“It’s just a number,” Mariano Díaz said. But it isn’t. Over on the touchline, the fourth official held up the board.
Coming off: No 11, coming on: No 7. Mariano stood and waited for Gareth Bale, wearing the shirt Cristiano Ronaldo wore for eight of the nine years he spent at Real Madrid until his departure this summer, that Raúl González Blanco wore for the 16 years before that and Emilio Butragueño wore for the 12 years before that.
Thirty-six years, 14 league titles, seven European Cups and 911 goals later, it was his. No pressure, kid. As he waited, Julen Lopetegui approached. “I told him to stick it in the top corner,” the manager joked. “And he did what I said.”
In the dying minutes against Roma on Wednesday night, Mariano smashed a shot that tore past Robin Olsen and into the net. He had been a Real Madrid player for 19 minutes. Well, 19 minutes and six years. At 25, this was “re-debut”. “I’m super-happy,” he said.
Born in Premia de Mar on the coast in Catalonia, when he was growing up Mariano watched Ronaldo, the Brazilian, and Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o too. He first joined Madrid from third-tier Badalona in 2011, playing for Madrid C and then their second team, Castilla. His manager there was Zinedine Zidane – and it was Zidane who intervened when his contract was running down, with only six months left and little sign that he would continue. Six months later, he was in the first-team squad. In 2016-17, he played 14 games, scoring five times.
Apart from the Copa del Rey, opportunities remained limited though and, having played only 115 minutes in the league, Mariano was sold to Lyon at the end of the season for €8m. He didn’t want to go – “if Zidane had said he was counting on me, I would have listened for sure,” he said – but Madrid convinced him.
A year and 21 goals later, he was ready to return to Spain, a deal agreed with Sevilla for €35m. Madrid, though, owed 35 per cent, had the option to match any bid and, after the departure of Ronaldo, Lopetegui was pushing the club to sign a striker. Reports suggested that the striker had turned Madrid down but Mariano publicly announced: “You can’t say no to Real Madrid.” Furious, Sevilla saw him slip through their fingers. “I hope they understand,” Mariano said. Madrid forfeited the 35 per cent they would have received and paid the remaining 65 per cent, €22.75m, to bring him back, presenting him with his new shirt at the end of August.
“The kit man asked which shirt I wanted and I said 7,” he said. “It’s the one that was free, I imagine no one wanted it.”
Mariano has a Dominican father and scored for the national team against Haiti in March 2013 but he had decided not to continue in the hope of playing for Spain. “I’d love to play for Spain; I’m going to work so that one day Lopetegui calls me,” he told El País in November last year. Back then, Lopetegui was Spain’s manager; by the time the call came this summer, he was the coach of Madrid. “I was super-nervous when he rang,” Mariano admitted, but the conversation convinced; Lopetegui told Mariano that despite the players ahead of him, he would get opportunities.
The first didn’t come until Wednesday night, and there was a touch of impatience from some. Madrid’s play had improved but some felt they lacked a predator to make it pay. A youth teamer returning home, when Mariano went to warm up there was a huge cheer and another accompanied him onto the pitch. He ran straight at Roma, showing no sign of pressure. There was a directness, a bluntness even, about his response to the shirt that fits the way he plays – even if, pushed, he insisted: “I have a lot, a lot, of respect for Ronaldo and everything he has done, and for all those who have worn this shirt.”
Ronaldo, Raúl and Butragueno have been the previous occupants but if there is a Madrid player than comes to mind watching him, it may be Hugo Sánchez, the man who one season scored 38 league goals, all with a single touch: strong, quick, direct, aggressive, a finisher. No messing, just goals.
Mariano had taken eight shots as a Madrid player and scored five of them, according to Opta; that’s six from nine now. There’s something about him that recalls Bill Shankly’s famous remark to Ian St John: “If you’re not sure what to do with the ball, just pop it in the net and we’ll discuss your options afterwards.” Only Mariano isn’t likely to “pop” the ball anywhere; he’s more likely to bludgeon it.
On Wednesday night, he certainly did, sending it flying into the net. “I’m going to keep this shirt for ever,” he said, afterwards. On the back was a seven.
Potential Ability: 42/50
Current Ability: 39/50