It all started so well. After arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu for €30million (£26.5m, $32.6m today) in the summer of 2013, Isco was quickly embraced by Real Madrid fans for his flashes of quality and style of play.
Then 21, he was the first signing of Carlo Ancelotti’s first spell as coach, but both he and Zinedine Zidane, who replaced Rafael Benitez in January 2016, found it difficult to fit him into the starting XI, especially when the attacking trident of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were all available.
Isco showed grit and character to still make his natural creative talents useful to the team. He won four Champions Leagues in his first five seasons with Madrid, starting their 2017 and 2018 final victories over Juventus and Liverpool.
The calendar year of 2017, when Isco turned 25, marked the peak of his Real Madrid career. He scored 12 goals in all competitions during those 12 months — more than any other midfielder in La Liga.
But that year also sparked many doubts about his future.
There were months of negotiation with the Madrid hierarchy over extending a contract that was due to expire in June 2018. There was also regular talk in the Spanish media of foreign suitors, including Juventus, Liverpool and Manchester City, and even rumours Barcelona could tempt him to cross the Clasico divide and move to Camp Nou.
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That speculation ended in September 2017, when Isco signed a new deal that included a release clause of €700million (£619million, $762million today) and paid him €6million a year after tax. It put him on a relatively high rung in the Bernabeu salary scale, similar to fellow midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
Another positive seemed to follow with the appointment of Julen Lopetegui, Isco’s mentor both with Spain Under-21s and later the senior national team, as coach in the summer of 2018. But Lopetegui was sacked after just 14 games, and his interim replacement Santiago Solari set about shaking up an under-performing side.
Solari believed he was working in the club’s overall interest by giving opportunities to 18-year-old forward Vinicius Junior and midfielder Federico Valverde, then 20, while leaving out veterans who were earning a lot more and not as hard-working.
Isco was clearly upset with this treatment, and publicly refused to shake Solari’s hand after a 3-0 defeat away to Eibar in the November. He also went on social media to complain, tweeting he was not “enjoying the same opportunities as his team-mates”, which seemed like an obvious dig at the Argentinian coach.
Solari’s revolution only lasted four months before he was fired. Zidane returned for his own second spell as coach in the March and immediately brought Isco and full-back Marcelo back into favour.
Time was to prove Solari correct, however.
As the years went by, Isco slipped further and further from the first-team picture. As he moved into his late 20s, he did not look capable of matching the physical demands of his coaches. Even team-mate Marcelo warned him publicly in 2018 that he needed to work harder at training.
There were also tactical issues. Isco’s preferred floating No 10 position is not one often employed in modern football, a fact his fellow former Madrid playmakers Mesut Ozil and James Rodriguez also learnt painfully.
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“I feel bad about it, as I love these players very much,” said Zidane in late 2020, referring to Isco and Marcelo in particular. “I will never forget everything I’ve experienced with them. Now they have to put the work in.”
Zidane continued to give Isco some chances, starting him in an away Clasico in December 2019, and in the following February’s first leg of a Champions League last-16 tie at home to Manchester City. But he spent a lot of time on the bench, all while still on that bumper contract agreed in 2017.
By the summer of 2021, Madrid’s hierarchy would have been happy to get him off the payroll. AC Milan made him an offer to move to Serie A, but it would have meant a pay-cut so was not seriously considered.
When Ancelotti returned from Everton that June, he gave his former player a chance to prove he could still be useful to the team. Isco started two of the first three games of La Liga 2021-22, but failed to impress. And although the relationship between the two was still good, Isco’s circumstances were now very different. The player had received no offer to renew and sensed he was going to leave.
He was only in the starting XI for one more league game all season, and played zero minutes in total in the Champions League despite being named on the bench nine times. So when that deal signed in 2017 was due to expire last June, it was plain there was no chance of Madrid renewing it.
Isco and his representatives, which now included super-agent Jorge Mendes, were confident that another big Champions League club would want him, possibly a team outside Spain. But in the end he chose to stay in his homeland with Sevilla, who could offer Champions League football, for significantly less than he was earning at Madrid.
It was all for the chance to be reunited with Lopetegui, who pushed hard to bring him to Sevilla despite opposition from their sporting director Monchi.
Some who knew Isco through his time at Madrid wondered whether he would now knuckle down to work harder and show everyone that he could still be a top player. He went straight into the team, but Sevilla won just one of their first 10 games in all competitions, and Lopetegui was sacked in early October.
His successor, Jorge Sampaoli, also chose Isco for most games up to the World Cup break began in mid-November, but it was clear he was not a good fit for his team and didn’t dovetail with his tactical ideas. It was also clear that getting Isco’s salary off the books would be very useful in terms of funding a reshuffle of the squad in the January transfer window.
With Lopetegui no longer around, Isco and Monchi had a strong training-ground discussion in December, in front of other players. It was no surprise to anyone when it was soon after announced he would be leaving as a free agent, just six months into a two-year contract.
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Monchi said publicly it had been “a mistake” to sign him and “it would have been a further mistake to continue with the error” by not ending their relationship in January.
By that time, Isco had become a financially viable target for Bundesliga club Union Berlin, who showed their interest early in the winter window but these early negotiations cooled down amid talk the player hoped to move to Major League Soccer before the North American competition’s March-to-November season began.
MLS approaches did not materialise, however, partly due to the fact any interested club would have had to make him a designated player in order to pay him something close to what he had been earning in Europe.
So, when the winter window was about to close, negotiations with Union Berlin were reactivated, and a verbal agreement was reached for Isco to travel to the German capital on the night of Monday, January 30, to undergo a medical and sign a contract. But on the Tuesday, deadline day itself, after successfully completing his medical and when he was due to put pen to paper, the deal fell through because, according to the player’s entourage, the conditions had changed.
Isco had been strongly motivated by the chance of playing in Europe, with Union Berlin in the Europa League (they would beat Ajax in a play-off to reach the last-16), but it became clear this would not be possible after a situation described by club sources, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect their relationships, as “a big misunderstanding”.
Sources at Union said Isco should have known he couldn’t play for them in Europe, as they had already finalised their squad for the competition. They added there was some disagreement over the number of financial variables included in the proposed contract.
“We would have liked to have Isco with us, but we have our limits. Today they have been exceeded, contrary to what was previously agreed, so the transfer will not go ahead,” said Oliver Ruhnert, the German club’s sporting director.
Throughout the episode, the Union end of things said Isco’s attitude had been positive and calm, and that he took the failed move philosophically.
And this is how, on the last day of the winter transfer window, Isco was left unemployed.
Since then, he has received offers from Saudi Arabian and Turkish clubs, and there has also been interest from back in La Liga. But nothing has materialised. Reports earlier this month spoke of the possibility of a move to leading Brazilian club Flamengo, which Isco’s entourage strongly denies.
In the meantime, Isco is working at home with a fitness trainer, waiting for the phone to ring.
Everything will depend on what proposals appear before the summer and on the patience of a man who turns 31 next month. According to sources close to Isco, who wished to remain anonymous, he still wants to play in a European league.
However that MLS option does not seem to have been ruled out.
(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)