For a competition that historically loves to promote young talent — such as Fernando Torres, captain of Atletico Madrid at 19, Ansu Fati, the youngest Champions League scorer at 16, and Iker Casillas that same tender age when he was plucked out of his school to travel with Real Madrid on Champions League duty — LaLiga was extremely late in enjoying the thrilling, uplifting talent that is Rayo Vallecano‘s Isi Palazon.
It’s partly because this bottle rocket, both diminutive and dangerous in equal measures, was busy as a farm labourer picking peaches, apples and apricots while his peers were already winning trophies, earning millions and becoming household names.
He looks like he could be English, like so many who own villas or rent apartments in the golf-centred, sunshine-blessed region of Murcia where he was born. About 5-foot-7 if he’s wearing longer studs on his boots, boasting a shaved head and warrior attitude, prone to looking a trifle red-faced either if it’s a searingly hot matchday or if he’s in the middle of one of his performances for Rayo where he appears to do the work of three men — those elements likely form your first impression of “Isinho.”
When you watch, though? It’s a treat.
For all his efficacy and importance to the bijou Madrid club from the raucous and working-class neighbourhood of Vallecas, Isi (Isaac) Palazon is sheer fun. His gifted left foot is elegant and precise in its distribution, but also powerful and explosive when he unleashes one of those searing drives at goal that, frankly, shouldn’t really be feasible for such a compact player.
Already this season, Palazon has five goals and three assists, putting him well on the way to the best creative stats of his career, but he’s so much more to Rayo than that. A ferocious tackler and the nerve centre through which much of the team’s play must flow if they want to attack well, he is vocal in his leadership and an inspirational icon for the ultra-loyal and noisy fans: he’s got the lot. The epitome of “the captain without the armband.”
Spain‘s national team has a new coach, Luis de la Fuente, who’s been articulate on the fact that he sees a dozen or more players who are now, under his watch, candidates to play for La Roja. He’s talking both in their Euro ’24 qualification campaign against the likes of Norway and Scotland, and when the 2021 Nations League runners-up face Italy in the semifinal of this year’s competition in June. Palazon has to be in that conversation, all of which makes it so surprising that just a few years ago he had to resort to the sweltering, back-breaking, insect-ridden task of picking fruit in the blistering heat of the Murcia sun just to make ends meet.
As talented, impressive and important as this likeable 28-year-old is now, it’s worth noting he didn’t make it in the fully professional football world until 2019 and made his LaLiga debut aged 26. On that day, Rayo lost 3-0 at Sevilla, with Palazon lasting about an hour.
Perhaps the most heartwarming part of all this, besides that he’s one of those players who makes it worthwhile buying a ticket to the match, turning on your television or radio to follow his performance, is that he was scheduled to be football royalty at just 13, only to suffer one painful setback after another in order to reach the excelsior state he’s in right now.
We all love a redemption story, right?
Palazon was the talented kid who was plucked from school and his local team to be fast-tracked to the Real Madrid academy as soon as he was a teenager. Once at Valdebebas, he knocked around with Raul de Tomas, Gonzalo Melero and Jese Rodriguez — who have nearly 300 LaLiga matches between them compared to his half-century of La Liga matches — but was released, pretty brutally, before thriving in the Villarreal youth system only to be told there, eventually, that they didn’t want him either.
Hence the return home, tail temporarily between his legs. Hence, too, the hard work in mid-morning sun, delicately separating peaches from their branches without bruising the precious fruit — a “life experience” that utterly changed him and inspired the “all-in, every day” attitude he has now.
His mantra is: “I look forward to every game, regardless of who and where we’re playing. Win, lose or draw, I love every second. I used to hate losing: it would put me in a foul mood every time, but it hurts much less at the moment because I’m conscious how lucky I am to be playing top level football.”
Although being picked, and then rejected, by Madrid is still a scar for Palazon, it remains an indication of how talented this dynamo was as a little kid. As he told his local newspaper: “I remember it like it was yesterday. My dad shaking me awake and telling to get my bags packed. I had a week’s trial at Madrid!
“I have to admit that I struggled being so far away from home. The first few months were brutal, and I’d cry my eyes out after every visit from family or friends. But I realised I had to toughen up mentally. I told myself how lucky I was, that most kids would give their right arm to be in my situation and it worked. I adapted and things got better, although deep down I was still very homesick.”
It’s not unusual to find that, when Madrid figured Isi wasn’t for them, the end was uncompromising. No warning, no preparation: he was called into an office and told to pack his things. Just a kid, humiliated, hurt and without anyone around him to drive him home the hundreds of miles to little Cieza (population 35,000) in Murcia. He still calls the process “devastating.”
Then to Villarreal’s academy for 3½ years. He admits: “Those were the best years of my life. Villarreal’s philosophy of football meant I came on in leaps and bounds tactically and technically, but they let me go too.
“At 19, it felt like the end of the world. You begin to question everything: ‘Is there any point in going on with this? Can I even play football?’ That self-doubt gnaws away at you.”
Back home again, the kid with the big reputation who, according to the gaze he felt from cynical locals, had failed. Broke and without a trade, he asked a friend whether he could work with him in the local fruit-picking industry. Yet Isi didn’t really understand how brutal, or useful, this experience would prove.
He says: “I’d been used to a good wage at Villarreal and suddenly, I didn’t have a cent to my name. One of my friends ran a peach farm, so I asked him if he would take me on as a labourer. I spent my mornings picking peaches and my afternoons training. It’s the kind of experience that teaches you a bit of humility. I’d say to myself, ‘F—, just a few weeks ago you were playing in one of the best youth sides in Spain and now look at you!’
“No disrespect to anyone who works in farming, but it opened my eyes to a whole different world. At Villarreal, I’d existed in this bubble of privilege and financial security that bore no resemblance to the real world. Now I worked side by side with guys who lived hand-to-mouth, breaking their backs just to survive till the end of the week. It was a real eye opener.
“I’m still in touch with a lot of those guys and I’ll never forget those days! It was a hard lesson, but one that changed me completely. I became much more focused and determined. If I had to work myself into the ground every day and run faster than I’d ever run in the past, then that’s what I’d do.”
And it’s what has made him stand out.
When Palazon joined Rayo in January 2020, they were 12th in the second tier. From then until now, he’s scored in the promotion playoff, Los Franjirrojos (the “Red Flashes,”) sit near the European qualification places (they’ve not played in UEFA competitions for 22 years) and the “Isi Factor” has been key in Rayo beating Athletic Club, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia and Barcelona (twice) in LaLiga, and in them reaching the Copa del Rey semifinal. A big impact for this late bloomer.
To complete this comeback story, having been central in that defeat of Real Madrid (who rejected him) just before the World Cup, it would need a cup win, a Spain cap, a big victory in European football — all of those would be rich reward for this talented little peach of a player. If you haven’t caught his show, and this is the first time the name Isi Palazon has crossed your path, then do yourself a favour: Watch the ex-fruit farmer who’s just reached football ripeness.