No Isco, no disco: how a resurrection brought music and then silence to Betis

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Suddenly the music stopped and so did the dancing, the magic was gone. The Benito Villamarín is perhaps the loudest stage in La Liga, where the club’s anthem claims that the fans are packed in like cannonballs and completely convinced that their team is champions, even though they are last. There’s a lot of folklore, it’s true, and some of the silliness is exaggerated, but there’s a lot of fun and a lot of noise. Home of Real Betis, it is a place where even being dead is not an excuse not to support, a fan who took his father’s ashes in a milk carton every week and placed it on his seat, but on Sunday evening it was for a brief moment of silence 53,336 people sat in silence and said nothing, which said everything.

This was the last thing anyone wanted to see. Isco was heading into the 81st minute of Betis’ match against Getafe and the 2,307th minute of his season when he chased a ball that went out of play at the north end of the ground and sensed something going. His hand reached for his hamstring and there was silence. He leaned on the billboard, lay down on the grass and twirled his fingers that says: take me off. As he staggered to the sideline through gritted teeth, the silence was replaced by a standing ovation and they began chanting his name. Then he sank onto the couch, dressed in a black coat and in an even darker mood.

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Rubén Cousillas, the assistant coach, put a hand on his face along the way. They came with ice and Aitor Ruibal said a word, but there was no consolation. Isco sat alone, lower and lower in his seat, looking lost and defeated. He grimaced and wiped his eyes, his fingers squeezing as if trying to hold back tears. When the final whistle blew and the match ended in a 1-1 draw, he straightened up like an old man coming off the bench and staggered through the tunnel. It was a tough task, and not just for Betis fans, but for everyone. “Nobody smiles in Heliopolis,” read one headline, and that’s not the way things should ever be here.

The injury might not even be that serious – a little tear, a little pull, a simple strain – and this whole thing could quickly look exaggerated, but that wasn’t really the point; it wasn’t about how hard it will be from here, it was about how hard it was to get here in the first place, the fact that Isco had made it in the first place, how great it was to have him back and how that had now been taken away. again. It was about the feeling that something special had been broken after all the effort to rebuild it. By the time Isco retired, he had already done enough to be named man of the match. It was the 15th time in 23 games and although teammate Héctor Bellerín joked that he would win it one of these days without even playing, that’s not a bad thing for anyone, let alone someone who is ready, that’s how it goes.

A five-time European Cup winner, the man they called Magic – and think how good you have to be for that That of Real Madrid locker room to call you That – Isco’s extra-time performance in the 2016 Milan final came close to perfection, and he was probably Spain’s best player in 2017, but he ultimately became irrelevant. Under Santi Solari, he said, “he didn’t exist”, but it wasn’t just the Argentine: “I’m not stupid: if I haven’t been a starter with Ancelotti, Benítez and Zidane, it’s my fault.” he admitted. He started just one league match between August 2021 and his departure from the Bernabéu. In his last two years there he made one Champions League appearance, logging just 400 minutes in his final season. He should have left sooner, he admitted, but it’s hard to let go. And so he let go.

He went to Seville looking for resurrection, his salary was quadrupled: he said he just wanted to enjoy his football again and actually, although this is too easy to forget, he started quite well. But his time there came to a premature end when Julen Lopetegui, the manager who supported him, was sacked and Monchi, the sporting director who signed him, reportedly grabbed him by the neck as security staff had to separate them. He went to Berlin and back alone, but was told that Union could not actually register him for Europe; the terms of the contract changed. He received a call from Iago Aspas inviting him to go to Celta, but he said sorry that it just couldn’t happen: his head wasn’t right. When he joined Betis this summer, he had not played for six months. An unemployed footballer, it seemed, an ex-footballer.

For a while he had thought so too, but he was determined to resist ending this way, by thinking about what he had done wrong and taking responsibility. He had been “apathetic” under Solari, he admitted. “In Madrid I felt like a victim when I wasn’t,” he recently told Jorge Valdano. “It was me against everyone: I blamed this man and that man. But you start to wonder why you didn’t do more; now I can see that I have lost a little bit of the will to fight, to prove myself. I fell and didn’t have the mental strength to turn the tide; You are angry at everyone and everything is wrong. I regret it more than anyone.”

During those long months, Isco had been working with a personal trainer named Rodrigo Carretero three times a day, going to play ball at a local field every evening at 10 p.m. He had changed his diet, lost weight and also sought therapy. He had had problems, he admitted, as a person and not just as a player; he had to stop, deal with his mind. Now he discovered that there was a strength missing before, both physically and mentally. Occasionally there would be videos of his sessions on social media, sometimes you would see him training in his old Madrid gear. He had done everything he could, but he needed an opportunity, someone to take a chance on him. At the age of 31 he was of course too young to retire, but there is the starting point again: not one match in six months. He only scored two goals in the competition four years.

However, Betis saw an opportunity; from researching to closing the deal, it was all done in less than two days. “It’s a good time for him to come,” said sporting director Ramón Planes. “It’s an opportunity to prove himself.” Justification was the word he used. “He wanted a challenge, a chance to put everything behind him,” coach Manuel Pellegrini said. There was also fame: Pellegrini had coached Isco at Malaga and Real Madrid and had tried to sign him for Manchester City. One of the problems Isco has had is not just that his ideal position is already taken; This doesn’t exist for many teams, but Pellegrini’s approach suits him perfectly. Almost the first thing he did during his first practice was nutmeg one of his new teammates. I still have it. “You can’t turn your back on quality this way,” Planes said. And yet this was also a different Isco.

Friday: Athletics Bilbao 4-0 Mallorca
Saturday: Girona 0-0 Real Sociedad, Alavés 1-3 Barcelona, ​​​​Granada 1-1 Las Palmas, Valencia 2-1 Almería
Sunday: Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid, Real Betis 1-1 Getafe, Osasuna 0-3 Celta Vigo, Villarreal 0-0 Cádiz

Pellegrini immediately put him in the team. “We needed someone to give us football,” the coach said. And boy, he has. Isco was man of the match that day. And the next, and the next, and the next. He has already scored more goals than in the previous five seasons combined. No one in the Betis team has more; no one has more assists either. Slim, fast, aggressive, he is involved in everything, gives everything and takes responsibility. He leads. There is “sacrifice,” says a teammate. He has only missed one game, and that was through suspension. “He is the total footballer,” said former Betis captain Capi. Only two players in the league have completed more successful dribbles, no one has won more one-on-one duels and no one has created more chances. There’s a reason why no one is soiled anymore.

But don’t pay attention to the numbers, just touch the talent. You don’t even have to be a Betis fan, although it helps: if he is everything to them, he is also a pleasure to everyone. “Football was happy for you,” Valdano told him. Look at it up close: the touch, the turn, the quality. The magic. Look at those feet, so soft he could wear slippers, the willingness to always want the ball. See the things that only he sees, watch him playand he is righteous better than everyone else. “I feel like a little kid in Disneyland right now,” he said, and so do the rest of us, happy to have another chance. Nasty feeling the football, the noise, the fun, as it should be at the Benito Villamarín, match after match. As it should be, period. Until this Sunday when it stopped. No Isco, no disco. “I asked him and he is in bad shape; let’s hope it’s not much,” said teammate Rodri Sánchez on behalf of everyone.







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