INIESTA’S GOODBYE… AND ISCO’S DEFINITIVE CLIMB TO STARDOM?

BARCELONA (dpa) – Russia 2018 is likely to witness Andres Iniesta’s farewell to the Spanish national team, as well as the first World Cup for his long-awaited successor Isco Alarcon.

The challenge will not be easy for the Real Madrid midfielder, 26, who will be expected to take the baton from the man who changed Spain’s football history. In South Africa 2010, with a goal in the 116th minute in the final against the Netherlands, Iniesta made Spain world champions.

“For now, and by its very nature, it is likely that the World Cup will be my last appearance with the national team. I don’t want to be there just for the sake of it. I don’t feel the need to be anywhere just because of who I am or who I have been,” Iniesta said in March, leaving some room to change his mind.

If he were, for instance, to follow the example of Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, with whom he is often compared, the Barcelona midfielder could stay on with the national team until at least Euro 2020, to try to win his third regional title with Spain. By then he would be 36, the age at which former Juventus and Milan playmaker Pirlo retired from the “Squadra Azzurra.”

Iniesta does not seem inclined to go that far, however.

“I hope [the farewell] is as we all dream of it, in the final,” he said, to make it clear that he is very unlikely to stay on.

Iniesta’s dream seems like a real possibility. With their “Magician” at the helm and with a squad that appears to have recovered from their failures in Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016, Spain are now, under new manager Julen Lopetegui, among the favourites for the trophy in Russia, particularly after they dealt Argentina a humiliating 6-1 thrashing at a friendly in March. The 2014 finalists did not have Lionel Messi, but Spain fielded Iniesta and Isco, and the latter shone with a hat-trick.

“It is very flattering to be compared with Iniesta,” the Real Madrid midfielder said after playing with the Barcelona icon for the first time, at a game against Ukraine in March 2015.

“But I have already said many times that I don’t really like comparisons. Andres is Andres. I am Isco, I am different, and I also want to make my own history, with my club and with the national team,” Isco said, well aware that no one has so far withstood comparisons with Iniesta.

Iniesta, a short, quiet man, became Spain fans’ favourite player on July 12, 2010 in Johannesburg, when his goal in the second half of extra time in the final made the dream of generation upon generation of Spanish football enthusiasts finally come true. Iniesta, who had been the best player in that final, topped off his fantastic performance with what was for him a rare achievement: a goal.

Since then, he has received ovations at every Spanish stadium, even when he is there with Barcelona, and every rival manager has praised him profusely. Tributes have multiplied in recent months, since he emotionally announced that he is leaving Barcelona.

“Iniesta is a football genius that I like to compare to Pirlo,” Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said when the English giants played Barcelona in the Champions League’s round of 16.

“I used to be a midfielder and I adore Iniesta, a player with incredible creativity,” Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco agreed weeks later.

Isco, who has already put on a few brilliant performances in his brief career with Spain (just 27 caps, compared to Iniesta’s 125), is in almost the opposite situation: every game is an exam.

A creative, virtuous player and a more prolific goal scorer than the veteran, Isco is the object of heated debates, especially at his club, where he is yet to earn an undisputed starting place under manager Zinedine Zidane.

He reaps praise and criticism in almost equal measure, probably for lack of continuity.

“I find that Isco is a fantastic player, with huge talent. He has been doing things very well for many years and he is in one of the best teams. Both there and with the national team, he is a very important player,” Iniesta said of him in the past.

“He is still young, and he has many years before him to keep growing and improving,” the veteran noted.

Lopetegui seems to have had few doubts about that in his short period as Spain manager. By now, no one doubts that Isco is on course to make his World Cup debut, even though he is yet to establish himself properly at Real Madrid.

“Games with the national team are my lifeblood. I have the manager’s trust here,” Isco said after his hat-trick against Argentina.

“I may not have earned it at Real Madrid, but I am still very eager to work, to keep improving and to be a starter with my club and with the national team. I am very keen to prove that I am a good player,” he added.

Russia 2018, most likely the last World Cup with Iniesta’s genius, will present Isco with the perfect opportunity.

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