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Fanboy to saviour: the Joselu saga


Joselu of Real Madrid looks on during the LaLiga EA Sports match between Real Madrid CF and Cadiz CF at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on May 04, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

He was in Paris two years ago, donning the all-white jersey with the number two on his back, referring to his brother-in-law and one of the captains of his favourite club.

He cheered in ecstasy from the stands with his father and thousands of fans as Real Madrid lifted its unmatched fourteenth UEFA Champions League trophy.

Little did he know the curious ways fate works and the path it would take him. Fast forward to the present, Joselu Mato is the hero and saviour for millions of Madridistas around world after he led the latest edition of famed Real remontada to knock out Bayern Munich in the semifinal of this year’s edition of the European championship, booking a place for his side in June’s final showdown at the Wembley.

It was not easy for Joselu, who is currently on his second stint at the Bernabeu. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, to Spanish parents, Joselu moved to Spain at a young age.

After starting his career with Celta Vigo, he was bought by Real Madrid in 2009, Joselu started his career in white with Castilla, the Real Madrid youth team, where he was the top scorer in the 2010-11 season. He made his first team debut in 2011, replacing the same Karim Benzema whose departure in 2023 paved the way for his return to white, and scored almost immediately.

Joselu of Real Madrid celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Real Madrid and FC Bayern München at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 08, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.

Joselu of Real Madrid celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Real Madrid and FC Bayern München at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 08, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

While his first team appearances remained limited owing to star-studded line-up that was always the case with Real Madrid, he showed his mettle with Castilla, netting 26 times to become the top scorer in Spanish third division and earning his team a promotion to the second division.

While his performances turned eyes in Europe, he could not find a permanent spot in the Madrid first team and was eventually sold to Bundesliga’s TSG Hoffenheim in 2012. And what seemed to be a promising career started to wane.

Not being able to make any lasting impact in Hoffenheim, Joselu found himself drifting across Gemany with a loan stint with Eintracht Frankfurt and a move to Hannover 96. In 2016, after failing in Germany, Joselu moved to England with a transfer to Stoke city. But his fate remained unchanged. He again found himself changing clubs frequently and found himself back in his home-soil in 2019, wearing the blue of Alaves.

By then, almost 30 years old and past his prime, Joselu’s career seemed to be headed for a lacklustre finish. While he managed to touch double digit goal tally every season since, the only notable high point in his three-year Alaves career was when he scored against Real Madrid home and away in 2020-21, securing Alaves’s first victory in the Bernabeu since 2000.

But things turned around for the Spaniard in 2022 when he signed a three-year deal with Catalan club Espanyol. With the club, he rediscovered the same goal-scoring prowess he displayed as a teenager in white, netting 16 goals in the season to finish as the third highest scorer behind Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski and Madrid’s Benzema.

But his personal success was marred with collective heartbreak as his goals did not manage to keep his club in the top division. The relegation of Espanyol looked like the end of Joselu’s career.

But destiny had something else in store for the hardcore Madridista. Ballon d’or winner Benzema’s sudden departure and uncertainty over Madrid’s most sought-after target Kylian Mbappe’s transfer left club President Florentino Perez and team scrambling to find a stopgap replacement at the top of Real Madrid’s attack. And their eyes fell on the prodigal son. Madrid’s need for a pure striker paved the way for Joselu’s return to the Bernabeu. In a loan deal with an option to buy, not only did they get a striker tailor-made according to their current and future sporting plan, but they also found a player who oozed Madridismo.

While he was the logical replacement of Benzema on paper, neither him nor the fans were ready to accept it. “I’m not here to replace anyone. I’m here to do what I can and bring the experience I’ve earned in the last few years,” Joselu had said during his presentation at the Bernabeu after the move from Espanyol.

But the skies were still overcast for Joselu. Disappointed with the departure of Benzema and the absence for a superstar replacement, fans saw Joselu as someone unworthy of being at the club. With big shoes to fill and hopes to fulfil, the pressure started mounting.

While he has managed to score 17 goals for Madrid till now, the same pressure was seen in the chances he missed right in front of goal. While he always exuded the confidence expected from a Real Madrid striker on field, the missed opportunities also added to fans’ reluctance to warm up to him.

All that reluctance has now been washed out and replaced by adoration, thanks to the two goals he scored off the bench at the Bernabeu at the dying moments of the game to deny Bayern the ticket to Wembley. “I try and make the most of my chances,” the now 34-year-old Joselu said after the semifinal. “As for two years ago, this is how it feels to be a Real Madrid fan. I had the opportunity to go and support Madrid and now I get to experience it first hand.”

With the domestic league comfortably secured, Real Madrid now have only one focus: its 15th European title. Fans and Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, who sees Joselu as the ‘reflection of the team’, will trust the striker to deliver what he can and experience the same ecstasy he experienced as a fan in Paris two years ago.



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