Joel Slagle has always been a skeptic when it comes to Spanish football, but even he cannot resist the magic of Iniesta, Silva, and Isco. The three magicians are set to bamboozle opponents and audiences in the greatest show on the planet: Russia 2018.
I admit I have always been something of a skeptic when it comes to Spanish football. The last La Liga match I watched had David Beckham featuring for Real Madrid and Ray Hudson screaming bon mots such as “BRAVER THAN A MATADOR…IN HIGH HEELS…IN A PINK TUTU!” Despite Hudson’s manic commentary, the league just was not my cup of tea. My football philosophy was shaped by events in 2004 such as Greece’s unlikely Euro triumph and Porto’s scrabbling Champions League win. Spain’s proactive, possession-based football over the last decade simply did not do it for me.
So, when I tuned in to watch the Spanish football team friendly against Germany over the international break, I was hoping to see Die Mannschaft take apart their opponents a la Bayern Munich against Barcelona in 2013. Instead, I received the pleasure of watching Spain’s band of attacking midfielders: David Silva, Andres Iniesta, and Isco.
It is not exactly breaking new ground to point out that these three players are very, very good at football. But it is important to look at what makes them so special. A clue is in their nicknames.
Iniesta, for example, has more than a few: El Ilusionista (The Illusionist), El Cerebro (The Brain), El Caballero Pálido (The Pale Knight). David Silva earned the sobriquet “Merlin” at Manchester City. Isco started out as El Culon (The Big Ass). Mercifully for him, these days he is better known as “Magia.” He is magic. All three conjure up supernatural references.
Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” opens with an old magician explaining that every magic trick consists of three acts. The first, he says, is the Pledge – when the magician shows you an ordinary object. Think of Iniesta in Barca’s first leg against Chelsea. Ordinary midfielder right? Until Andreas Christensen’s poor pass, and he springs to life: swooping in and cutting back to Messi with practiced ease.
The next act is the Turn and you make the object do something extraordinary like disappear. Silva is no stranger to the fantastic. His handiwork in Manchester City’s 6-1 demolition of its crosstown rivals in the Manchester derby in 2011 particularly stands out. He was superb throughout, but, like the very best showmen, he saved his best for last. As United pushed forward trying to salvage something from the game, the midfield maestro received a clearance in his own half, cushioned the ball up into the air, and volleyed an ethereal 40-yard through ball for Edin Dzeko to finish off.
To make an object disappear is not enough for a successful trick. A magician must make it reappear in the third act, the Prestige. After so much time spent on the fringes of the Real Madrid squad, Isco is adept at the reappearance. The playmaker was told he could leave in the summer of 2016 but chose to stay at the Bernabeu and fight for his place. Madridistas are glad he did. His form last season in particular was superb. Against Sporting Gijon, for example, he kept Real’s title push on track by transforming one point into three with his stupendous 90th minute winner. Picking up the ball on the edge of the box, he calmly maneuvered past three defenders in succession before sweeping the ball into the far corner. Even in slow motion, it is difficult to work out how he was able pull off this beguiling piece of skill.
Returning to the match at hand. The first 60 minutes of Germany-Spain was brought to life by the three little magicians. First, they would take an ordinary object, the ball, and stroke it around the field. Then, when faced with German pressure, they would do something extraordinary with it. The ball would disappear and materialize at the feet of a teammate’s. They kept the ball, defying physics and logic. And then the Prestige: in the 7th minute, Iniesta threaded a ball through the German back-line for Rodrigo to tuck away past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Very rarely does an international friendly deliver any sort of intrigue. This round of fixtures, however, was interesting. It was the last international break before the provisional World Cup squads were named. Thus, we were treated to two full-strength world-class teams making small calibrations ahead of a major tournament. The Spaniards were a joy to watch and must be considered amongst the favourites.
