Nearly one year ago, Spanish midfielder Isco and his previous employer, Sevilla, finally called it a day.
After hitting a dead end at Real Madrid following nine largely prosperous seasons, the 31-year-old spent just over four months with the Andalusian club, where he couldn’t reignite his soccer career. His slick passing and awareness on the ball, which took him from Benalmádena to the Bernabéu, were lost on his new side, and there was reportedly some friction with former coach Jorge Sampaoli and ex-sporting director Monchi.
So, Isco found himself in a situation pretty rare with unretired professionals. As a free agent, he was without a team and, therefore, without a job. Then, in July, he found one again after eight months out. In the same city, too. But at Sevilla’s fiercest rival: Real Betis. As it happens, the pair lock horns in the hotly-anticipated Gran Derbi this weekend.
“I went through some difficult moments,” said Isco, reflecting on life before Betis in a recent interview with DAZN. “In the end, I decided to stop for a while because I needed to. I needed to recycle myself mentally. I have had help with family support and psychological support. In the end, mental health is very important. And we have to give it more awareness. Now, I feel good.”
The playmaker is enjoying better times despite being a less prized commodity than the talent who once earned a €30 million ($32 million) transfer to Madrid, which recognized the youngster’s high ceiling during his early days with Málaga between 2011 and 2013. Holding out for the right move, Isco decided against Champions League first-timer Union Berlin and chose Betis in the summer. Los Verdiblancos didn’t need to spend a dollar to snap him up on this occasion.
“I had never seen Isco play as well as he is now—he’s giving his best version,” said long-serving teammate and Mexico midfielder Andrés Guardado (Spanish), the day before Betis and Aris Limassol’s encounter in the Europa League. “He enters my top band of best-quality players with whom I have played, without a doubt.”
Isco isn’t the standout player, nor story, in the league. As in-form names go, Jude Bellingham takes some stopping while table-topping Girona’s squad keeps winning and challenging the status quo. Isco’s creative numbers are among the best, however. The number 22 leads the way on passes into the opposition box (27) and ties Bellingham on through balls (nine), making him a leading influence in the attacking midfield role, at least statistically.
That’s from a Betis on the fringes of La Liga’s European qualification spots, having made a satisfactory start by its standards. For a settled Isco, it’s a different challenge to the glamour and pressure at Real. As such, his trajectory says a lot about Real, where players can become stars and then afterthoughts, but more about players’ careers. They are short but, in Isco’s case, long enough to stage an unlikely comeback, especially with a change of scene.
The comeback would be complete with a decisive performance against Sevilla. That only nine players have featured for both Sevilla and Betis, and that Isco perhaps has a point to prove, adds further intrigue to the spectacle at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan stadium, where the two meet for the 117th time in top-flight history.
Following a limp defeat against Arsenal in the Champions League, leaving struggling Sevilla with a huge task to make the last 16 and under added pressure to beat Betis, academy graduate Juanlu (Spanish) said, “We have to show we are the biggest in the city on Sunday.” If a visiting Isco departs the ground victorious—widening the points gap between the rivals—nobody will feel bigger than him.