Heartbreak is an overused word in football, tagged on to every last-minute defeat, relegation or omission from a squad list. Real Madrid and Spain defender Nacho Fernandez Iglesias knows what it really means.
‘I was about 12 years old and had been at Real Madrid for a couple of years. It was a dream come true for a young boy to play in that shirt,’ he says.
‘I was about to go off and play a tournament with Real Madrid but I didn’t feel right.
‘I had this constant need to pee and I was drinking lots and lots of water. My mother was worried.
‘She decided to call the hospital. They carried out some tests and my blood-sugar levels were through the roof. I was diagnosed with (type 1) diabetes.
‘On the Friday the doctor told me there was no way I could go on playing football. Imagine any 12-year-old kid being told that. It was awful.’
It was 2002 and as well as playing in the club’s boys’ teams, Nacho was a Madrid fan who idolised Fernando Hierro and Zinedine Zidane. His dream of following Zidane into the first team had been crushed but the heartbreak would be short-lived.
‘On the Monday I went back into the hospital and I saw a different doctor, Dr Ramirez,’ he explains, and there is warmth in his voice when he says that second doctor’s name.
‘I was so happy because he said the opposite was true. He said sport was the most important thing for me and I had to carry on playing and competing. It wasn’t true that my condition meant I couldn’t be a sportsman. And here I am still fighting.’
Nine years later Jose Mourinho gave Nacho his Real Madrid debut. Zidane is now his manager. He’s on his way to Kiev for his third Champions League final and then off to Russia with Spain.
The 28-year-old may be Madrid’s ‘fifth’ defender but many supporters would have him in the team. He is one of their own. They idolise him as the anti-galactico who still lives in the Madrid town of Alcala de Henares where he grew up and not in a gated millionaires-only neighbourhood.
If he does start on the bench on Saturday there will be no devastation. After being told he would never have a career, he is just happy to be there. Happy to have proved a player can cope with diabetes and still reach the top. ‘Diabetes doesn’t mean as a young kid you can’t have a normal life and practising sport is the most important thing in combating it,’ he says.
‘I have to give myself injections every day and I have to take care with food and drink that have a high sugar level. But sport for a person with diabetes is fundamental.’
When his debut came, it was Mourinho who gave it to him. He says: ‘I’ve only got good things to say about Mourinho. It’s not true that he doesn’t give young players a chance. He gave my brother Alex (now at Cadiz) his debut too, before me. In our family there is a lot of love for Mourinho.’
Nacho’s progression is not just an example for kids with medical conditions, he is also a beacon for homegrown players.
‘The canteranos (youth-team graduates) can be the soul of the club. Madrid is a difficult club to break through at because they have always had the best players. But the presence of homegrown players alongside the superstars has been fundamental.’
Zidane will hope that combination can deliver against Liverpool on Saturday night.
‘They have three spectacular players up front,’ says Nacho. ‘They are quick and they score goals. They will make it difficult but we have the defenders to deal with the threat.’