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Isco is a star for Real Madrid because he believed in his ability to change Zinedine Zidane’s mind

In August, Real Madrid tried to get rid of Isco. He refused to leave. That couldn’t have worked out any better for either the player or the club.

Real Madrid needed to avoid defeat against Málaga on Sunday to win La Liga. They were virtually assured of that after just three minutes of play, thanks to a spectacular assist by Isco Alarcón, finished off by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Just eight months prior to this, Isco was told he didn’t have a future at Madrid. He was put up for sale in August, looked close to a Premier League move, stubbornly refused to leave, then looked silly for doing so after he was left out of the squad for Real Madrid’s first Champions League game.

Real Madrid players never come back from being told they have no future at the club, then subsequently getting dropped from the 18-man squad. Ask Pedro León, Nuri Sahin, Rafael van der Vaart, Fernando Gago, José Callejón, Asier Illarramendi, or Jesé Rodriguez. Once the club decides you’re not good enough, you’re done. It’s best to accept it early to make sure you have as many options as possible when you’re looking for a new club.

And based on the quality that Real Madrid has in their squad at the moment, there was little reason to believe Isco could work his way back into the team. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are locked-in starters on the wings. Same for Toni Kroos at the most attacking midfield spot. James Rodriguez was the primary backup for all three positions. Marco Asensio, arguably the top Under-21 talent in Europe, was next on the depth chart. Homegrown winger Lucas Vázquez is popular with fans and Zidane for his work rate. Luka Modrić’s backup, Mateo Kovačić, is also highly rated and can play as a more attacking midfielder if he has to.

It didn’t make sense for Isco to stay at Madrid and fight that group for a spot in the lineup given the options he had outside of Real Madrid. While Tottenham was the most interested club at the deadline, Isco would have had a wide variety of options if he declared his intention to seek a transfer a month earlier. All of the Premier League’s big clubs, and perhaps Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, would have loved to not only sign him, but put him into a key role. He could have negotiated a new long-term contract with a raise.

Leaving Real Madrid would not have been giving up on a career at the highest level. It would have been taking the opportunity to be a superstar in another team that can compete for trophies. That didn’t appeal to Isco as much as fighting for his place at Madrid, as unlikely as it was for him to find a way into the team.

But his opportunity came. Through a combination of some excellent play during the brief substitute appearances he was given and injuries to Kroos, Bale, and James, starting opportunities popped up. And in those opportunities, he finally found the thing his game had been lacking since he arrived at Madrid — consistency.

Isco is an extremely popular player that fans always hoped would succeed because he’s one of soccer’s greatest entertainers. His best skills, tricks, and assists have always been mesmerizing.

But against top teams, his creativity wasn’t worth the drawback of his turnovers. While his highlights and statistics have always looked spectacular, he drew boos and whistles from Madridistas last season for his mistakes.

This season has been a different story. The showmanship has remained, but the errors haven’t. His 10 goals and eight assists in La Liga are great, but they’re not as impressive as his ball retention. When he’s on the pitch, Madrid seems to never give the ball away cheaply. That’s translated into a La Liga title and comfortable progression to the Champions League final.

Suddenly, a coach that was happy to get rid of him last summer sees him as a key member of the team.

“I am happy with how he played -- he made the difference,” Zidane said after Isco almost single-handedly guided Madrid to a 3-2 comeback win over Sporting Gijón in April. “I am happy for him. He has the personality to do what he did today ... he is a great player. He has shown that. Real Madrid is where he belongs."

Isco has been significantly better than both Bale and James this season, and there’s no question about his place in Los Merengues’ squad heading into this summer. He’ll be a significant contributor for Real Madrid next season.

Isco believed that he was good enough to show Zidane he deserved a place in the team based on training, brief substitute appearances, and cup run-outs against lower-division teams. As it turns out, he was right.

That might be the best individual story in soccer this season. In an era where many players look for a move the instant they fall out of favor with a manager, Isco believed he could change Zidane’s mind. He bet on himself, and he won.