Things looked grim for Real Madrid as they entered the final 20 minutes of their away league tie against Getafe last Saturday. The two teams were locked at 1-1. Real Madrid couldn't shake their determined, well-organised city neighbours. Heading into the weekend's fixtures, last season's La Liga winners were already trailing league leaders Barcelona by seven points. The last thing they needed was to drop another two points to lowly Getafe.
Enter Isco. With 72 minutes on the clock, Real Madrid's team manager Zinedine Zidane threw on the Andalusian playmaker, one of a quintet of first-choice players he'd rested in anticipation of Tuesday night's Champions League game against Tottenham Hotspur. With only five minutes of regular time left on the clock, Isco gathered possession close to the centre circle. He took one touch to control the ball before clipping it 30 yards over Getafe's defence into the path of an onrushing Cristiano Ronaldo.
The pass into Getafe's box was precise, but what marked it out was its backspin, which allowed the long, lofted pass to sit up invitingly once it hit the turf for Ronaldo, who—after missing a sitter three yards from goal shortly beforehand—flashed it into the opposite corner of the net. It was a moment of genius from Isco.
He's been doling them out regularly in 2017. Recent gems from his highlights reel include an extraordinary, long, over-the-shoulder assist for Gareth Bale in a league game against Real Sociedad last month and one of the most audacious nutmegs in memory against Italy in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier, also last month at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The joie de vivre he's playing with is symptomatic of his warm Andalusian personality. Elias Zajdner is president of Atletico Benamiel, Isco's hometown club, whose stadium is named after Isco. "I don't know him that well," he said, "but I hear he's a very pleasant guy, a very good companion. He gets on well with his team-mates. He has a very open personality, which is reflected in the way he plays—it's very dynamic, very offensive, with exquisite ball control. All of that goes with his personality."
The nonchalant nutmeg against Italy, for example, was textbook Isco—the way he managed to screw the ball through Marco Verratti's legs, bending the ball to his will with his studs like the claws on a cat's paw. There's an elasticity to Isco's legs that is uncanny. His lower body is a rare shape for a top-class footballer. It's one of the things that Eleonora Giovio, a football writer with El Pais, noticed about him when he was playing early on in his career for Malaga.
"He had these bandy legs and a form of walking that was very peculiar, very unusual for a guy who had a centre of gravity so low to the ground," Giovio said. At Malaga, he picked up the nickname "El Culon," per El Pais (in Spanish), which translates as "The Big Arse," because of his large rear, a physical feature that seems to be more pronounced as a result of his waddling gait.
Isco, aged 25, was born in Benalmadena, which is a seaside satellite town outside Malaga on the Costa del Sol. Charlie l'Anson, Granada's English central defender, was a team-mate on his local underage team, Atletico Benamiel, per the BBC. Isco was snapped up from Atletico Benamiel by Valencia in 2006. There had been a few clubs assessing his potential, but he chose to leave home for Valencia.
"The truth is that I remember the most interested club was Valencia," Zajdner said. "Espanyol in Barcelona and Malaga, too, were interested. I think if Malaga insisted a little bit more and talked with his father maybe he would have stayed here in Malaga, but obviously, Valencia as an entity was more important in those years, so he decided to go to Valencia."
Zajdner said he wasn't surprised that Isco chose to move 600 kilometres away to join Valencia, who had recently won two league titles in 2002 and 2004. He feels their keenness to sign Isco was the deciding factor: "I think you should go with the team that calls you to the door, the one that is most interested in you. The other teams didn't really push for him."
Isco could never nail down a starting place with Valencia once he graduated from the ranks of the club's youth academy. He didn't convince their coach at the time, Unai Emery, who only handed him four appearances in the 2010-2011 season. Malaga, however, saw something in their prodigal son and splashed out €6 million on his buyout clause in the summer of 2011, per Marca (in Spanish). After an electric run in the 2012-2013 Champions League, narrowly missing out on a semi-final berth, Malaga cashed in when Real Madrid agreed to buy him for a fee of €30 million, per Marca.
Again, however, Isco's career stalled. He found it hard to establish a starting place at the Bernabeu. He didn't fit the club's 4-3-3 system. While in midfield in his first season—where competition for places was fierce—Angel Di Maria kept him out of the team. Real Madrid's managers came and went, including Carlo Ancelotti, who made Isco his first signing, and Rafa Benitez. Even Zidane, who took over in January 2016, didn't initially put his faith in him.
"There was a period at Real Madrid where he wasn't getting a look in," Phil Kitromilides, who works as a presenter for Real Madrid TV, said. "I don't think he was in the best physical shape either. Given his body shape, he has a tendency—if not to put on weight—not to be in the best physical shape he can be. [His Real Madrid managers] didn't have confidence in his fitness and his work ethic."
Critics were queuing up to have a pop at him. In February 2016, Ivan Helguera, who played over 200 times for Real Madrid during the Galactico era, said in an interview with El Pais (in Spanish) that Isco was all surface and no substance: "Isco doesn't make assists. He doesn't score goals. He's not good in the air. He doesn't win the ball back. He doesn't convince me. He could give much more, but the Bernabeu applauds him for doing a 'croqueta.' What do his moves end up as?"
Around this time, Barcelona were sniffing around. The club made contact with him. They identified him as a long-term successor for Andres Iniesta. They thought they might be pushing an open door. He wasn't a starter with Real Madrid and he had some affection for Barcelona's star player—Isco's Labrador dog is named "Messi."
According to a radio interview with El Pais journalist Diego Torres on Rac1 (in Spanish), Barcelona offered Isco a €20 million signing-on bonus to cross the great Spanish divide, which Isco turned down. "There was some contact, but I never listened to them," Isco said last month in an interview with Marca (in Spanish).
His fortunes at Real Madrid transformed in 2017. “He has improved a lot,” Giovio said. “Before he didn't enthuse me. He gave me the sensation that sometimes he made the play of the team slower. I believe he has learned to circulate the ball faster. He doesn't hold onto the ball as much. Above all, he's playing very ‘vertical' football, so when Real Madrid have matches that are stuck, he always find a solution, a gap.”
Giovio is adamant it wasn't luck or Gareth Bale's injury problems last season that provided an opening for Isco. He was able to establish a regular place in his preferred position, as a No. 10, or "enganche," as they call it in Argentina—in the hole behind two strikers, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo. Zidane abandoned Real Madrid's more rigid 4-3-3 system, which had been conceived to cater for the team's attacking talents, the vaunted BBC—Bale, Benzema and Cristiano.
Isco has thrived with the consistent run of games and kept Bale out of the starting XI for Real Madrid's triumphant 2017 Champions League final.
"Even if Bale was fit this year," Giovio said, “he ran out of credit and Zidane is not stupid—if he sees there are players with an unstoppable progression, they have to play. If Bale was OK, who knows how things would go, but I think Isco won his place."
Isco has secured a firm place in the hearts of Spain national team supporters. He is the brightest star among the country's latest generation of footballing talents, who include Koke, Thiago, Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata. There's something undeniably magical about him.
"The fact that he's nicknamed 'Magia' in the Real Madrid dressing room," Kitromilides said. "How good do you have to be for the Real Madrid dressing room to nickname you 'Magic,' the magic kid? You've got to be unbelievable. It gives you an idea of the skill that he has."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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