When Fernando Torres, scorer of the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final that brought Spain its first international trophy for 44 years, was flying to the Galician city of Vigo to visit his girlfriend, Olalla Dominguez , was greeted upon arrival at the airport not by a crowd of screaming fans attracted by his fame and boyish figure, but by a band of bean-topped, bright-eyed local boys who he serves as the leader of his pack. That boy was Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias.
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Curiously to a fault, in the months Torres stopped and signed autographs to the point that Iglesias now has a bunch of “Best Wishes” inscribed! stuff (newspapers, napkins, ticket) signed by the guy whose booming cross from the left wing in extra time on July 11, 2010 eventually allowed Andres Iniesta to half volley in the goal of the final of the World Cup of Spain against the Netherlands.
Although he was a teenager in a fishing town in northeastern Spain, still with “absolutely no idea of what it would be like to be a professional footballer”, Iglesias had a thorough understanding of what constitutes a top-level goleador . All these years later, the pendulum has swung. Now perhaps it’s the 6-foot-2 Betis forward whose turn it could be to produce the golden moments, and goals, that bring La Roja glory in Qatar.
Perhaps, in the next two months, the mantle will be passed from Torres to Iglesias; from “El Nino“to”The Panda.”
If you watched his knee-to-knee, nose-to-nose battle with Real Sociedad’s three central defenders, Aritz Elustondo, Robin Le Normand and Jon Pacheco on Sunday, before Iglesias scored the goal of guarantee of victory. to return Betis in the qualification places of the Champions League of LaLiga, then you may have decided that this was the show to convince Luis Enrique to take “the Panda” in the desert. A night to convince the man with “the power of the list” that Borja Iglesias must simply be in the team that will be named on November 11, and then he must be on the plane that takes Spain to Doha.
If you don’t look – and why not? — So I promise you it’s not an exaggeration.
This was old school football. The RealThe defenders knew that Betis were tired. They also knew that Borja and Co. they have played 17 times in the 11 weeks since the start of the 2022-23 season, despite having to travel 22,000 kilometers (almost 14,000 miles) to and from Rome, Helsinki and Razgrad (Bulgaria) to qualify for Europe’s knockout rounds League. So Imanol Aguacil’s Real Sociedad, already at the top of the fouling statistics in LaLiga, really believed they could apply a knockout blow, at home, by physically beating Borja’s boys.
It was an intensity of intent that led the Basques to commit almost twice as many fouls as Betis did, but to no avail. “The Panda” received little valuable service and, while he tried to impose himself in the game, the defenders of the Real went after him.
At this stage, you’re probably wondering two things: why is it called “the Panda”, when physically it looks a lot more like a giraffe? And can Spain really put that much faith in a guy who is already 29 years old, scored his first goal in LaLiga just four years ago and hasn’t even started an international match yet La Roja?
The first is easy, and the best informed among you might already know the answer.
It was week 3 of the 2016-17 season in the Spanish third division and Celta Vigo B were playing Palencia in the heart of central Spain. Borja in his hotel room, Borja and three teammates started listening to rapper Desiigner and his song (you guessed it) “Panda.” They had proceeded to watch videos of those animals on YouTube and, without thinking, the four teammates adopted the name, and iconic image, of this Chinese member of the bear family. Suddenly, they were the “Panda Team”.
A collective to begin with, the nickname quickly became only applied to Borja, the alpha player, after his 32 goals in a season – they won 3-1 at Palencia that day. pen name was born – who very nearly promoted Celta B to the second division before losing in the playoffs. From Celta to Zaragoza, Espanyol and now Betis, he appeared on Luis Enrique’s radar in time to get 30 minutes for Spain in their last defeat, which came at home to Switzerland.
The answer to question two is, yes, it’s easy enough. In addition, there is not a single player, available to the national coach of Spain, who combines all the qualities of the Panda. Not one.
