Betis’ Borja Iglesias Talks to ESPN About His Focus on Mental Health, Respect for Benzema

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When Real Madrid played Real Betis at the Bernabeu last Saturday, one of La Liga‘s top strikers tried to add something to his tally of four goals in the young season.

We’re not talking about Karim Benzemathough — he stays on three league goals — but Betis ahead Borja Iglesiaswho is just behind Barcelona‘s Robert Lewandowski and Celta Vigo‘s Jago Aspas in the pichichic race (both with five goals).

Iglesias, 29, has been around for a while. He made it through Celta Vigo’s academy, starred on loan at Real Zaragoza and made his top-level breakthrough with Espanyolwhere 17 league goals in 2018-19 convinced Betis to sign him for €30 million.

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But he’s never started the season like this: scoring in Betis’ opening 3-0 win Elcheconvert two penalties into a 2-1 win at Majorca and score the only goal in a 1-0 win Osasuna. It’s the kind of form where people talk about a surprise call for Spain at the 2022 World Cup, for a player who has never played for his country, at any level.

Iglesias — nicknamed ‘Panda’ by teammates because of his love for it Designer song you couldn’t get out of your head in 2016 — has never been a conventional footballer.

As a boy, he was so obsessed with football that he would take his parents to the nearby Santiago de Compostela airport late at night in the hopes that they would coincide with LaLiga teams flying home after an evening game against Celta Vigo to ask for photos. and signatures.

In 2020, he started painting his fingernails black, saying it was a small gesture to remind himself to use his position to fight racism and homophobia. “I also have to admit – I like it,” he tweeted.

While he couldn’t score past a good friend for the first time Thibaut Courtois — the couple share a love of video games and have invested together in the eSports team DUX Gaming — Iglesias and Co. have made an admirable effort in the 2-1 loss that just saw Betis drop their game of the season (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the US.)

Before the match, Iglesias spoke to ESPN’s Martin Ainstein for a new episode of The Cycling Diariestalking about his form, sanity and his admiration for Benzema.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.


ESPN: How can you explain this improvement in scoring goals?

Iglesias: It’s unbelievable. Sometimes, if you think about it too much, you get a little dizzy.

ESPN: It’s hard to enjoy things in such a professional environment, with so much pressure, so much stress.

Iglesias: All the way. Sometimes I think it was harder for me to be at my best because I didn’t enjoy it. The pressure I put on myself was asking so much of me that I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it. I didn’t connect with my true self, with what I like, which is soccer, right? So, of course, you’re not performing at your best. I was stressed. Sometimes I would go to bed and say I hadn’t enjoyed my day. It didn’t make sense because I was doing what I’d dreamed of doing since I was little.

ESPN: You are one of the few footballers who has opened up, humanizing the profession, and that is necessary. With footballers being where they are, earning what they deserve, having a prominent position in society, they are expected to be a robot, almost perfect at everything. And that can backfire.

Iglesias: Yes, the truth is I think it’s something we need to normalize, and not just within the sport. Mental well-being is so important, but of course sometimes it’s hard to say you’re not doing well. Because sometimes it’s like ‘How is he doing when he’s a footballer, he’s making money and the fans love him?’ Sometimes, for whatever reason, things aren’t going well for you. Sometimes it feels like you’re doing well financially, or you’re in the news, or you’re doing what you really love, or whatever, but you’re not doing well. Sometimes all those factors don’t allow you to be okay. It feels like something you can’t say, but the reality is that sometimes it happens.

ESPN: You said you’ve been in therapy, that you’ve seen a psychologist.

Iglesias: I have always felt supported by [my teammates], and the coaching staff, and the professionals who help you with these things because they’re trained in them and they have the tools to help you reconnect with yourself and feel happy again, to enjoy. For me, [the psychologists] have given me a way of looking at life that I did not allow myself to see because I was too demanding.

ESPN: It’s like you have to be strong, do everything right, because in a way if I have this, if I have that…

Iglesias: Sure, how can you not be OK when you have everything? And the truth is that sometimes I felt that way. I always said, “I can’t be unwell.” And of course you may be unwell. Sure, one day you can get up and not want to go to a workout, or another day you go to bed and say ‘what the hell,’ forgive the expression. Sometimes it happens, and you also need those days to appreciate the really good things. If it was all right, it would be too easy, right? You won’t make much progress if it doesn’t get hard. I suffered in that process, but I also really appreciate it.

I think it’s nice to get away from the typical interview, just talk about football. I would like to see teammates do something like this because they have a lot to offer. Sometimes you don’t want that, or the situation doesn’t allow it, or whatever, but it really annoys me, the stereotype that football players have nothing to offer. Obviously there are people who are more qualified, because of their circumstances in life. Everyone’s experience is different. There are experiences that my teammates have had that they could talk about, and then I can talk about others. It’s nice to listen to other people. Often you put yourself in their place and, as we said, you see that they are people you could adore or admire for whatever reason, but they also have your problems.

ESPN: What was a key moment for you?

[Betis captain] Andres Guardado had a big impact on me during a difficult time [last season]. We played at home Seville, the team played really well and I was really bad. I lost the ball a few times when I practically tripped over the ball. That day I went home with a very low feeling. He saw it and messaged me. I remember him saying to me, “You’re reaching your peak as a footballer and we all believe in you. Keep going, because you’re almost there.”

And two weeks later I scored twice (against Real Society in the Copa del Rey on January 26). Since then I’ve had two seasons, or one and a half plus the beginning of this one, which were really good. I think that message helped me a lot because that day I needed someone who could tell me exactly that. And of course, if Andres Guardado tells you, who has played or will play in his fifth World Cup (with Mexico), It is awesome.

ESPN: The balance you have in the dressing room is partly achieved by players with a lot of experience who know how to bring something to strengthen the group.

Iglesias: All the way. What they give us on the field, which is a lot, is nothing compared to what they give us off the field. They see things in a different way, and they are people who have the ability to express it and help you in three words, at a time when you don’t even know what’s happening. They have been a fundamental part of the well-being of the group because in the good times they know how to keep our feet on the ground, and in the difficult times they know how to be positive, how to help us grow.

ESPN: What is it like to face an attacker like Karim Benzema?

Iglesias: The truth is that he is one of the [players] I enjoy watching the most. I have enjoyed watching him for years. In a way, he was a bit of a role model for me, as he was criticized for having a lot of doubts about him. What I also find admirable is the ability he has to adapt to what the team needs. More than what he would really like – because I’m sure he would like to be the main man, always scoring goals and all – he has adapted.

ESPN: Is that what you would emphasize about him – that maturity, intelligence and adaptability?

Iglesias: Yes, I think those three things have helped Karim take that step forward over the past few years. In terms of technique, we are talking about arguably the most technical striker out there, with an enormous ability to score goals. It is a pleasure to watch him because when you see him live you realize that he does not lose a single ball. Every touch is good, every touch makes sense. He doesn’t look fast, but he is fast. He’s really good, really good.





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