Illustration by Federico Manasse
The headlines the morning after seemed hyperbolic, but those that witnessed it knew there was no exaggeration. “What a bully!” read Marca’s front page. “Sensational”, effused Mundo Deportivo. “Dynamite”, claimed the excitable AS.
All were describing the performance of Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez – more commonly known as Isco – against Italy, a display of masterful skill, of magisterial brilliance. Spain won 3-0, and Isco scored twice. But he did more than just score. It felt like his arrival, his emergence as the world-class player he’d been threatening to become.
Those that had been closely watching Isco prior to the World Cup qualifier were perhaps not taken aback, though this was certainly the zenith of his still nascent career. There was something about the way he moved against the Azzurri, a player at peak confidence, willing to attempt the spectacular, clearly certain that he could pull it off.
And even those outside Spain took notice. Argentine daily Olé ran the headline: “Spain prays to Pope FrancIsco.” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura, meanwhile, said: “All I can think about is that nutmeg he pulled off in midfield. When I saw it, all I could do was applaud. He’s a rival, he’s on the opposing team, but I am just as much a lover of the beautiful things in this game as anyone.”
But Isco has not always been at the centre of lavish, widespread praise. For much of his Real Madrid career he had been on the periphery, talented but frustrating. That has changed in recent months; at 25 he has found his place at Los Blancos, but for a long time it seemed he never would. It has taken hard-work, adjustment and perseverance, and even now there is still work to do. But Isco has placed himself in the position to achieve big things, both individually and collectively.
As a child, he went everywhere with a ball. The neighbours in Benalmádena, the south coast town where Isco grew up, rarely saw him without one. “What I want is the ball,” he said in an interview with El País years later. It’s all he’d ever wanted.
And when he had one at his feet, it was clear he could do special things. Isco played on the gravel pitches at Atlético Benamiel with his brother and his friends, and when they weren’t there he played anyway, on his own.
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On the pitch, walking to and from school, a ball was constantly at the feet of this single-minded youngster. At all youth levels, he was watched by numerous scouts of reputable clubs. But there was an idiosyncrasy in Isco’s game that made many reluctant, despite his visible potential, to give him an opportunity: his running style.
Isco had always “run funny”, in his own words. There were concerns that his bandy-legged, unconventional movements might restrict him, hold back his undoubted technical ability. “It’s not as though he waddles,” said journalist Graham Hunter, “but his backside’s stuck out, a little bit inelegant. If you saw him trotting around, you wouldn’t think there’s a €700 million athlete.”
“Odd,” Isco admitted. Still, it seemed unwise to completely disregard such a talented young player simply because of the aesthetics of his gait. Thankfully, not everyone did. In 2006, Valencia came calling for the 14-year-old, prising him away from hometown club Benamiel.
He stayed there for seven years, working his way through the youth ranks at Los Che. In 2010 came his full debut, aged 19, called into the Copa del Rey squad by coach Unai Emery. What followed brought Isco to the forefront of attention. The teenager scored twice, the second a meandering run past a host of opposition defenders, as Valencia beat Leganés 4-1.
For Valencia B, Isco had excelled, leading his side to the Tercera title in the same year of his impressive debut. But Emery was not convinced. A year later, he had been given few opportunities, and there were question marks over his temperament; perhaps he would not be able to cope with the demands of first-team football at Valencia.
It would later prove to be a mistake, but at the Mestalla he was considered dispensable. He had shown glimpses, though not enough to live up to the hype that had followed his scintillating display against Leganés.
So he was shipped out to Málaga, where he would attempt to prove his former club wrong. First, though, he would have to win over his own supporters. There were doubts over Isco, a €6 million signing, unproven and inexperienced, a 19-year-old kid with a peculiar manner of running and only a handful of appearances to his name.
Málaga’s sporting director, Antonio Fernández, however, was insistent that this was a player with a unique aptitude for the game. “I don’t care how someone walks down the road,” he said. “I don’t care what he looks like when he’s out with the dog; I care how he plays. He was a good kid with spectacular talent. I knew that with patience it would work.”
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And it did work. In two seasons at La Rosaleda, his value surged from €6 million to €30 million, and there were plenty of clubs willing to pay it. Manuel Pellegrini’s side played with a style that suited Isco. He was named UEFA’s Golden Boy in 2012 and caught the eye in a team seconds away from reaching an unexpected Champions League semi-final.
Pellegrini made no secret that he wanted Isco at Manchester City following his impact that season, but they were not the only club interested. Florentino Pérez at Real Madrid was aware that the continuous acquisition of Galácticos was not always the most sustainable, or even the most marketable option. He wanted more Spaniards, to ensure that the cultural and national identity of Los Blancos was not lost.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti was not at the forefront of the decision to bring in Isco. Instead, and somewhat fittingly, it was Zinedine Zidane, then in a role as an advisor to the president, that instigated the transfer. Pérez had doubts that Isco could fit into a team full of reputable, established attacking players, but Zidane stamped his authority. His role was to advise, and his advice was to sign Isco.