Tall and excellent aerial, he has a thunderous shot and not only boasts a terrific penalty kick technique, but a good conversion rate (34-of-37) in his career. Stylistically, he is an old-fashioned striker in that he is perfectly happy to play with his back to goal if need be, but as well as showing that he is a top-level finisher – with a league-leading 66 goals since 2018 – he’s also a damn good footballer, an essential attribute for how Luis Enrique demands Spain play.
Best of all, with attacking footballers all around falling injured, shaken for form and goals or even, like Mikel Oyarzabal, not close enough to full training after a long injury to suggest that ‘they will be in the plane, “the Panda” is taking the shots of the opposing defenders and always find the net. Regularly. 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 also his goal in last season’s final that set Betis on course to win just their third Copa del Rey.
Luis Enrique (and his scouts) would have raved about the way Iglesias besieged Real Sociedad’s burly and brutish defenders, even approaching the referee on Sunday without being booked before making a 40-metre sprint. to put away Alex Moreno’s back-post cross in the 94th minute for 2-0. (Also worth noting: aggressive and bursting with will to win though he is, Borja hasn’t made enough bookings to be suspended since March 2019.)
So, the right time, the right place and, when talking to him, the right words, too.
A mantra of his is this: “No striker, in modern football, can ‘live’ exclusively because of his goals. We all need to bring much more to a team. There are so many things that a striker must do a lot before he is tucking. the ball past the keeper. There was a time when if I missed a layoff in the midfield, I would be like “so what?” Now something like this really stings me. These days I’m aware of how important every touch on the ball is.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is like a godsend for Spain’s coach.
That’s how he played himself. That’s what he’s trying to impact on his team and it’s a topic that, like his performance at Anoeta this weekend, will put Borja on the flight to Qatar, as long as he’s fit.
There is more, though. The Panda also admits: “Winning means more to me than scoring goals. If I don’t win a match, I can be hated to be around. I live only for this. Look: my parents have a Godson and when we play something . , I am unable to “allow” to win. He gets angry, but this is simply not in my make up.”
Again, this could have been written by Luis Enrique; after all his nickname, “Lucho”, means “fighter”. It is for the great luck of “the Panda” that during his time in the youth system of Celta, he impressed his senior coach, the same Luis Enrique, enough for the 20-year-old striker, who had been converted from a winger, to be promoted to train with the first team.
The Spain coach recently revealed: “I’ve been watching Borja since then (2013-14) and he has many things I like – not least the habit of playing with a big smile on his face.”
He’s a cool guy too, Borja. In the conservative world of Spanish football, where “the way things are done” is a dominant sentiment, Borja is the guy who, when the George Floyd protests were at their peak, painted his nails black and announced that it was his way. “Declares opposition to racism and homophobia” and said that he “loved” a fight on the field, so “… if they want to take me because of this, then they have been warned …”
“The Panda” always admired Didier Drogba, Fernando Morientes (who had really tried him when Borja was a nostalgic boy in Valencia), and, of course, Torres. “The word got out about when he was going to fly to our city [Vigo] and so me and my companions always went to the airport … and I had a variety of unusual photos with him,” said Iglesias.
When I suggested this column to our ESPN FC”Chief,” he rated Borja as having the pinch and bite of “a junkyard dog” — something he might need when a desperate Sevilla cross his hometown to play Betis at the febrile and uber-confident Benito Villamarin Stadium on Sunday next evening (LIVE Stream: Real Betis vs. Sevilla, 11/6, 3 pm ET, ESPN+, US only.)
Borja wants to go to the World Cup. Borja wants to stay in shape until the plane leaves. But please, have no doubt: Borja “the Panda” wants to beat relegation-threatened Sevilla first. At all costs. There will be no restraint, no quarter asked or given, nor do you think if a football war like the Seville derby could be a good one to deal with caution and self-preservation, since what will be the world’s only 29-year-old . The cup is right on the sight.
After all, it is not the way of “the Panda”.