Isco’s long and winding road towards redemption

There was a period when Francisco Alarcon ‘Isco’, looked like he was the next big thing in world football. The magician of Real Madrid had danced his way into the hearts of millions of Los Blancos fans; and after winning the UEFA Champions League in his first season at the Bernabeu, and playing a vital role at the attacking tip — Zinedine Zidane’s midfield trident or diamond during their historic three-peat (2016, 17, 18) — the magic of Isco had mesmerised all of Europe.

Then came the downhill. Going into the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Russia, Spain was among the favourites for the title, and all their hopes rested on Isco. However, things took a turn for the worse on the eve of the tournament when it emerged that Julen Lopetegui was to take up the managerial position left vacant by Zidane at Madrid.

This irritated the Spanish football federation, which saw the act as one of treason, and sacked Lopetegui just two days ahead of the opening match. Fernando Hierro, Spain’s Director of Football, took temporary charge. But the damage was done. The whole incident disrupted the team’s momentum and led to the team’s shock exit in the round-of-16.

The churn

With the high-profile departures of Zidane and the iconic Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid went on a rough patch the following season, going through three managers over a single campaign, with the last one the returning Zidane himself. With all the turbulence surrounding him, Isco never regained his form in the famous white of Madrid. Lopetegui found the demands of the Bernabeu overwhelming, and was let go months into the season. Santiago Solari, who replaced Lopetegui, wanted to see his lads motivated, but it wasn’t to be found in a depleted Isco. A fallout ensued and the coach relegated him to the bench.

With Zidane’s return, fans were hoping for the reinvention of their much-loved magician. But Zidane too found it difficult to accommodate Isco in his new system which focused more on structural integrity and defensive stability. Isco’s unpredictable movements of creativity had no role in this mechanical system. The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti (June 2021) also had no effect on Isco’s career. It was the Italian who managed Isco through his first season in white (2013-14), winning him his first Champions League medal.

Real Madrid’s coach Carlo Ancelotti reacts with Real Betis’ Spanish midfielder #22 Isco at the end of during the Spanish league football match between Real Betis and Real Madrid CF at the Benito Villamarin stadium.
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Rise of the next gen

By now the team’s core had undergone a major change, with young guns like Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo and Federico Valverde ahead of the minutes-starved and out-of-touch senior. During Madrid’s enthralling run to yet another Champions League title in 2022, Isco was an unused substitute in nine of the 13 games.

The end came in the summer of 2022 when Real Madrid chose not to renew the midfielder’s contract, making him a free agent. That was when Sevilla, managed by Lopetegui, came calling. Isco did not have to think twice before accepting.

Isco expected a move back to the Andalusian capital, close to his hometown in Malaga, would be a welcome change and the start of a new chapter in his career. But it was not enough to arrest his slide, let alone push him back up. His stint at Sevilla was nothing but forgettable. Lopetegui lost his way with the team and was removed in early October. Reduced to just a shell of his former self and failing to keep up with the demands of the Sevilla dressing room, Isco left on mutual consent in December 2022 after an alleged physical altercation with the club’s then sporting director Monchi.

German club Union Berlin saw an opportunity. Here was a former superstar who was a free agent and could still turn some eyes. They went in and Isco was prepared to try his luck at rejuvenating his career overseas. The deal was close to being sealed, with Isco flying to Berlin for medicals but it broke down.

With the transfer window closed, Isco was left without a team. It seemed like the end of a career that had the potential to be one of a kind. But Isco had not lost faith. Left with no club to train with, he retreated to his gym in the Spanish capital.

The Athletic reported an anonymous source close to Isco saying, “after Sevilla, he realised that he had to change or his career was over. He needed to do the work to recover the feeling of being professional, mentally and physically, to find himself again.”

Opening of the door

The 2023 summer transfer window came with opportunities for the fallen veteran. Saudi Arabian clubs were frantically approaching European stars, including veterans, with ludicrous offers, and Isco got one too. Spanish club Real Sociedad also had an offer for Isco. But Real Betis caught Isco’s eyes for two reasons – it played out of Seville and was coached by Manuel Pellegrini, under whose wings Isco first blossomed at Malaga (2011-13).

It is hard to decode who needed whom the most. With Betis’ key playmaker Sergio Canales moving to Mexico, and icon Joaquin retiring, Betis had a huge gap to fill in their midfield. And Isco badly needed a club where he could reinvent his old self. It was a match made to work.

The season could not have begun better for both Isco and Betis. Isco found himself in Betis’ starting lineup at Villareal, and the match ended in a 2-1 win for Betis, with Isco named Player of the Match.

As the season slowly gathered momentum, Isco showed that the Villareal performance was not a flash in the pan, as he put on magical performances, controlling the Betis midfield with ease and spearheading their attacking transition.

While Betis is currently 7th in the league with six wins and two defeats from 15 games, it sits atop in its UEFA Europa League group with one match left. Isco’s impact in carrying the team is evident from the fact that he was named the Player of the Match in nine out of the thirteen games for the Los Verdiblancos.

Saturday, Dec. 9, could be the day Isco writes the final chapter of his return to the top. As Real Betis and Isco prepare to welcome Real Madrid – current table topper – to the Benito Villamarín, Spanish football is eagerly waiting to see how the tale unfolds.

Real Madrid has the reputation of being overrun by former players, and with Isco being in the best form he’s been in since the three-peat era, Madrid supporters may well be nervous. If the young boy, whom they once adored, and watched with admiration returns to haunt them after reinventing himself, it will be a bitter-sweet moment.

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