Spain will play Italy tonight in the Euro 2013 final at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, hoping to defend its title from 2009. It makes perfect sense that so many Israelis want a photo with David De Gea, Manchester United’s goalkeeper who has yet to concede a goal in the tournament.
Israelis are also fond of Thiago Alcantara and Cristian Tello, two Barcelona players. But with all due respect, the most outstanding player in the Spanish team, who could make the difference tonight, is the Malaga midfielder Isco.
I can confidently predict that the day will come when Israelis will proudly recall how they saw him play when he was “still with the U-21 team, at Euro 2013.”
Isco, otherwise known as Francisco Roman Alarcon Suarez, might yet be joining his former coach Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City next season, despite a huge 35 million euro buy-out clause. Apart from his excellent form with Malaga, Isco was Spain’s outstanding player in the qualifying stages of Euro 2013, with six goals and five assists. He has already made one appearance for Spain’s senior team, and national coach Vincente Del Bosque has spoken highly of him as an important part of the future Spanish team.
Isco was brought to Malaga from Valencia for a mere six million euros when he was 19 years old. The Valencia staff didn’t rate him, but former Spain ace Fernando Hierro believed he had found a treasure.
“I didn’t join Malaga for the money, but rather because they promised I would have a chance to play,” Isco says. “It turned out to be the most important decision of my life.”
Whoever watched Malaga last season would find it hard to argue with that statement. Isco is an accomplished dribbler, controlling the ball and his body in Latin style. He anticipates moves and piles up scores and assists for fun.
“He is both very technical and very intelligent,” says a fellow player. “That is a unique combination.”
Isco rapidly became one of Malaga’s most important players. At the end of the 2012 season he was chosen as the best emerging player in the Spanish league and was even called up to the Euro 2012 senior squad, only to be left out before the tournament began. In Euro 2013, against Germany and Russia, it was obvious what everyone was so excited about. Isco seems to be everywhere on the pitch.
The young player is quick to credit his coach, Julen Lopetegui: “I’m lucky my coach allows me the freedom to roam,” he says. “I believe that’s one of the keys to our success in the tournament. Our attacking players never stand still − they’re always on the move, which creates space for passes. It helps me personally, causes problems for our rivals and allows us to make many goal-scoring opportunities.”
Isco grew up in Benalmadena, a town in the province of Malaga, and supported the club as a boy. (“I had a season ticket and suffered with all other fans,” he says.) He’s considered a local hero, and decided to remain at the club despite lucrative offers elsewhere. “I’m happy here with my friends, I feel at home,” he says.
Still, even his father, who persuaded him to remain at the club at the end of last season, is well aware that the future lies elsewhere, with a much larger club. Pellegrini left no doubt as to Isco’s abilities when he flatly declared that Isco was “the best young player I’ve ever coached.” The fact that the coach would love to bring Isco to Manchester City speaks volumes of his belief in the player. Isco, for his part, would rather play for Barcelona and is often spoken of as Xavi’s successor − if not at Barcelona then in the Spanish national team.
Meanwhile he has a mission to complete tonight. “I don’t know if we’re favorites. We have to prove it on the pitch, but we are playing well,” he says. “This is a strong and important tournament. There are excellent players in all the teams, some of whom have already played Champions League soccer and for some of the best senior national teams in Europe.”
The young player also has some warm words for the hosts: “We were surprised by the support we get here. We really feel at home. The moment we landed here we were greeted with love and support by the Israel fans. It’s really fun, and helps us win the games.”
If this support leads to a second successive Spanish U-21 title, nobody will really be surprised.