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It was one of the most surprising transfers of last summer — the former Stoke City and Newcastle United striker Joselu signing on loan for a season at Real Madrid with an option to buy.

The Spaniard spent time at Real Madrid Castilla (the club’s ‘B’ team, which is full of youth players) early in his career and even played twice for the first team back then, but the move still came as a shock given the memory of his less-than-stellar spells in England. Yet the 34-year-old has played an important role as a backup option this season, scoring 13 goals in 38 games and stepping in when starting forwards Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo need a rest.

Joselu is far from the first unusual name to fill that role for Madrid: Emmanuel Adebayor, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Alvaro Morata have all been backup strikers for them in recent years. It is a unique position in which forwards have to get used to limited playing time and make the most of the few minutes they are given. Some have become frustrated and moved on; others have simply been grateful for the opportunity.

So, what is it like to play second fiddle up front for Real Madrid? And what is Joselu doing so right this season?

Javier Portillo knows the frustration of being a backup striker at Madrid well.

Now 41, he scored 739 goals in competitive and non-competitive matches for the club’s youth sides from 1994 to 2002. That earned him comparisons with their legendary striker Raul, but he was unable to emulate his idol in the first team.

“One of the virtues I had was competitiveness,” Portillo tells The Athletic. “I took each day as if it was the last day of my life because that was the way it was; because it was my moment. But I was also aware that it was very complicated.”

Portillo scored on his senior Madrid debut as a 19-year-old, a Champions League group-stage game against Panathinaikos of Greece in March 2002, and signed his first professional contract that summer. Their then coach Vicente del Bosque told him to “enjoy” the opportunity and “that when my chance came I had to take it”, but Portillo encountered a familiar obstacle at the Bernabeu.

“I did the pre-season with a first-team shirt number and on the last day of the transfer market, (the Brazilian) Ronaldo arrived,” he says. “(Michael) Owen came (from Liverpool in 2004); the next year, Robinho and Julio Baptista came, and the next year (Ruud) Van Nistelrooy came. You can be happy to wait for one, two or three years, but you can’t wait for golden opportunities to arrive when you don’t participate.”

This was the galacticos era led by Florentino Perez in his first spell as club president, when Madrid made a habit of making a star signing each summer.

Portillo sought more playing time on loan at Fiorentina in Italy and Belgium’s Club Bruges before leaving permanently for newly promoted La Liga side Gimnastic de Tarragona in 2006. He expressed hope he might return to Madrid one day but retired at 33 in 2015 after also playing for three more Spanish clubs — Osasuna, Alicante’s Hercules and Las Palmas. He is now back in the capital, working as Rayo Vallecano’s chief scout.

Madrid’s love of signings often makes nailing down a first-team starting spot there impossible. Alvaro Negredo was at Castilla from 2005-07, but the future Manchester City striker never made a first-team appearance for Madrid.

“It was very difficult, especially when I returned in 2009 from Almeria,” Negredo, 38, says. “Cristiano Ronaldo had just arrived, Kaka too, there was Van Nistelrooy, (Klaas-Jan) Huntelaar… It was very difficult to play there and get minutes. The players who come as stars are criticised and even more is demanded of the homegrown players.”

But it is one thing to be an academy striker drafted into the first team and another to be signed from elsewhere specifically as a backup.

The examples of Adebayor and Hernandez are the most unusual of recent years. The former arrived on loan from Manchester City in January 2011 after then Madrid head coach Jose Mourinho compared Karim Benzema to a cat when lamenting his side’s options in attack. “If you don’t have a dog to go hunting with but you have a cat, you go with the cat, because you can’t go alone,” Mourinho said.

Adebayor did well enough in his time at the Bernabeu, picking up a Copa del Rey winners’ medal and scoring eight times in 22 appearances — including twice in the Champions League quarter-finals against Tottenham Hotspur and a hat-trick on the final day of the La Liga season against Almeria. But Madrid did not exercise their option to buy the Togo international, who later suggested a family dispute had played a part in that decision.

