Isco has fallen out of favor at Real Madrid ever since Zinedine Zidane's departure last May, but the manager's return could coincide with a return to action–and form–for the talented Spain international.
“Eeeeko…Eeeeko”, the chorus reverberates around La Rosaleda during Spain’s 5-0 friendly win over Costa Rica in November 2017.
It’s the first time in five years that la Selección have played in Málaga and the home fans are, in one unified broad Andalusian accent, savoring the opportunity to witness once again the talents of the province’s most famous son since Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas: Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, or Isco.
The playmaker is enjoying his homecoming. He bring out the twists, turns and flicks in front of a crowd who lap it all up with gasps and generous applause.
He is substituted late in the second half, after a particularly unaccommodating Costa Rican defender takes exception to being turned one time too many and puts him on the floor.
He is applauded off the pitch but doesn’t look back. Isco, a fully-fledged Real Madrid Galactico in the form of his life, and Málaga, rooted to the bottom of La Liga, have taken very different paths since their improbable journey to the verge of the Champions League semifinals half a decade before.
Anyone making their way out of La Rosaleda that night through a near ankle-deep covering of sunflower seed shells would have seen a player on the precipice of true greatness; a player ready for 2018 to be the defining year of his career.
Half a year prior, Isco was arguably - Cristiano Ronaldo aside - the most important player in Real Madrid's side as they won La Liga and retained their Champions League crown in 2016/17.
Another half a year on, Isco starts again as Madrid make it three in a row against Liverpool in Kiev. Heading into the World Cup in Russia, the boy from Benalmádena is the star man for one of the pre-tournaments favorites. He is at the very apex of the sport.
Prior to dispatching Costa Rica, Julen Lopetegui's team were one of only four unbeaten European sides in qualifying, racking up 36 goals and conceding only three in ten games. In March 2018, Isco scores a hat trick as Spain massacre Argentina 6-1 at the Wanda Metropolitano. The year is off to a flier. The year of Isco.
On June 12, 2018, if asked to predict the year's Ballon d'Or winner, looking at the likely trajectory of the next few months, Isco wouldn't have been an inconceivable shout. One day later though and everything had begun to change.
Lopetegui was ousted as Spain manager on the literal eve of the World Cup, after an ill-timed announcement of his acceptance of the Real Madrid job, and in came Fernando Hierro as emergency caretaker. La Roja stuttered from the shock and went out on penalties to Russia in the last 16, despite the favorable side of the draw seemingly waving them on towards the final. There were brief flashes of Isco - particularly in the group game against Morocco - but the team just wasn't clicking, and he wasn't making them click either.
As the saying goes, you can't change your circumstances, you can only change your reaction to them. The sudden change of coach was a huge blow to Spain and Isco, but he didn't rise above it. Croatia too had a difficult backstory in the build up to the World Cup, but still Isco's Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric collected the tournament's Golden Ball on a rain-soaked Luzhniki pitch on July 15.
After the summer's disappointment, the process repeated itself. With Ronaldo gone and no marquee signing Isco was among those expected to take the reins and step up under Lopetegui, the man who had got the best out of him in a Spain shirt.
Some 139 days, and a crushing 5-1 defeat at Camp Nou, later and Lopetegui was gone. Again, Isco had been dealt a difficult hand and was not the reason for his manager's failure, but neither had he seized the moment to become a leader and talisman the club needed in a testing, transitional period. Being able to put defenders on the floor is one thing, being able to run through any obstacle is another.
Frozen out under the incoming Santiago Solari, the year of Isco ended with a 3-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow at the Santiago Bernabeu, a week after Modric had picked up the Ballon d'Or in Paris. That embarrassment on 12 December is the last time Isco played a full 90 minutes for Madrid. By the last few days of Solari's 119-day reign, Isco had become a virtual pariah, skipping a pre-match meeting and refusing to get on the team bus after being left out of the matchday squad for the Champions League last-16 fixture with Ajax.
The 26-year-old might've entered 2019 as Modric had circumstances fallen another way, instead he is another James Rodríguez - another very talented attacking midfielder, snookered by circumstance, chewed up and on the verge of being spat out by Real Madrid's brutally unforgiving system. The system doesn't care that this was the year of Isco.
How he deals with this next moment is crucial. Still not quite at what conventional wisdom defines as peak age for an attacking player, there has been reported interest (of varying levels of credibility) from Juventus, Liverpool, Man United and Paris Saint-Germain. There will never be a shortage of suitors for very good attacking castoffs from Real Madrid. Yet, with Zidane returning to the Bernabeu, Isco has another chance - possibly his last - to hit the reset button at Madrid, to go back to before it all went awry.
He will always be a Málaga hero and a three-time Champions League winner. However, it's 14 months since the crowd sang his name during a performance that was as electric as it was routine at his old home at La Rosaleda, while the year of Isco seemed to beckon. 2018 wasn't the year Isco and 2019 likely won't be either, but what happens in the next months and where he ends up could define his career - the difference between a very good player and a great one.