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Given the freedom to roam by coach Zinedine Zidane, Isco – Real Madrid’s brilliant new superstar – is on fire.

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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

On the eve of Italy’s pivotal World Cup qualifier with Spain in September, Giampiero Ventura took a walk on the pitch at the Bernabéu. At his news conference that night, he put a brave face on it. Italy need have no fear, he insisted. There was nothing to be scared of, he said. “I found no crocodiles or snakes. Just grass and a couple of goals.” In monster flicks, this usually signals one thing to the audience: Whoever said it is about to get eaten alive.

Italy didn’t find crocodiles and snakes; it was far worse than that. Real Madrid’s former director general Jorge Valdano used to say that playing at the Bernabéu is like spending 90 minutes in a dentist’s chair. It can leave you numb or in excruciating pain. The line between torture and treatment is a thin one.

On this occasion the dentist was wearing not white but red. Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez—a.k.a. Isco—did not remove a tooth, but he extracted Italy’s hopes of automatic qualification for next summer’s World Cup, instead, putting on a clinic. Watching Isco was like seeing one of those surgical procedures done to the music of Vivaldi, all quick incisions and flourishes of the scalpel.

Isco brought the cauldron that is the Bernabéu to a boil. He had 80,000 people on their feet, chanting “Is-co, Is-co, Is-co!” If the spectators had had roses, they would have thrown them at his feet as if he were a triumphant matador.

Isco scored twice in the 3-0 win, becoming the first Spaniard to do so against Italy since Luis Regueiro before the Spanish Civil War. The first goal underlined that Isco is at the top of his game, suggesting he can do pretty much what he wants at any moment. It was Spain’s second free kick of the evening. Sergio Ramos, his Real Madrid teammate, had lofted one over the bar five minutes earlier. Ramos “asked to take the first free kick, and said I would take the next one,” Isco explained. “So I told him, ‘I’ll score it.’” It was a scene reminiscent of Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series.

His second goal, a left-foot drive across Gigi Buffon’s goal, came shortly afterward. But what sticks in the mind is the skill with which Isco bamboozled one of the world’s best midfielders, Marco Verratti. Isco put the ball through his legs and lifted it over him. He played with Verratti like a cat with a mouse. The performance served as consecration: Isco’s place as one of the best players in the world was no longer up for debate. About a fortnight later Madrid were delighted to announce he had extended his contract until 2022. Delighted and relieved.

Isco bends a free kick over an Italian wall to score for Spain during the 2018 World Cup qualifier at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Sept. 2.

Isco bends a free kick over an Italian wall to score for Spain during the 2018 World Cup qualifier at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Sept. 2.

Of all the renewals Madrid have finalized this autumn (and there have been many—Marcelo, Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, and Raphaël Varane), Isco’s was the one fans were most anxious about. The 25-year-old had entered the final year of his deal and in January could reach a principle agreement to join another team at no cost next summer. Madrid looked to be cutting it fine.

Simultaneously, Barcelona were facing criticism for allowing the contracts of Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta to run down. This time last year Isco thought it was “a little weird” Madrid had not been in touch about tying him up long term. “If they don’t want me to renew, I won’t go asking for it,” he told the Spanish newspaper Marca. “It’s something for the club to decide, not me.”

The ears of Barcelona, Manchester City, and Juventus all pricked up. Barça were reportedly even prepared to break the nonaggression pact with Madrid, which has been in effect since Luís Figo swapped the Camp Nou for the Bernabéu, to get Isco. Diego Torres of El País, author of the definitive book about José Mourinho’s time in Madrid, claimed an intermediary acting for the Catalans had made Isco an offer he’d find hard to refuse. Supposedly worth €7 million a year after taxes, the rumored offer implied an acknowledgement by Barcelona’s besieged president, Josep Bartomeu, that Isco was the perfect heir to Iniesta.

In the back of every Madrid fan’s mind was the anecdotal stuff that could mean nothing—or everything. Isco has a Labrador named Messi. He got the dog after Messi scored four goals against Arsenal in 2010. “I called him that because Messi is the best in the world and so is my dog,” he told El País. Then came the case of the potato-chip packet Isco was pictured with in April—a packet in Barcelona colors. Did Isco have a chip on his shoulder about a lack of playing time at the Bernabéu? Quite the contrary, apparently. “With that photo I just wanted to say we’re gonna eat them like crisps!” he tweeted.

