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Joselu, the unlikeliest Real Madrid hero, stuns Bayern and lifts the Champions League kings to another final

Joselu, the unlikeliest Real Madrid hero, stuns Bayern and lifts the Champions League kings to another final

Real Madrid’s Joselu Mato, on loan from Espanyol, was the unlikely hero Wednesday as Los Blancos booked their ticket to the Champions League final. (Photo by Diego Souto/Getty Images)

He had gone from Celta Vigo to Hoffenheim, to Frankfurt and Hannover, from Stoke City to a club now in the Spanish third division. He stopped at middling Newcastle, then Alavés. He spent last season at Espanyol, unsuccessfully fighting relegation. Joselu, at this time last year, was a 33-year-old journeyman on a path toward anonymity — until Real Madrid called.

Now, he’s a Champions League hero.

For most of his winding career, you'd probably never heard of him. But on Wednesday night, under the Santiago Bernabeu’s beaming lights, he stunned Bayern Munich with two last-gasp goals in a Champions League semifinal. He rescued the kings of Europe from a 1-0 deficit. He sent Real Madrid, a club steeped in mystique and talent, to yet another Champions League final — with a dramatic 2-1 win, 4-3 on aggregate.

And when he heard the final whistle, he fell to the ground, his body outstretched, his face in his hands and in the grass. Teammates piled on top of him.

Moments later, he looked around the palatial stadium, almost in disbelief — just like anybody who’s followed his journey.

Less than two years ago, he went to Paris as a fan with a replica jersey, to support Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

On Wednesday night and perhaps for eternity, he's the toast of the most successful soccer club ever.

His is the latest chapter in a long story whose outcome sometimes feels inevitable. Real Madrid, year after year, round after round, just seems to find a way to make Champions League magic. Los Blancos won the first five European Cups, beginning in the 1950s. They've won 14 in all, including eight between 1998 and the one at which Joselu cheered them on, in 2022.

The characters keep changing, but no matter who they are, no matter where they're from, no matter how forcefully their opponent peppers their goal, no matter how long they stare down a deficit, they rise to occasions like this one.

They trailed Wednesday night after Alphonso Davies' second-half screamer, which put Bayern ahead 1-0 and 3-2 aggregate.

But they'd also trailed in the quarterfinals. They'd trailed in every round en route to the 2022 final. They'd trailed in the 2018 semis, which they reached with a 98th-minute penalty. They trailed Bayern in 2017 and Wolfsburg in 2016. Each time, they came back — and in the end, in late May or early June, they lifted La Orejona, The Cup With Big Ears, atop a podium.

This time, they turned to their journeyman among Galácticos, a striker signed on loan for half a million euros last summer.

Real Madrid's roster is filled with some of the world's most prized players. But on Wednesday, Jude Bellingham (transfer fee: more than $110 million) and others were struggling. Vinicius Jr. was dazzling but coming up empty. Joselu (transfer fee: less than $2 million, if Real Madrid triggers an option clause) was waiting.

When he joined his favorite club last July, he was something of a stopgap, a body where there was none. Karim Benzema was leaving for Saudi Arabia. Kylian Mbappé was still uncertain. Joselu was available, and affordable, and — worth a shot?

Real Madrid knew he could score goals. He'd actually been at the club as he was coming of age. He scored 40 times — for Real's B team. He only ever played twice for the real Real, off the bench, once in the league, once in the Spanish cup against a minnow.

From there, he went to Hoffenheim, where he bagged five goals in 25 appearances. He bounced around the Bundesliga in Germany, where he was born. He scored four in 27 at Stoke in the English Premier League; and six in 24 on loan at Deportivo La Coruña. He managed seven in 52 appearances over two seasons at Newcastle.

He finally hit double digits at Alavés, right around his 30th birthday. He seemed to improve with age, but still, Real Madrid? He'd never played in the Champions League. Entering 2023, he'd never played for Spain. He was so far out of the international picture that he actually played for the "national team" of Galicia, the autonomous region in Spain's northwest where he was reared.

Real Madrid, though, saw more than a journeyman, and more than a placeholder for Mbappé. It saw the prototypical supersub, an increasingly proven finisher who could come off the bench and do exactly what he did Wednesday night.

Perhaps it also knew, though, that there are superpowers packed into that famous white jersey, superpowers activated by the grandeur of a Champions League night.

As minutes and seconds ebbed away Wednesday, perhaps it didn't matter which substitutes manager Carlo Ancelotti threw on.

Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had been stellar all night, but this is Real Madrid, in the Champions League; of course, in the 88th minute, the voodoo struck.

Dozens of jerseys with a menacing statement — "A POR LA 15," for the 15th, the number of European crowns that Real will possess if it beats Borussia Dortmund on June 1 — had already been printed.

Players pulled them on and pranced around the field once the comeback was complete, and the game over, and the inevitable conclusion realized.

Nobody involved, however, could've scripted the story of their unlikely hero.

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