Why Borja Iglesias deserves to be in Spain’s World Cup squad

When Fernando Torres, scorer of the winning goal in the final of Euro 2008 that brought Spain their first international trophy for 44 years, used to fly up to the Galician city of Vigo to visit his then-girlfriend, Olalla Dominguez, he’d be greeted in airport arrivals not by a mob of screaming fans attracted by his fame and boyish good looks, but by a gang of local lads with a gangly, bright-eyed, beanpole serving as the leader of their pack. That boy was Real Betis forward Borja Iglesias.

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Polite to a fault, over the months Torres would stop and sign autographs to the point that Iglesias now has a host of inscribed “Best Wishes!” stuff (newspapers, napkins, tickets) 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 Spain’s World Cup final-winning goal against Netherlands.

Even as a teenage kid in a north-eastern Spanish fishing town, still with “absolutely no idea about making it as a professional footballer,” Iglesias had a proper understanding of what constituted a top-level goal scorer. All these years later, the pendulum has swung. Now maybe it’s the 6-foot-2 Betis striker whose turn it might be to produce the golden moments, and goals, that bring La Roja glory in Qatar.

Perhaps, over the next two months, the mantle will be passed from Torres to Iglesias; from “El Nino” to “El Panda.”

If you watched his hand-to-hand, knee-to-groin, nose-to-nose pitched battle with Real Sociedad‘s three central defenders, Aritz Elustondo, Robin Le Normand and Jon Pacheco on Sunday, before Iglesias scored the win-guaranteeing goal to vault Betis into LaLiga’s Champions League qualifying positions, then you might have decided that this was the performance to convince Luis Enrique to take “the Panda” to the desert. A night to convince the man with “the power of the list” that Borja Iglesias simply must be in the squad that’ll be named on Nov. 11, and must then be on the plane carrying Spain to Doha.

If you weren’t watching — and why on earth not? — then I promise you it’s no exaggeration.

This was old-school football. La Real‘s defenders knew that Betis were tired. They also knew that Borja and Co. have played 17 times in the 11 weeks since the 2022-23 season started, even having to travel 22,000 kilometers (nearly 14,000 miles) to and from Rome, Helsinki and Razgrad (Bulgaria) to qualify for the knockout rounds of the Europa League. So Imanol Aguacil’s Real Sociedad, already the top of the fouling stats in LaLiga, genuinely believed they could apply a knockout blow, domestically, by battering Borja’s boys physically.

It was an intensity of intent that led to the Basques committing nearly double the fouls Betis did, but to no avail. “The Panda” received precious little service and, while he tried to impose himself on the game, La Real’s defenders went after him.

At this stage you’re probably wondering two things: why is he called “the Panda,” when, physically, he looks much more like a giraffe? And can Spain really put such faith in a guy who’s already 29, scored his first LaLiga goal only four years ago and hasn’t even started an international match for La Roja?

The first one’s easy, and the better-informed among you might 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 at Palencia in the heart of central Spain. Bored in their hotel room, Borja and three teammates started listening to the rapper Desiigner and his song (you guessed it) “Panda.” They progressed to watching videos of those animals on YouTube and, without a second thought, the four teammates adopted both 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 exclusively applied only to Borja, the alpha-player, after his 32 goals in a season — they won 3-1 at Palencia that day his nom de plume was born — that so very nearly promoted Celta B to the second division before they lost out in the playoffs. Since leaving Celta for Zaragoza, Espanyol and now Betis, he has popped up 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, he’s easily good enough. What’s more there’s not a single player, available to Spain’s national coach, who combines all the Panda’s qualities. Not one.

Tall and aerially excellent, he has a thunderous shot and not only boasts a terrific penalty-taking technique, but a fine conversion rate (34-of-37) in his career. Stylistically, he’s an old-fashioned striker in terms of being perfectly happy playing with his back to goal if he needs to, but beyond simply proving he’s a high-level finisher — with 66 top-flight goals since 2018 — he’s also a damn good footballer, an essential attribute to how Luis Enrique demands that Spain play.

Best of all, with attacking footballers all around him falling injured, flailing for form and goals or still, like Mikel Oyarzabal, not near enough to full training after a long injury to suggest they’ll be on the plane, “the Panda” is taking the hits from opposing defenders and still finding 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-ever Copa del Rey.

Luis Enrique (and his scouts) will have thrilled at the way Iglesias laid siege on Real Sociedad’s burly and brusque defenders, even getting up close and personal with the referee on Sunday without getting himself booked before making a lung-busting, 40-metre sprint to tuck away Alex Moreno’s back-post cross in the 94th minute for 2-0. (Also of note: aggressive and bursting with will to win though he is, Borja hasn’t incurred enough bookings to be suspended since March 2019.)

So, right time, right place and, when you talk to him, right words, too.

A mantra of his is this: “No striker, in modern football, can ‘live’ exclusively via his goal scoring. All of us need to bring much more to a team. There are so many things a striker must do long before he’s tucking the ball past the keeper. There was a time when, if I missed a lay off in midfield, I’d be like ‘so what?’ Now anything like that really stings me. These days I’m conscious of how important every single touch on the ball is.”

That, ladies and gents, is like manna from heaven for Spain’s coach.

It’s how he himself played. It’s what he tries to impact upon his squad and it’s a theme that, like his performance at the Anoeta this weekend, will put Borja on the flight to Qatar so long as he’s fit.

There’s more, though. The Panda also admits: “Winning means more to me than scoring goals. If I don’t win a match, I can be hateful to be around. I just live for it. Look: my parents have a Godson and when we play anything, I’m incapable of ‘allowing’ him to win. He gets angry, but that’s simply not in my make up.”

Again, this could be scripted by Luis Enrique; after all his nickname, “Lucho,” means “fighter.” It’s to “the Panda’s” great good fortune that during his time in the Celta youth system, he impressed their senior coach, that same Luis Enrique, sufficiently for the 20-year-old striker, who’d 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’s got lots of things I like — not least the habit of playing with a big smile on his face.”

He’s also a cool dude, Borja. In the conservative world of Spanish football, where “the way things are done” is a dominant sentiment, Borja is the fella who, when the George Floyd protests were at their peak, painted his nails black and announced that it was his own way of “stating opposition to both racism and homophobia” and said that he “loved” a tussle on the pitch so “… if any centre-halves want to pick on me because of this then they’ve been warned …”

“The Panda” always admired Didier Drogba, Fernando Morientes (who really looked out for him when Borja was a homesick kid at Valencia), and, of course, Torres. “Word got about when he was due to fly into our city [Vigo] and so me and my mates would always go down to the airport … and I’ve got a variety of unusual photos with him,” Iglesias said.

When I suggested this column to our ESPN FC “Jefe,” he evaluated Borja as having the pluck and bite of “a junkyard dog” — something he may need when a desperate Sevilla cross their city to play at Betis’ febrile, uber-confident Benito Villamarin stadium next Sunday night (Stream LIVE: Real Betis vs. Sevilla, 11/6, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+, US Only.)

Borja wants to go to the World Cup. Borja wants to stay fit until that plane leaves. But please, have zero doubts: Borja “the Panda” wants to beat relegation-threatened Sevilla first. At all costs. There will be no holding back, no quarter asked or given, no thought of whether a football-war like the Seville derby might be a good one to treat with caution and self preservation given that what will be the 29-year-old’s only World Cup is just about to hover into view.

After all, that’s not the way of “the Panda.”

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