Sometimes it helps to go back to where it all began in order to understand where things are now. This is quite pertinent with Isco. Nearly five years ago his tiny frame stepped onto the Mestalla turf in a low-key Copa del Rey encounter with UD Logroñés.
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The stands were sparse, it was a freezing cold night in November, it was set up to be a completely forgettable game. And it would’ve been, had it not been for Isco. It was then, at 18 years old, he offered his first real glimpse of what was to come. Isco managed two goals on the night. The first came as he plucked a high ball out of the air before swivelling on the spot and scoring; the second was finished after a slaloming run, during which he was at one point on the floor before rising up to beat another defender.
After seeing that game, Vicente Mir, his coach at Valencia’s subsidiary team Mestalla, joked: “After tonight, we lose him to the first team, I’ll never see him again!”
Valencia, not just Mir, were to lose Isco soon after. Reasons within the club’s control, and some out of it, conspired against them. Unai Emery didn’t play him enough, instead favouring Chori Dominguez and putting Ever Banega out of position. Isco was angry, believing he deserved minutes – and with justification. However, he also pined for a return home. Valencia’s loss then, was first the gain of Malaga – the team he supported as a boy – and now Real Madrid. No matter the riches that ascend upon Valencia under the new Peter Lim era, it’s questionable whether they will ever watch Isco play again without wincing, and wondering what could’ve been.
If they thought it washard to swallow watching him bloom at Malaga in return for just Dh25 million (€6m), then they must be physically sick encountering his progression with Real Madrid. Isco, is on the verge of superstardom. A scintillating, complete display from the boy from Benalmádena away to Elche last week saw the home support hand an ovation in his direction as he was withdrawn by Carlo Ancelotti. Few players receive such an accolade. The names of which down the years are testament to that: Ronaldinho, Valeron, Ronaldo, Iniesta.
— DOL CASILLAS (@chica_AySara) February 22, 2015
That weekend, Isco joined them and he does not look out of place. “We are seeing Spain’s next great star”, said Iker Casillas after the game. If anyone should know, it’s Casillas. Whatever may have occurred in recent seasons with his status at Real Madrid, the goalkeeper remains a legend for both club and country. He’s shared a dressing room with some of the very finest, and played in what many consider to be the greatest international team of all time. His view of Isco must be taken with weight, and what a vision it is indeed to watch the 22-year-old-play.
The timing, and circumstance of this form couldn’t be more appropriate. Isco was being shoved out of the door by some in the summer, admittedly easily forgotten given his status now and busy window experienced at the club. For some he hadn’t developed as desired, and lacked the tactical acumen to compete at Madrid’s level. How preposterous those suggestions look now. Under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti, Isco has developed into one of Spain’s most rounded players, and continues to show the humility required to learn further. Ancelotti remains enamoured by the progress of one of the finest young players he’s ever had the privilege of coaching, and has now compared the player to both Zinedine Zidane and Andrea Pirlo.
“This is Isco’s team now; Madrid, so often chastised for sidelining Spanish talent, are now being run by a Spaniard.”
The Italian coach has been instrumental in tapping this potential, building upon the flashes of maturity at Malaga and making it a prominent feature in the player’s game.
Deployed in the interior position, a role that requires commitment and sacrifice, Isco’s development has been fast tracked. The willingness to put a cap on his attacking verve for the sake of the team game enthused Ancelotti, and with that sacrifice shown, he has returned to a more familiar role as playmaker.
And make play Isco has indeed done. The injury first to Luka Modric, then James Rodriguez, and continuing reluctance from Gareth Bale to impose himself upon the team, opened up a gap for Isco. He’s filled it, and more so. In the process he’s put more pressure on the likes of Bale, but more importantly become the man Madrid goes to. This is his team now. Not the name in flashing lights signings, Bale and James, but Isco’s. Madrid, so often chastised for their sidelining of Spanish talent, are now being run by a Spaniard. It appeals to the hardcore of the club, the fans that miss a Fernando Hierro, a Raul, and for all his flaws, a Guti. A player’s passport should be irrelevant, but there must be an understanding of the sentimentality involved when it comes to the pro-Spain feeling.
Isco could barely acknowledge Elche’s fans’ plaudits; out of embarrassment, out of humility. The spotlight, as much he may prefer to stay out of it, is glaring down on him. Just like it once did for Andres Iniesta, the man whom he is grabbing the torch from, the torch signifying the player that embodies Spain’s technical quality and earthy spirit. Madrid expects – but so too does Spain.
By that measure, don’t expect anything other than Isco to deliver.