Somewhere in the middle of the field, Isco put his foot on the ball, looked up and then … well … then he just stopped. Not really sure what to do, he stood there, ball still under his studs and listened. In the stands at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, the fans had started singing Sevilla‘s anthem and, bloody hell, it was good. So Isco waited and watched, not about to get in the way, letting them let him in like this. He waggled his fingers as if he had just trapped them in a drawer. Wow. He bit his lip. He smiled, maybe even a little shyly. There was something in his eye.

Look at his face — just look at his face. When they finished, he put his hand on his heart, clapped and then raised his thumbs in thanks. They applauded and chanted his name. They had roared as he came out of the tunnel. Yes, he had expected people to turn up for his presentation as a Sevilla player, joining after nine years at Real Madrid, but this? He hadn’t expected this, even if this was what he had come in search of. “A player goes where he feels they trust him,” he said, saying it all. The main stand of the Pizjuan was packed, with over 10,000 people there for his presentation.

Isco joins Sevilla as free agent after Real Madrid contract ends
LaLiga 2022-23 team-by-team preview: How will your team fare?
Stream Osasuna vs. Sevilla, Fri. 8/11, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+

These have been difficult days for Sevilla, but it didn’t look like it on Wednesday night. The club lost both central defenders, Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde, in the transfer window and while this is that rare this is a club that has made a virtue of departures, their best players leaving all part of the plan and faith in the sporting director almost limitless, this felt a little different.

Until Isco’s arrival, they had only signed two players: Alex Telles and Marcao. There was no sign of a striker yet, either. They had finished last season in a Champions League place, it’s true, but all that promise at the turn of the year, when they thought they might even compete for the title, had gone.

Some of the goodwill had too, the pressure building on their coach and on the club. They had gone to London and conceded six times against Arsenal in the Emirates Cup friendly. In their preseason Trofeo Antonio Puerta against Cadiz, supporters whistled the team off. But now, in front of Isco, they were singing. Superficial it might be, and the hope that’s in such ready supply in the summer has a habit of not becoming a reality, sure, but this felt different now. There were a lot of very happy people in Seville as Isco arrived in the city.

On the face of it, that might surprise. Isco is 30 years old and doesn’t fit the normal profile chosen by sporting director Monchi. There’s no sell-on value there. He hasn’t played an international game for three years. He can feel to some a little like an ex-footballer. He left Real Madrid because they didn’t want him anymore: reaching the end of his contract, there was never any suggestion that he would be offered a new deal.

He didn’t always look fit, either, accusations levelled at him that he didn’t think were fair, but that never entirely went away. “Am I fat?” he asked on Instagram in December 2018, posting a picture in which he appears pretty much the opposite. A couple of years later, there was a similar comment on social media, a response to the critics. And there was something quite pointed about the exchange between him and Monchi when he arrived at the Lebreros hotel in Seville: “You’re strong,” Monchi said … “I have been looking after myself,” Isco replied. The fact that he posted videos of himself training alone in his garden was not by chance.

On Marcelo‘s birthday last year, Isco published a message congratulating the Madrid captain, who was also on the way out. He included a photo of the pair of them together. “It’s been hard to find a picture from when we used to play,” he joked. When one website accused him of firing a “dart” at the manager, he responded by saying: “what dart, you cursed people? [Carlo] Ancelotti’s not to blame at all.”

The basic point, though, was clear: he wasn’t playing.

Last season, Isco played just 324 minutes in LaLiga and none at all in the Champions League. There was just one goal. The season before, he didn’t score even once, playing 897 league minutes. In the Champions League, he played just 97 minutes.

In truth, the end at Real Madrid couldn’t come soon enough. For a long time, he has not been a regular starter. Maybe he never had been, not undisputedly so anyway. A player who didn’t entirely fit, a No. 10 in a world where few teams accommodate them, a lot of managers weren’t sure about his role. “Maybe I’m the problem,” he had admitted.

Think of him, and some consider his a talent unfulfilled. But what a talent. Unfulfilled? He won three leagues and five Champions Leagues. It’s not like it’s easy to play for Madrid, not like the men ahead of you are anything other than the very best there is. He played 38 times for Spain, scoring an average of a goal every three games. As the Golden Boy (the best young player in Europe) in 2012, maybe there could have been more — there definitely could, in fact — but he was right when he bade farewell with that line que no me quiten lo bailao. (“Let no one take those dances from me.”) And they were some dances.

play

0:47

New Sevilla signing Isco explains why he decided to join Julen Lopetegui’s side and insists he will give his all for the club.

