Not many people could name their dog after Lionel Messi, wear a Barcelona shirt (several years ago, admittedly) and still be worshipped at Real Madrid. Even fewer people could play for Real Madrid and still be appreciated by the vast majority of Barça supporters. Isco can.
Soccer is a devilishly tribal sport. One set of fans see something one way; the opposition sees the same thing in another way. Take Ashley Barnes’ pass-cum-tackle on Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matić last week. Fans of the London club are backing José Mourinho’s campaign to have the Burnley forward locked up and the key thrown away, while supporters of the more modest Lancashire club insist Barnes is not that type of player — he was just trying to play the ball, honest.
The truth is usually found somewhere in the middle, but Isco has almost been able to universally transcend soccer’s staunch tribalism. Everyone seems to like him and everyone seems to be willing him on to be great. In Catalonia you cannot appreciate Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s kind of one of the rules. Isco, though? Sure — terrific player.
Maybe the Madrid midfielder should move into politics or push for world peace when his professional career comes to an end? Although, that’s highly unlikely to be any time soon: The little magician won’t turn 23 until April and, after starting the season gathering dust, he is quickly becoming one of Madrid’s shiniest players.
Photo: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images.
An injury to Gareth Bale gave him his route into action in October, while further knocks to Luka Modrić and James Rodríguez have kept him involved, but few would argue his place in Carlo Ancelotti’s team is not now completely merited. He’s scored five goals and created 13 more in all competitions, and his name regularly bellows around the Bernabéu. When he was removed during Sunday’s draw with Villarreal, home fans booed in disapproval.
However, Isco fandom is not necessarily a new thing; it’s just become more mainstream. Valencia cherry-picked him as a 14-year-old but criminally wasted his talent, allowing him to slip away to his hometown club Málaga for his six million euro release clause in 2011. In Andalusia, dodging and diving in Santi Cazorla’s shadow, he began to catch eyes.
When Cazorla left for Arsenal in the summer of 2012, Isco was primed to become the man of the house. Every week he produced some sort of trick which was wasted on the pre-Vine era, scoring 12 goals on the way to becoming soccer’s Golden Boy — an award Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Mario Götze have all held.
Then came his move to Madrid. Manuel Pellegrini had tried to stick him in his suitcase on his way to Manchester City, but the Spanish capital proved the bigger pull — much to the discontent of the City fans who had already conjured up the “Let’s all have a disco, Silva, Navas, Isco, Yaya Yaya” chant.
He scored the winner on his Los Blancos debut against Real Betis and five goals in his first six appearances in white, but his first season at the club blew hot and cold. He maintained his hip status among the club’s fans, though, and there was genuine concern his role on the bench at the start of the current campaign would tempt him to reconsider his future.
But those doubts have been extinguished, and Isco’s fan club grows by the week — regardless of club colors. Madrid-based newspaper AS journalist Tomas Roncero reckons this is just the beginning as well. “Iscomania is a social phenomenon which can’t be stopped,” he wrote after Madrid beat UE Cornella in the Copa del Rey in October.
Previously compared to Andrés Iniesta, it’s the way Isco’s been able to modify his game defensively to fit into Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 formation which has stood out most this season. One newspaper in Spain gushed over his ability to win the ball back, and after Madrid’s win over Liverpool at Anfield, one columnist suggested he “tackles like a super-powered crab.”
It hasn’t come at a cost, though, and the subtleness, the deftness of touch and the air of entertainment still exist in his game. Just ask Villarreal’s Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell, who was on the receiving end of a piece of Isco skill on Sunday night.
All this nicely explains why Real Madrid fans are smitten with him, but it doesn’t quite sum up why the rest of a soccer-mad country have also fallen for his boyish charm and that on-off beard he sometimes wears dashingly well — although, perhaps the answer lies somewhere in there.
Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images.
Isco is clearly likeable character (he’s managed to avoid controversy so far), but perhaps more importantly, he’s a young, highly talented player at a time when the Spanish national team is looking for new heroes. After winning three tournaments in a row, La Roja were bumped down to earth at the World Cup in Brazil and it’s evident that Xavi, David Villa and Fernando Torres’ powers have waned. Even Iniesta has tipped into his 30s. It’s natural that Spanish soccer looks to its powerhouses, to Madrid and Barça, for its next hero. and Isco just happens to be producing the goods at El Real. He’s now become a regular in Vicente del Bosque’s Spain squad (six caps, one goal) and should stay there for the next decade.
He arrived in the Spanish capital at the same time as Asier Illarramendi, and for a similar 30 million euro fee, but it’s Isco who has been catapulted to the front of the adulation queue, largely because he’s been better but also because he typifies the type of player Spain likes to associate itself with producing: Iniesta, Cazorla, David Silva, Juan Mata, Isco. Perhaps Atlético Madrid’s Koke is up the front with him, but the likes of Thiago Alcantara, Gerard Deulofeu and Iker Muniain have been left behind.
The challenge has been set: help usher in a new period of success for La Roja. Isco has been chosen for the mission, now it’s up to him to feed that Iscomania which Roncero talks about. He’s doing a good job at the moment.