Marco Asensio picked up the ball in the edge of the box at the Santiago Bernabeu and off he went, past one and past another before being brought down. It was a foul that Sevilla thought was dubious, but they had no idea what would happen next. As Jorge Sampaoli’s men stood in protest, the stadium suddenly lit up. Out of nowhere, Nacho snuck up and had a shot, the strike cushioned into the back of the net and, with that, Real Madrid led with 10 minutes played. The visitors were furious, so too was their Chilean coach. But by then, there was little they could do.
It may have been outrageous, perhaps a little scandalous and downright cheeky from a man who’s often seen as the nice guy, but it was a goal which, in many ways, summed up the character of Jose Ignacio Fernandez Iglesias. He’s adventurous and maybe sometimes a little flamboyant but also the quiet achiever, and the perennial underdog.
Whilst many young defenders will undoubtedly look up to Sergio Ramos, and perhaps Raphael Varane, for good reason too, they should consider adding Nacho to the list. He is the ideal footballer — he’s hardworking, well-respected and well-liked -- even if he almost didn’t make it.
The Real Madrid defender was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at the age of 12, two years after joining Real Madrid’s youth academy. It was a tough time, he admits, during which his endocrinologist sought to persuade him from giving up his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
But Nacho would not give it up easily, not without a fight. He continued to push, and was promoted to the club’s Castilla side, before being called up for a pre-season tour with the first-team by Jose Mourinho to America.
In the seasons following, he was forced to settle for a bit-part role. Back then, Nacho wasn’t even used to being on the pitch. But now, at the age of 27, six years on from his competitive debut, the Spanish international can finally be regarded as a first-team regular under Zinedine Zidane. He’s been one of the most reliable too.
It all started last season with Nacho playing regular minutes due, in part, to Pepe’s lingering muscle problems as well as Raphael Varane’s achilles and hamstring injuries. He also had a go at left-back too in place of Marcelo. All in all, he featured in 28 La Liga matches and proved to be their best defender, finishing the season with the most tackles won (49) at a success rate of 52%.
The 27-year-old is now probably Zidane’s most reliable centre-back. He’s also a reliable left-back and right-back too; one who is calm and composed, well grounded in his technical ability and quick to pounce in attack whenever the has the space, and time, to do so.
When called on to deputize for the injured Marcelo, as Theo Hernandez against Espanyol earlier this month, Nacho made four interceptions, four tackles and a block. This season alone, he has started six times in La Liga and has missed just the one match — against Real Betis — and he now has 88 league appearances in total to his name, and with him in his prime, Madrid won’t want him to miss many more.
“I'm happier than ever because things are going well now and I've been working with the Real Madrid squad for many years,” he said recently. "The most important thing that has happened to me in recent months has been to feel Zidane's confidence, and the same as with Julen.”
The fact is, Nacho has often been linked with a move away from the club in recent years. Lately, it has been Roma, Chelsea and Arsenal who have come calling. Not that any of those offers have interested him -- he previously said Real Madrid was the club of his life, and it’s a telling statement.
Others have come in recent years, others have left too. Amongst it all, Nacho has remained. Why? Simply put, Los Blancos need him, now more than ever.
Whilst he may never want to be in the limelight, nor brag about how good he is, those lucky enough to be teammates with him know just how good he is. So good, in fact, that Pepe departed because of him. Indeed, Nacho has been fundamental, he’s made his case quietly and consistently. Don’t say it too loudly, but if he continues like this, he really could be considered as one of the world’s best.