At the news conference announcing his extension, Isco revealed that there had indeed been contact with Barcelona. “There were talks and offers,” he confirmed. “But I never listened to any of them.” Isco said he could “never” sign for the Blaugrana. “My idea was always to be a success at Real Madrid.” Why then did he pause before agreeing to stay in the Spanish capital? Although Madrid initially dragged their feet, a new contract had been on the table for some time.

Isco found himself in more or less the same position as Álvaro Morata and James Rodríguez. Both left over the summer. Morata scored 20 goals but still didn’t get the impression it was enough for Coach Zidane to make him Madrid’s first choice center forward. “Zidane wanted me to stay, and I was happy in Madrid. But I couldn’t stay to be a substitute,” Morata said. “You reach a point where you need to play, to grow up, to escape your comfort zone. It’s about being comfortable. I am ambitious and hungry to succeed.”

Isco must have thought something similar. Last season he played fewer minutes than at any time in his four years at the Bernabéu. Away to Villarreal in late February, he exchanged a joke with Morata and a fan. Isco said he thought of himself as Zidane’s “second course.” “And I’m the dessert,” Morata replied with a giggle.

Less of a laughing matter was that until mid-April Isco featured less in the Champions League for Real than Fábio Coentrão. Isco started just twice before Los Merengues reached the semifinals in May. You could understand Isco putting the Clash on his iPhone and asking himself, Should I stay or should I go? He was honest enough to admit, “If I have not been a starter with Ancelotti, Benítez and Zidane, it’s my fault.” But it’s also true that much of Isco’s career has been a quest to prove people wrong for doubting him.

Despite his memorable debut in the Copa del Rey against Logroñés, Isco—unlike David Villa, Juan Mata, and David

Silva—never established himself at Valencia. Unai Emery, now coach of PSG, wrote in his book that Isco was undisciplined and had a “tendency to put on weight.” At his hometown club Málaga, where he first grabbed national attention, Isco was known as El Cúlon—the Big Ass—which wasn’t so much a comment on his weight as the low center of gravity common to most great playmakers.

The size of Isco’s backside wasn’t what led Manchester United to rule out signing him toward the end of the Alex Ferguson era. One senior scout, who watched regularly as Isco inspired Málaga to their best season ever and a run to the Champions League quarterfinals, wrote in his report: “He’s good, but not quite quick enough and his head is too big for his body.”

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Isco runs past Vinícius during the UEFA Champions League match between Real Madrid and Apoel Nicosia

In Madrid, they’ve said all sorts of things about Isco over the years: That he has no position. He can’t defend. He’s too slow and slams the brakes on their counterattacks. He doesn’t get into the penalty area enough and should set up more goals. That criticism calls to mind what used to be said about Xavi and Iniesta at the start of their careers. And look how they turned out.

The turning point for Isco came in the Clásico at the end of April, which is surprising since once again he did not get off the bench. Here one man’s misfortune was another man’s opportunity. Gareth Bale’s calf injury opened a door for Isco, a door that had been left ajar before. After all, it was Bale’s 17th injury since moving to Spain for ¤100 million in 2013. The difference now was Zidane’s decision to change the system, in Bale’s absence, to a 4-4-2 with Isco at the tip of a diamond in midfield.

It played to his strengths, and all of a sudden a new Madrid emerged, one with the center of gravity in the middle, not on the wings, and the emphasis on possession, not on the counterattack. Madrid hit new heights. A team that went behind against Sporting and Legia Warsaw—not to mention twice against Napoli—started to play on another level, almost as if it was practicing a different sport from its opponents.

Isco was central to that, and when Madrid won La Liga—becoming the first team to win the Champions League back to back since Milan in 1990, and lifting their third title in four years—it was arguably his emergence that made this feel like the beginning rather than the end of a cycle. Isco made himself essential to Madrid in a way Morata and James had not. Unexpectedly for someone coming off a season in which he had figured less—in terms of minutes—than in any of his other three seasons at Madrid, he could sign a new contract confident that he would play more than ever.

“It was amazing to see him live,” Ventura said after Italy’s defeat. “When he put the ball through Verratti’s legs I wanted to stand and applaud. The lucidity he had. To be surrounded by three players and get yourself out of trouble with a nutmeg … ”  It’s incredible now to think that Isco was left out of Spain’s squad for the World Cup in 2014 and the Euros in 2016. So long as he stays fit, it won’t happen again. Spain’s manager, Julen Lopetegui, has worked with Isco since the Under-19 level and won the Under-21 Euros with him in 2013.

Nicknamed Magic by Ramos and Iker Casillas, Isco now has Madrid under his spell. He’s had to wait for his moment, but it has been worth it in the end. His career arc brings to mind a famous maxim: “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

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