So they did, in 2013, beating Pellegrini’s City to the transfer. “Madrid is Madrid,” said Isco; there was little choice to be made in his eyes. Madrid was Madrid, but wisely, since his move to the Spanish capital, he has never publicly spoken of the name of his dog, Messi. “I called him that because Leo Messi is the best in the world and so is my dog,” he said, thankfully prior to joining up with Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabéu.
Even in his early days at the club, Isco was compared to Zidane, but the comparisons never felt like they were truly earned, like they were more than a tenuous link. The ethereal movements were there, a unique sort of elegance and subtlety. Consistency, however, was the main issue.
He was not short of game-time in his first season under Ancelotti. Finding a position for this diminutive, stocky midfielder-cum-attacker proved difficult, though. Was he an 8, a 10, a winger or even a false 9? Ancelotti compromised by playing him everywhere, but there was a feeling that he was being crowbarred into the system – then a settled 4-3-3 – and that the player simply did not suit the system.
He was not helped by ‘BBC’, the expensively assembled front three of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Ronaldo. Given that there appeared no natural place in the side for Isco, he quickly realised it would take an extra level of commitment just to be considered for a starting berth. “I’m not stupid,” he said. “If I’m not starting, it’s my fault.”
He understood that to get into the position where his technical prowess could begin to shine through, he would have to track back, to tackle, harry and harass. So that’s what he did, and it soon became a new element to his game, one that had been previously lacking. “Now I feel sick after every game,” he later revealed.
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Still, there remained an unavoidable feeling that Isco was being shoehorned into Ancelotti’s side. The Italian coach had stressed that his renewed work-ethic made him a “non-negotiable” part of the squad, and the tutelage of assistant Fernando Hierro had helped him find some consistency, but moments of brilliance remained sporadic.
It’s not that he was poor, nor that he was not given enough opportunities; perhaps underwhelming was the word to describe Isco two years into his Real Madrid career. And when Ancelotti left to be replaced by Rafa Benítez, it was more of the same. The Spaniard persisted with the 4-3-3 – which had been created in an attempt to find a place for Bale – and Isco’s worth was increasingly brought into question.
Rumours of an exit were growing more regular in the press; a move to Tottenham perhaps, even speculation of a switch to Barcelona. Isco himself admitted, in an interview with Marca in March 2016, that the apparent lack of movement over a new contract was concerning. “It seems a little weird, but I can’t do anything,” he said. “If they don’t want me to renew, I won’t go asking for it.”
It was something of a blessing for Isco that Benítez’s tenure was a short one, and that his replacement was Zidane, the man who had adamantly advocated his signature three years earlier. “He’s a player I’m very fond of,” said the Frenchman, and the fans soon would be too.
Still, there was no instant fix. Isco began last season still as something of an outsider, a useful, dependable and versatile option but not yet an indispensable cog in the machine. It all changed when Bale suffered a serious injury midway through the campaign, one that would keep him on the sidelines for the majority of the remaining months.
This was Isco’s opportunity. Add to that the regularity with which Zidane was willing to rest Ronaldo, and the significance was doubled. The change in players brought a shift in formation, an extra-man in midfield, a diamond setup in which Isco became the tip. And in this free-role – for it has certainly given him licence to wander and not restricted him as a traditional number 10 as such – he has been nothing short of magnificent.
As Real Madrid powered towards a La Liga title and another Champions League victory, Isco was the standout performer, the central creator and focal point of every swift foray forward. He was sensational in away wins at Sporting Gijón and Deportivo, instrumental in the Champions League semi-final victory against rivals Atlético Madrid, and then again in the final against Juventus.
This was a far cry from the Isco of old, and it had come about, seemingly, due to a simple change of system. Only a year earlier, former Merengues defender Iván Helguera had scathingly criticised him. “Isco doesn’t give assists, he’s not good in the air, he doesn’t win the ball back,” he said. “He could give much more, but the Bernabéu applauds him for doing a ‘croqueta’ [a piece of skill in which you switch the ball swiftly from one foot the other and back again]. What do his moves end up as?”
Isco has since emphatically proven Helguera wrong. Now he is both the creative force and the engine in Zidane’s side, ubiquitous in attack, an artisan who has acquired the skill of pugnacity. He is a joy to watch on the ball, and now equally impressive off it. He is “magic”, as his teammates call him. And there is far more still to come.
By Callum Rice-Coates @callumrc96