international trophies.

Throughout the competition their number eight was imperious, a constant source of creativity for a side lacking the pointed certainty of an out-and-out striker.

In Vicente Del Bosque's tactical experiment, David Silva occupied the central role, but much of the cut and thrust, the majority of the decisive incisions, came from the soft feet of Iniesta.

He tip-toed his way through the tournament, quietly going about his business on the way to personal and collective glory. He was not looking for accolades, and as Spain stuttered through the groups they looked unlikely, but they found him regardless.

As Ronaldo and Messi have discovered, success at international level is far harder to achieve than scoring goals past Granada and Osasuna. The bi-annual nature of competition heightens the focus, and expectation, on key matches, and the irregularity, and inconsistency, of squad selection makes the rhythms of club football far harder to replicate.

Ronaldo may have enjoyed a successful domestic season, with Real Madrid winning La Liga for the first time since 2008, but in a season of international and club competition, the outstanding player makes the strongest case to win the Best Player award.

Euro 2012 was not a failure for Madrid's superstar, but the manner of Portugal's exit ensured it was not a success. The tournament encapsulated Ronaldo in a few short weeks, frustratingly petulant as Danes taunted him one week, and startingly brilliant the next.

No such mood swings for Messi, but the Argentinian did not compete in international competition this season. During a season in which Iniesta did, and so successfully, Messi's claim as the Best Player - across the year - looked under threat, especially as his goals only delivered a Copa Del Rey.

But Messi's brilliance has already been secured - he's a three-time Ballon d'Or winner after all. His future success will defined not by the number of Best Player in Europe awards he racks up, but by the number of Ballon d'Or's, or, even better, the number of World Cups.

Iniesta, so often second to Messi, or third to Ronaldo, when it comes to these sorts of presentations, put together a season of such consistent brilliance that this year's trophy was always going to be a legitimate three-horse race.

Still, it came as something of a surprise that, with the Messi versus Ronaldo debate seemingly all-consuming, the voters were able to look beyond this narrow focus.

When it came down to it, Iniesta triumphed by just two votes, receiving 19 to Messi and Ronaldo's 17. The panel of journalists, one each from UEFA's member national associations, rewarding the Spaniard for his displays on the continent's biggest stage in Ukraine and Poland.

Don't discount the fact that, in a year of European international competition, the award was always more likely than usual to go towards that tournament's most outstanding competitor.

Barca teammate Messi was quick to congratulate his colleague, and Iniesta paid tribute to the contributions of his Nou Camp ensemble.

"I'm very happy to receive such recognition," said the Barca number eight. "As I always say, such awards for one individual can't be achieved without the whole team."

For Iniesta, that team was both Spain and Barcelona, but the award was won through his work with those he shares a passport.

A sensational tournament caps a glittering four years for his country. Spain have dominated football, and Iniesta has dominated his opponents, from 2008 to 2012.

Thursday's vote was recognition of Iniesta's brilliant place in this era of European football history. 2012 - quite possibly the apex of Spain's footballing hegemony - is the perfect year to salute the country's most vital player.

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