When Madrid won the league in 2016-17, it took an injury to Gareth Bale for Isco to get a regular place in the team, but there is a case for saying he was the best player in Spain over the final three months and he deservedly started the Champions League final — a final they’d reached thanks to his goal against Atletico Madrid. There were five goals and three assists in his last seven games alone. Watch his display in extra time in the Champions League final the year before and it is extraordinary, Isco taking control of a game that Madrid had seen slipping away. And what about that night against Italy in 2017 at the Bernabeu? An outrageous display when he scored twice and twice left poor Marco Verratti looking silly, first putting the ball through his legs, then flicking it over his head.

That’s what Sevilla fans cling to: that talent, those moments, that what if, that glimpse of something truly special. That nickname: when Real Madrid players dub you “Magic,” you have something, that’s for sure. The possibility that it could happen again. To use Isco’s own words again: let no one take those dances from me … or the dances that are still to come. As the fans sang in Seville, it would have been hard not to think yes, this is it, where I am meant to be — if, that is, he hadn’t already been convinced of that.

“I come off the back of a few years when I haven’t played, or haven’t been allowed to play much,” Isco said. “I want to keep enjoying football and this is one of the best places there is to do that, for everything this stadium means and the competitions we fight for. I want to show everyone the football I have, the level I have never lost, and this is the best possible place for that. I’m grateful for the trust placed in me by the coach and the club. Now it’s down to me not to let them down.”

When it comes to trust, he’s not wrong. Isco has the ideal manager, the coach who believes in him when no one else does.

“I’m not stupid: if I have not been a starter with Ancelotti, Benítez and Zidane, it’s my fault,” Isco once said. That was before Santi Solari turned up in Madrid, and he played even less with him, more than a hint of confrontation about their relationship: just 79 minutes in Solari’s first six games became pretty none at all, the coach suggesting there was a lack of preparation from his player. But there are a couple of names not on that list and by the time this summer came, they were the two names that were on Isco’s list, people deemed perfect to revive him.

By the end of last season, Isco had essentially decided on his destination: one city, two clubs and two men. The manager of Real Betis, Manuel Pellegrini, has a style built for Isco and was his coach at Malaga, where he produced his most consistent performances: in 2012-2013, he was extraordinary. The manager of Sevilla, Julen Lopetegui, is the man who back in the spring admitted “Isco is a great footballer and I do not hide my admiration for him.”

It was not just a throwaway remark, either, the kind of thing a manager says when he is trying to convince a player to come. It was backed up with his determination to convince Monchi to sign Isco — and make no mistake, this is a managerial signing — and it is something much deeper. It is also mutual. These two men go back a long way; the hope now is that there is still some way to go, optimism increased by their experiences together, by that warmth, that trust, that faith. If anyone can make Isco magic again, it is Lopetegui. That’s what the fans figure, at least. It is what Isco and Lopetegui figure too.

When Isco produced that display against Italy in September 2017, his national team coach was Lopetegui. He had been Isco’s coach when he was in the Spain team that won the European Under-21 Championship and there was, the coach admits, “affection and admiration” there that didn’t diminish even when his minutes at the club level did. “When Lopetegui started to call me up [for the senior squad], I was almost not playing at Madrid, and that’s something I have to be grateful for,” Isco said.

“It’s true that Isco is not playing much for his club and that concerns us but we discussed it and he is a player I trust in, a player I like,” Lopetegui said. He then added an often-overlooked fact: “Besides, not playing at Madrid is not the same as not playing at other teams.”

That was in September 2016; Lopetegui stuck by his man and was rewarded for it. In September 2017, there was that dance against Italy. In April of 2018, Lopetegui said: “With him and all our players, we want them to be happy and to play the highest number of minutes possible, but that’s not something we can control. Isco has been sensational every time he has been with us and he’s a player we trust in.” The following month, Lopetegui was asked about his role in “rescuing” Isco, but insisted that he hadn’t rescued anyone — Isco had done that himself. He did say that yes, he was special and that with him, there would be participation.

“I’m getting the chances with Spain that I don’t get at Madrid,” Isco said.

That summer, they should have been at the World Cup together, but Lopetegui was sacked by Spain, which was at least part of them being brought together at Real Madrid that autumn. It was good while it lasted, on a personal level at least, but it didn’t last long. Whatever anyone else did, Lopetegui played him. Of the 17 games Isco was available for Spain under Lopetegui, he started nine and came off the bench in four. He scored a hat trick against Argentina, two against Italy. Of the 10 games he was available for Madrid under Lopetegui, he started eight and twice came off the bench.

“Isco’s a player we know well, a player I am passionate about, who I have always been passionate about,” Lopetegui said. “When I took over, I was clear that I wanted him.”

That was five years ago but he hasn’t changed his mind. And so there was Isco on Wednesday night, welcomed and smiling as the Sevilla fans sang, handed a second chance by the man who has given him more of them than anyone else, looking forward to hitting the dance floor again.



Source link