And so ends the most memorable season in recent Real Madrid history with a sensational double conquest of La Liga and Champions League. The first side ever to defend the Champions League. Much has been written about the heroes of this success. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane deserve every ounce of praise they get, but I will be highlighting two key individuals whose contributions towards this year’s achievements have gone under the radar.
The first of these individuals was arguably the most underrated player in this Real Madrid squad.
As a passionate Madridista, nothing is more enjoyable than seeing a young ‘canterano’ being given a chance with the first team and seizing it with both hands and excelling. In a team famed all around the world for its glamorous stars, it is increasingly difficult for any youth team player to become a part of the first team squad, let alone an integral part of it. This notion has only been reinforced since Florentino Perez first became president of the club in 2000, ushering in the age of the ‘Galacticos’.
So imagine the delight of every Madridista with the performances this season of Jose Ignacio Fernandez Iglesias, or Nacho as he is more popularly known. That delight is only multiplied when you consider how much adversity he had to fight.
Starting in Madrid’s youth team at the early age of eleven, Nacho nearly did not have a career at all. Diagnosed with type one diabetes, Nacho was told by one doctor that he should not continue playing football. But his resilience even at a young age was clear for everyone to see, and with a careful diet plan, Nacho continued to fight for his dream of playing for Real Madrid.
He impressed and advanced all the way up to Castilla, Madrid’s highest youth team set up. Nacho was the captain of a team featuring a bright young generation of talent which included Alvaro Morata, Jese Rodriguez and Dani Carvajal.
His breakthrough in the first team came under Jose Mourinho in 2011. And for the next year, Nacho’s versatility meant that he became one of the first names in Castilla to be picked by Mourinho for a spot in the first team.
However, during the 2012/13 season, Nacho was the subject of a dispute between Mourinho and Castilla’s manager at the time Alberto Toril. Mourinho was unhappy with how Toril was using the players in Castilla, and in particular Nacho. Despite Mourinho using Nacho as either a left back or right back with the first team, Toril was playing Nacho almost exclusively as a centre back. This irritated Mourinho, who said that “Toril knows that with me, Nacho will never be a centre back.”
Not only that, but despite having the best season of his career up to that point in terms of appearances and performances for the first team, Mourinho was not happy. In a dig towards Nacho, Mourinho said that “if a player of 23 or 24 years has not reached the level to be in Madrid’s squad, he will not arrive at 26, 27 or 28”. Nacho was 23 at the time.
For most players, that would have been the final nail in the coffin of their Madrid career. But Nacho was clear in what his ultimate ambition was. Real Madrid or bust.
Following Mourinho’s acrimonious departure, Carlo Ancelotti took charge. And while Nacho’s solid performances were recognised in the form of his first cap for the Spanish national team, his appearances for Madrid did not reflect this. Used by Ancelotti as a mere backup, Nacho would never feature unless there was an injury crisis or dead rubber games. Nacho kept patient though and was rewarded by being part of the squad that conquered both the Copa del Rey and the fabled ‘La Decima’, Madrid’s tenth European Cup triumph.
Unfortunately for Nacho, an inevitable problem was occurring. Although he never made a fuss about the limited minutes afforded to him, the inconsistency of his appearances meant that Nacho’s progression stagnated. That was on full display when an injury crisis during Ancelotti’s second season meant that Nacho would start alongside Raphael Varane in the centre of defence for the trip against fierce rivals Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. What followed was a mistake-riddled, rusty performance by Nacho in a 4-0 thrashing by Atletico.
The usual managerial merry-go-round in the Spanish capital continued the following season, and after Ancelotti was dismissed, in came Rafael Benitez. Now if there was one manager who would understand Nacho’s importance to the club, it would have been Benitez. A former ‘canterano’ himself as a player and a manager of the Castilla team for two years during the mid-1990’s, Benitez convinced Nacho he was a key part of his plans. Things were on the way up for Nacho, and scoring the winning goal against PSG in the Champions League was a huge moment for him.
Unfortunately for Nacho, Benitez’s reign at the helm would not last long. After a fall out with key members of the team and some poor results, Benitez would depart to be replaced by club legend Zinedine Zidane for the rest of the season. And once ‘Zizou’ found his preferred starting lineup, he chose not to stray too much from it, which meant fewer chances for Nacho.
Despite winning his second Champions League at the end of the season, Nacho felt that something had to change. He had reached a point in his career where playing a few minutes here and there was not enough, even if it was for his beloved Real Madrid. In fact, at one point, Nacho was as good as gone. Heavily linked with Roma, the thought of enjoying first-team football for such a big club was a very big temptation.
But Zidane had other ideas.
Despite the minimal playing time in previous seasons, Zidane managed to convince Nacho that he would have more minutes if he stayed. And that proved to be a masterstroke. Nacho decided to stay on and would have the season of his life.
Zidane’s highly acclaimed rotation policy, coupled with several injuries meant that Nacho played more games than in any other season during his career. He started more games in La Liga as a centr back than any of Sergio Ramos, Varane and Pepe. He was also able to deputise for both Marcelo and Dani Carvajal at left back and right back. And most importantly, he impressed immensely in each and every position he was called upon to fill. It cannot be underestimated how pivotal this was to the team’s success. In fact, he was the only player in the entire squad to feature in every single game in the crucial month of April which featured games against Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Atletico.
It is not just the fact that he was able to get more minutes. It is Nacho’s all-round improvement that has really made him so popular with the Madrid faithful. Whereas before he was known as a safety first defender, he has taken his game to the next level. His lightning quick speed is very underrated and able to get the team out of trouble in any situation. He is also ambidextrous, a trait which is very rare in modern football. What he lacks in height and physicality he makes up with his high intelligence. And that intelligence was in full evidence with a smartly taken quick free kick in a crucial game against Sevilla, a game where he also produced a rampaging performance playing as left back.
Other notable moments during the season included his superb curling cross for Ronaldo against Sporting Gijon and his incredible acrobatic goal against Cultural Leonesa in the Copa del Rey, a goal which Zidane described as “better than my Champions League final volley.”
Throughout his career, Nacho has exemplified the never say die spirit that runs through Real Madrid. Neither diabetes nor limited game time managed to derail his dream. His reward is that he is now both a fully established member of the Madrid squad and also the Spanish national team. He has truly been, in this writer’s opinion, the most underrated member of this historic Madrid team.