There is no smile on his face – rather, he cringes his eyes, trying to avoid the sun shining on the capital of Spain. He slowly holds up the shirt of his new club to the backdrop of an empty stadium and an advertisement board. The long journey from Andalusia to Madrid has taken its toll, but it was worth a punt. The man with the white shirt in his hands knows the stakes of the gamble he has taken.
His name is Jozabed, and this is his story.
On the 24th of June, 2014, three players were presented at the Estadio de Vallekas. A signing from Real Madrid in the first division, a signing from Mallorca in the second, and a signing from Real Jaén in the third. Jozabed was the last of those three in order of reputation. Maybe in order of former club prestige too. But there was no doubt among fans that Jozabed was the last in order of ability.
But Jozabed hadn’t given up yet.
It seemed that the fans were right – he was left out of the first four league match squads and never left the bench in the next two.
But Jozabed hadn’t given up just yet.
Until November, he had played in just three league games out of twelve – all from the bench – for a combined total of 83 minutes.
But Jozabed still hadn’t given up just yet.
And he had reason not to.
Rising above the Valencia defense, Jozabed scored the equalizer against Valencia in an eventual 4-4 draw – a Copa del Rey thriller.
A month later, he held his run, stayed at the edge of the box and chipped the ball over the keeper, in a 2-1 victory against Getafe. And then, a month later, he delivered a corner that found Alberto Bueno unmarked beyond the far post, who scored past a confused Villarreal defense.
He only created those three goals last season, but given his limited playing time – out of 23 league games, he started only eight times – that is understandable. Moreover, those three goals are what Jozabed is all about – aerial prowess, tactical intelligence and exceptional vision.
At 5'11" yet weighing just 70 kilograms, he is able to jump higher than players as tall or slightly taller than him. As for his technical ability, how about this: while at Real Jaén – in a man-of-the-match performance – he scored and provoked an own goal in a historic 2-2 draw against Espanyol. Intercepting passes, procuring last ditch tackles and playing positive passes towards the opponent's goal, Jozabed ran the show.
An incredible responsibility, an incredible response
Replacing attacking midfielder Alberto Bueno, who scored 17 league goals last season, was never going to be easy. In Rayo’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the attacking midfielder has always been the main goal scorer. But Paco Jémez has changed the approach for this year, making the striker the main goal scorer and giving the attacking midfielder more creative responsibility.
Paco said the replacements were newly signed Patrick Ebert and Jozabed. So he tried Ebert, and left Jozabed on the bench three times in a row. But against Las Palmas, he subbed on Jozabed in an advanced role for 36 minutes. And the player hasn't looked back, having started for Rayo's next six matches.
You know how this story goes…
Rising above the Gijón defense, Jozabed headed the ball towards goal, which was parried towards Javi Guerra for a simple tap-in in a 2-1 win. A month later, with the Barcelona defense in utter chaos and Jordi Alba blocking a shot, Jozabed was there with a late run in the box, scoring past Claudio Bravo. And in the very next match, he assisted Javi Guerra with a perfect layoff, who scored past a confused Espanyol defense in a 3-0 win.
A 24-year-old Sevilla graduate from Mairena del Alcor, Jozabed joined second-tier Ponferradina in February 2013, leading his club to just a place off the promotion playoffs. They were behind Las Palmas in the league table, but were level on points, head-to-head points, head-to-head goal difference, head-to-head goals scored and even goal difference; only number of goals scored could separate them. He then joined Real Jaén, where four goals and 12 assists in 36 league matches couldn't prevent relegation to the theoretically amateur third-tier of Spanish football.
He went from being a third division player to scoring against Valencia in six months. He went from being a central midfielder to becoming a nuisance for defenses – just ask Sevilla. And he went from being an amateur footballer with a meager salary to a starter for a top-tier club.
But the fact remains that he knew. All along, he knew the stakes of the gamble – succeed and the world was his. Fail, and he would be forgotten. Again.
So, as Quini, the right-back from Real Madrid, is being benched by a left-back; as Álex Moreno, the winger from Mallorca, is on loan at second division Elche, Jozabed continues to inspire the biggest success story of the season.