While France are blessed with supremely physical and gifted individuals all over the pitch, Les Bleus are yet to find the right amalgamation to unleash their undoubted talent. The Germans are a precision instrument, but Russia historically has a way of making fine-tuned machines come unstuck. The talent and creativity of Spain’s trio will ensure they leave a mark on this tournament.
Russia will be the last hurrah for Iniesta. He is recognized as one of the greatest midfielders in the world, yet still somehow manages to remain underappreciated. His movement and passing were a delicate leitmotif within the symphony of that friendly. He performed like an old illusionist, playing with the audience’s expectations to perform the greatest trick of all: drawing a smile from even the most cynical observer.
The 33-year-old earned a “contract for life” from the Blaugrana earlier this season, but he promised to stay only as long as his contribution matched the club’s expectations. It has felt, at times, like something of a farewell tour. The legendary midfielder has only completed 90 minutes four times this season. There is a sadness in watching such an accomplished player slowly make his way to the sidelines every match on the hour mark. It is a reminder of the words of Robert Frost: “Nothing gold can stay.” The World Cup is set to be his final performance on the big stage before a headlining residency in China or the Middle East.
At 32 years of age, this World Cup also promises to be Silva’s last. There is still plenty of life left in Manchester City’s wizard though. He has been phenomenal this season in Pep Guardiola’s system as a “free eight.” He terrifies defenses by materialising in dangerous positions, forcing fullbacks and centre-backs into awkward decisions. His handiwork enabled his teammates to take advantage of the space he creates, and the Citizens were rampant throughout the whole campaign. While he may never receive top billing, he is an indispensable part of the show.
It is Isco, though, who is the most intriguing of the trio. While the other two are in the twilight of their careers (and what a twilight it is, by the way), the Andalusian is approaching his prime. He has the most potential to be Iniesta’s heir apparent, a tag he’s carried ever since THAT elastico vs Russia under-21s, but he also faces a number of hurdles. His name is not a given on Zinedine Zidane’s team sheet, and he must play for his spot every match. That sort of pressure, however, has brought the best out of him. And he showed it during the Spanish football team’s second friendly against Argentina.
La Furia Roja started with just two of the three wonder-workers after David Silva was released from international duty early to return to Manchester, and Isco stole the show with a superb hattrick. The fans in attendance knew they had witnessed a special performance, and he departed to a standing ovation. It was thoroughly deserved.
Despite all the adulation and his obvious talents, Isco cannot be sure of a starting berth at Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane’s system and playing style are not natural fits for Isco’s game. Ironically, the same criticisms of Isco at Los Meringues – that he slows down attacks with over-elaborate tricks, for example – were leveled at Zizou during his playing days.
Indeed, it is hard not think of Zidane watching Isco motor about the pitch searching for the ball, and then, once he has it, surprising everyone with his inventiveness and mystical ability glide past the most tenacious of defenders. His assist for Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal against Juventus in the first leg of the quarterfinals was superb: he orchestrated the attack, buzzing around the midfield, before skating past a defender and centering to Ronaldo to poke the ball home.
Despite being the least assured of a place in his club side, Isco is the only one of the three wizards with a chance to win this season’s Champions League. While Iniesta and Silva fell victim to Roma’s and Liverpool’s midfield hustle and bustle, Isco seemed to only gain in strength during the quarterfinals. A strong showing in the final stages and a fourth winner’s medal in the competition would surely see top billing in the Spanish midfield go to “Magia.” He already has the nickname tattooed on his right arm. He seems ready.
We, as spectators, are certainly ready to see the show these three have cooked up for us this summer.
Despite all the geopolitical rumblings, allegations of corruption, threats of violence, and my own nation failing to qualify, I still cannot help but be excited for the World Cup. Why? Because as the character Angier explains in “The Prestige”, the world is miserable, but the look of wonder on the faces of the audience is worth everything. Iniesta, Silva, and Isco will, no doubt, bamboozle opponents in Russia. And, we the fans, will applaud every trick.