“I have done everything to stay in Real Madrid but because of my late brother, I couldn’t stay,” he told BBC News Africa in 2017. “He sent an official letter from Adebayor’s family to the club (saying) that they should not keep me. I am not saying that’s why they didn’t keep me but it can be part of it.”

Madrid fans have happier memories of Hernandez’s time in the Spanish capital. “What’s in my hands is my attitude,” the Mexican said after joining on loan from Manchester United for the 2014-15 season. “I see it more as an opportunity, not just anybody can be here.”

Hernandez scored nine times in 33 games — the highlight being the winning goal to knock out city rivals Atletico in the Champions League quarter-finals. The look of disbelief on his face during that celebration showed just what his spell there meant to him, even if the club again opted against signing him permanently.

But neither of those players would have expected to nail down a regular starting spot. It was different for Morata, who came through the youth system but couldn’t quite break that barrier in two spells with the first team from 2010-14 and in 2016-17.

Morata had better stats than Benzema in the latter season (the Spaniard contributed 20 in all competitions, Benzema 19), but even then he sensed he would always be behind the Frenchman in the pecking order. He left for good, for Chelsea, in summer 2017 and has since returned to town with Atletico, where he has enjoyed a few feisty battles with his former employers. Spain supporters booed him this week during the national team’s friendly against Brazil at the Bernabeu despite him being captain.

Some second-choice forwards signed by Madrid have proven to be costly mistakes.

Luka Jovic arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt for €63million in 2019 after a 27-goal season with the German side but left three years later after scoring just three times in 51 appearances. His time there was so underwhelming that Madrid directors feared another “Jovic case” when head coach Carlo Ancelotti asked them for a striker last summer.

In an interview last year, Jovic blamed injuries, Covid-19 and “unfair pressure” for his problems at Madrid, which included a trip home to Serbia at the start of the pandemic, where he was accused of breaking self-isolation rules and criticised by the country’s prime minister. Sources close to the player — who asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to comment — say he was not as focused as he should have been, but argue he was not given enough consecutive starts to prove his worth.

Joselu’s case is different.

He scored in both his two appearances for Madrid’s first team from 2010-12 but left in pursuit of greater opportunities and took a winding route back to the club, including those spells in England. He has experienced some frustrations — such as a Champions League game against Napoli when he missed a host of chances and apologised to the Bernabeu crowd when he did eventually score — but his efforts have endeared him to supporters.

“Joselu has assumed his role very well,” says Alberto Bueno, another former academy forward who spent the 2008-09 season in the first team but left after six appearances. Bueno went on to play for teams including Porto in Portugal, as well as Rayo Vallecano and Real Valladolid — and also spent the 2010-11 season on loan to Derby County of the Championship, English football’s second tier.

“He knows, when he has the opportunity to play, that he has to contribute and knows when his role is to come on in the second half, change the course of the match or secure certain moments. He knows perfectly well that he is not the first choice for some games but he knows that he is an important player in the dressing room.”

For Cristo Gonzalez, who made four appearances for Madrid’s first team in the 2018-19 season after being promoted from Castilla, playing for the 14-time European champions is enough to convince any striker. The 26-year-old is now playing in the Portuguese top flight with Arouca.

“Nobody likes to be a substitute, we all like to play; but in the end, being at Madrid in this role is a prize because you are competing with the best,” Gonzalez says. “Everything you win at Madrid has 10,000 times more merit than at any other place… Joselu is playing a secondary role for the best team in the world.”

Even so, it must be frustrating to know your moment will only come when stars such as Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham are injured.

Teenage striker Endrick, who scored on his first appearance at the Bernabeu for Brazil on Tuesday, will join Madrid this summer and they are expected to sign France captain Kylian Mbappe when he leaves Paris Saint-Germain in that same window. Joselu’s future is uncertain, but The Athletic has reported that the expectation is he will stay.

So, how do you deal with all that as a striker?

“It’s important not to put too much responsibility and pressure on yourself at times,” Bueno says. “When the context is more difficult and the players are better, you have doubts about why they choose another player and not you. But it’s important to have confidence in yourself and always be ready to seize the opportunity when it arises.”

Additional reporting: Mario Cortegana

(Top photos: Getty Images)



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