For Malaga CF, there was a point where the fans must’ve been wondering if they would fall back into the deep waters of mediocrity and uncertainty. The club had just pipped Atletico Madrid to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in it’s history, a magnificent achievement when you consider the club were in the Segunda Division not so long ago. Then, somewhat out of the blue, questions emerged about whether the club’s Qatari owners had stopped pumping finances into the club. With large wage bills unpaid, transfer fees still outstanding and several other expenses, it looked as if Malaga could’ve be heading towards financial collapse.
Of course, the speculation regarding Malaga’s sudden drop in financial stature was proved to be true, and as a result, the club set about attempting to balance the books. Much to their dismay, the club’s fans knew exactly what that meant: selling their star players. Almost inevitably, the likes of Salomon Rondon, Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal were linked with a move away from La Rosaleda, and when Arsenal offered £16 million for Cazorla, Malaga could not refuse. In addition to this, Russian giants Rubin Kazan offered some silly money for the highly-rated Rondon, and within a week, both were on their way out of Spain.
For the fans, they feared this was just the beginning of a mass exodus at Malaga, and it would almost certainly dash their dreams of qualifying for the Champions League. The silver lining for them was that Spanish international left-back Monreal decided to stay put and pledged his future to the club after being linked with a move to Atletico Madrid. But with all due respect to Monreal, there was another Spanish player who the fans desperately wanted to stay. And luckily for them, this exciting youngster decided he would be staying at the club for the long haul.
Francisco Roman Alarcon, or ‘Isco’ was he is better known, was born in Benalmadena, a Spanish town situated in the Andalucian city of Malaga. Instead of plying his trade at youth level with his local club, he decided to join the more reputable academy of Valencia CF when he was 14. After some breathtaking outings for the youth academy, he was fast-tracked into the Valencia Mestalla team, and caught the eye of first-team coach Unai Emery with some fantastic performances for the ‘B’ team. As a result, the Spanish coach put his faith into his hidden gem, handing him his senior debut in the Copa del Rey, where many Spanish youngsters make their breakthrough to the first team.
To make your debut for a club like Valencia at 18 years old is a big occasion, especially in the world-famous Estadio Mestalla. But Isco wasn’t satisfied with just making an appearance; he wanted to make a lasting impression. And he did just that, scoring twice on his debut in a 4-1 victory over CD Logrones. After being given a taste of the first-team, he setted back into the ‘B’ team, and highlighted his undoubted ability by scoring 15 goals as they returned to the third tier of Spanish football. Soon enough, the reputation of Isco was gradually rising, and after spotted by Malaga scouts, Malaga’s Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini decided to snap up the exciting youngster for €6 million after meeting his release clause. 5 goals, 11 assists and 32 appearances later, Isco was being hailed as Malaga’s brightest talent as the club finished in 4th in La Liga to qualify for the Champions League. To cap an unforgettable season for him, Vicente Del Bosque opted to include the Los Boquerones wonderkid for their Euro 2012 warm-up squad for the games against Serbia and South Korea.
It’s fair to say that the last 12 months or so had been something of a whirlwind for Isco. Going from Valencia’s ‘B’ team to Spain’s national squad is quite a transformation, especially when you’re just 20 years of age, yet a modest and professional character such as Isco just takes it in his stride and carries on doing what he does best. Even he, however, would be humbled by the fact that he has been hailed as the new Andres Iniesta by the Spanish press. And you’d have to agree, given the way he unlocks defences with his well-timed precise passes, the way he knows when to time his run, and more importantly, how to put the ball in the back of the net. But to call him the ‘new Iniesta’ is disrespectful, and wildly inaccurate. A mixture of Iniesta, Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas is more like what you’d come to expect from Isco when you ponder his specialities above.
Many were impressed when the midfield maestro was instrumental in helping Malaga overcome Panathinaikos 2-0 on aggregate in the Champions League Qualifiers, and naturally, with media attention comes media speculation. The usual European elite of Manchester United, Juventus and AC Milan were supposedly keeping tabs on the starlet but Isco kept his head down, insisting his only focus was playing for Malaga; an admirable sense of professionalism indeed from such a young man. Quickly, Isco started to become Malaga’s key man, after an impressive 10 points from their first four league matches saw them occupy 2nd place in La Liga, just two points behind the unstoppable Barcelona.
Tuesday 18th September 2012. Remember the date, for this was when Isco was finally recognised as one of the world’s most promising talents in football. Malaga, despite their impressive start to the season, were being prepared for a bumpy ride for their Champions League opener against a Zenit St Petersburg side who had just spent the best part of €80 million on the signings of Axel Witsel and Hulk from Benfica and Porto. Their first ever game in the tournament was against a side who were tactically sound under Italian mastermind Luciano Spaletti, a former coach of Roma. And even with the signings of Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz, many expected the boys in blue and white to roll over against the mighty Russian outfit. Little did they know, however, that coach Pellegrini had a trick up his sleeve, intending to play Isco as the trequartista in behind another exciting starlet, 16-year-old Fabrice Olinga, and the much-travelled Saviola, as Malaga looked to secure their first victory in the competition.
From the off, it was all Malaga. Zenit may have had the big names but they were certainly not living up to their big price tags. The players with the small price tags such as Joaquin, Saviola and finally, Isco, were giving them the run-around at La Rosaleda. And it only took three minutes for the Spanish sensation to notch his first Champions League goal. Picking it up 25 yards from goal after some good work from Eliseu down the left, he danced past Alexander Anyukov before squeezing a curled effort from a tight angle past Vychaslev Malafeev to send the crowd wild. Saviola then made it 2-0 just ten minutes later after meeting Jesus Gamez’s cross from the right and the scene was set for Malaga to get their Champions League campaign off to a dream start with a home victory.
But there was still time for Isco to steal the show and put a nail in the coffin of Zenit’s hopes of a comeback. Eliseu made a run down the left and cut it back to find Isco waiting on the edge of the ‘D’. One touch with his right foot told you all you needed to know; Isco was going to shoot. Gently laying the rolling ball into his path, the attempt from Zenit’s Bruno Alves to deny his effort proved to be in vain, as he unleashed an thunderous strike past the helpess Malafeev into the roof of the net.
The scenes were incredible. The crowd, the pundits and the coaching staff were jumping for joy. The star of the show, on the other hand, simply jogged over to his adoring fans, pointed to the sky and celebrated with his team-mates. Perhaps he acknowledged that this was the start of an illustrious career for himself. Or maybe he just wanted to enjoy the moment of scoring a spectacular goal in such a momentus match. For the people in the football world, they knew a star was born. For Malaga, it was a new chapter in an ever-expanding history book. But for Isco, it was just the beginning of something quite brilliant.