When Fernando Torres, who scored the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final that brought Spain their first international trophy for 44 years, used to fly to the Galician city of Vigo to visit his girlfriend at the time, Olalla Dominguez, he would be. he is greeted upon arrival at the airport not by a mob of screaming fans attracted by his fame and boyish good looks, but by a gang of bright-eyed, gangly local boys, who act as their gang leader. This young man was the real Betis striker Borja Iglesias.
– Streaming on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (US)
Honorable to a fault, for months Torres would stop and sign autographs to the point that Iglesias now has the inscription “Best wishes!” things (newspapers, napkins, tickets) signed by the young man who crossed the left wing in extra time on July 11, 2010, finally allowed Andres Iniesta to reach the half-volley for Spain’s World Cup-final victory over the Netherlands.
Even as a teenager in a town in northeastern Spain, “with no idea how to make it as a professional soccer player,” Iglesias had a good understanding of what makes a top scorer. All these years later, the pendulum has swung. Now perhaps it’s the 6-foot-2 Betis player who has his chance to produce the golden moments, and goals, that bring La Roja glory to Qatar.
Perhaps, in the next two months, the mantle will be transferred from Torres to Iglesias; from”El Nino“to”El Panda.”
If you watched his hand-to-hand, knee-to-groin, nose-to-nose battle with three Real Sociedad defenders, Aritz Elustondo, Robin Le Normand and Jon Pacheco on Sunday, before Iglesias scored the winning goal. Putting Betis in the LaLiga Champions League qualifiers, you might conclude that this was a performance to convince Luis Enrique to take “Panda” out of the desert. The night to confirm the man is “the power of the list” that Borja Iglesias just needs to be in the team that will be named on November 11, and he needs to be on the plane that carries Spain to Doha.
If you weren’t looking – and why on earth? — so I promise it’s not an exaggeration.
This was old school football. La RealThe defenders knew that Betis were tired. They knew that Borja and Co had played 17 times in the 11 weeks since the start of the 2022-23 season, having to travel 22,000 kilometers (almost 14,000 km) to and from Rome, Helsinki and Razgrad (Bulgaria) to qualify. . knockout rounds of the Europa League. So Imanol Aguacil’s Real Sociedad, already at the top of LaLiga’s negative numbers, really believe they can inflict a blow, at home, by beating Borja’s boys physically.
It was the depth of the goal that led to the Basques committing almost twice the foul committed by Betis, but to no avail. “Panda” received a precious little service and, while he was trying to put himself in the game, La Real’s defenders followed him.
At this point you’re probably wondering two things: why is it called “Panda,” when, physically, it looks more like a giraffe? And can Spain have such faith in a 29-year-old, who scored his first LaLiga goal four years ago and has yet to start an international game. La Roja?
The first one is easy, and the more knowledgeable among you may already know the answer.
It was Week 3 of the 2016-17 season in Spain’s third division and Celta Vigo B were playing away to Palencia in central Spain. Bored in their hotel room, Borja and his three friends start listening to rapper Desiigner and his song (you guessed it) “Panda.” They proceeded to watch videos of the animals on YouTube and, without a second thought, the four teammates adopted both the name, and the iconic image, of this Chinese member of the bear family. Suddenly, they were the “Panda Team.”
In the first team, the nickname was soon applied only to Borja, the alpha player, after his 32 goals in the season – they won 3-1 at Palencia that day. me de plume was born — so much so that it almost promoted Celta B to the second division before losing in the finals. Since leaving Celta for Zaragoza, Espanyol and now Betis, he has popped up on Luis Enrique’s radar during Spain’s 30 minutes of their last defeat, which came at home to Switzerland.
The answer to the second question is, yes, good enough. Moreover, there is no other player, available from the Spanish national coach, who combines all the features of Panda. There is none.
He’s tall and aerial, thunderous and boasts not only penalty-taking ability, but a career-best conversion rate (34-of-37). Stylistically, he’s an old-timer who’s about to be perfectly happy playing his own back for goals if he needs to be, but beyond proving he’s a top-class finisher – with a career-high 66 goals since 2018 – he’s also. A good footballer, a key feature of the way Luis Enrique wants Spain to play.
The best of all, and the attacking footballers around him fell injured, throwing form and goals or so, like Mikel Oyarzabal, not close enough to full training after a long injury to suggest that they will be on the plane, “Panda” to take beats from opposing defenders and still find the net. Often. He has eight goals and two assists in 11 LaLiga starts, second only to Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski in terms of attacking impact this season. It was his goal in last season’s final that put Betis on course for a third Copa del Rey.
Luis Enrique (and his scouts) will be delighted with the way Iglesias surrounded Real Sociedad’s ruthless and vicious defenders, even getting close to the referee on Sunday without getting a book before he made it 40 metres. Alex Moreno’s late kick in the 94th minute made it 2-0. (Also note: aggressive and eager to win though, Borja hasn’t booked enough to be suspended since March 2019.)
So, the right time, the right place and, when talking to him, the right words, too.
His view is: “There is no striker, in today’s football, who can only ‘sit’ by scoring. We all have to bring a lot to the team. There are many things a player has to do for a long time before he can score. There are times when, if I miss a lay-off in the middle of the field, I can say ‘what?’ Now anything like that stings me. These days I know how important it is to catch and hold the ball.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is like manna from heaven for the Spanish coach.
That’s how he played. It’s something he’s trying to impress on his team and it’s a theme that, like his performance at Anoeta this weekend, will put Borja on the plane to Qatar if he’s fit.
There is more, however. The Panda also admits: “Winning means more to me than scoring goals.” If I didn’t win the game I would hate to be there, I’m just living, look my parents have Godson even when we play anything. , I can’t ‘let’ him win. You get angry, but that’s not for me.
Also, this could be written by Luis Enrique; after all his nickname, “Lucho,” means “fighter.” It is the great fortune of the “Panda” that during his time in the youth system of Celta, he impressed their great coach, the same Luis Enrique, enough for the 20-year-old player, who was transformed into a winger. promoted to train with the first team.
The Spanish coach recently revealed: “I’ve been watching Borja since then (2013-14) and he has a lot of things that I like – not the habit of playing with a big smile on his face.”
You’re also a cool guy, Borja. In the conservative world of Spanish football, where “the way things are done” is a priority, Borja is someone who, when the George Floyd protests were at their peak, painted his nails black and announced that it was his way. “expressing opposition to both racism and homophobia” and said that he “likes” controversy in the field so “… if there is a central institution that wants to choose me because of this they have been warned…”
“Panda” often admired Didier Drogba, Fernando Morientes (whom he really looked up to when Borja was a child homesick in Valencia), and, of course, Torres. “There was word that he was going to fly to our city [Vigo] and so my friends and I used to get off at the airport … and I had all kinds of weird photos with him,” Iglesias said.
When I recommend this column to our ESPN FC “Jefe“he assessed Borja as having the grip and bite of a “junkyard dog” – just what he’ll need when desperate Sevilla cross the city to play Betis at the uber-uber-uber-uber-Benito Villamarin stadium next Sunday night (LIVE: Real Betis vs. Sevilla, 11/6, 3 pm ET, ESPN+, US Only.)
Borja wants to go to the World Cup. Borja wants to stay fit until that plane leaves. But please, be in no doubt: Borja “the Panda” wants to strike first against relegation-prone Sevilla. At all costs. There will be no arrests, no quarter asked or given, no thought that a football war like the Seville derby would be a good thing to handle carefully and independently, because it will be the country’s only 29 years old. The cup is about to float upwards.
After all, it is not the way of “Panda.”