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Gracias Marta Cardona

We all have that one player...

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - Primera Femenina Iberdrola Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

To say emotion is the enemy of analysis would be a tad dramatic, but it is certainly true that intense feelings of happiness, sadness, or tribalism can affect the way you assess performance. It’s why I’ve gotten so good at instantly extricating myself from the moment post match. Instead of soaking in the win or raging at the loss, I need to quickly review film, take notes, and produce an accurate, insightful reinterpretation of events that people can rely on.

Over time, this complicated my relationship with fandom. Hyperbolic reactions, agendas, and recency bias began to irk me more and more and I felt myself disconnecting from the community. I increasingly became less interested in trying to gas up my team and more committed to unveiling what I perceived to be the truth. By 2019, a combination of burnout, more intense studies, and a cooler attitude towards Real Madrid had brought my output to a slow crawl. I wasn’t as interested as I used to be.

My fire was briefly rekindled by the club’s purchase of CD Tacón that summer, bringing Spain’s most iconic club into women’s football. But the flames were soon extinguished by a COVID-curtailed season, horrible kickoff times, and a pattern of un-televised away games.

When a new season dawned — with the team actually being called “Real Madrid” this time — I resolved to fully commit to the part and dove straight in, grudgingly accepting the reality of 5:45 am wake ups. In the process, I could feel my Madridismo stirring from of the grave. My desire to cover football in my particular analytical style remained, but the stakes were too high not to take in every second of every moment. Each minute was historic; each win a step closer to our first appearance in the Champions League. That anxiety that cuts deep into your bones — that feeling that your life is dependent on the result of each match — was back.

But the joy was a little slower to return. I don’t know about you, but I need an individual to identify with — someone who brings me back to my most basic, instinctual feelings when I first touched a football — to inspire genuine elation in me. I always loved explosive dribblers as a kid. Their pace and power, mixed with cat-like agility and mesmeric ball control, was beauty incarnate. For young me, they were the soul of the sport.

That’s why I initially latched onto Sofia Jakobsson, the high-voltage winger who carried CD Tacón’s attack in 2019/20. However, the aforementioned pandemic-stoppage prevented a maturation of that attachment. By the next summer, I still watched the Swede’s every move with a degree of anticipation, but another had captured my imagination.

Marta Cardona, arriving from Real Sociedad, was just that player. You know, the one that you go to see above all else; the one that inspires a different level of devotion; the one you scrutinize so closely that you begin to pick up on little quirks and tendencies that no normal, sane human being would ever catch. For example, I have noticed that Cardona tends to square her hips too early when she pushes the ball from right to left on the carry, causing her to sometimes unbalance herself by the time she reaches the ball.

That minor flaw in her dribbling game was easy to make peace with in light of the bigger picture. To put it simply: outside of Barcelona, there was no bigger threat in the league. Her preternatural burst, supplemented by long legs, enabled her to generate separation with ease. In 1v1’s, it was simply a matter of showing inside before taking off in the opposite direction; she possessed an implicit understanding of timing in relation to the body positioning of her opponent, making her move precisely when the defender was most unstable.

She guaranteed a reliability off-the-dribble that allowed her to completely take over matches. The now 27-year-old always flashed these traits at Real Sociedad, but ascended to another level at Real Madrid with her end-product. By the end of the 20/21 Primera Iberdrola season, she led the team in non-penalty goals (14) and total goals+assists (20).

Some of this was burgeoned by golazos that lifted her finishing efficiency, but she also popped as the team’s outstanding creative force.

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Despite carrying such an offensive load, Cardona was one of Las Blancas’ most committed defenders from the front, intimating a fiery character.

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Losing was just not a reality that she was willing to accept:

She famously sat away from the rest of the squad and sulked next to Misa when Madrid lost a friendly to Real Sociedad. Prior to that, Cardona had done the same — this time, all on her own — in a draw vs. Granadilla on the final day of the 20/21 league season (after the team had already qualified for Europe and the result was meaningless).

These comical moments were incredibly endearing and further ingratiated herself with the fanbase. Affectionate nicknames, like “Flash Cardona,” emerged and the player took notice.

The day that Cardona met super-fan Marina was one of those special events that will be remembered fondly by those who watched it unfold in the moment. It was both a window into the intimacy of women’s football, which will only grow more scarce as the game grows, and the fleeting peak of Cardona’s Madrid career.

I am secretly terrified that all of this will be forgotten. Cardona never had the international acclaim and casual appeal of Kosovare Asllani or even Sofia Jakobsson. The Spaniard was very much the hero of the dedicated, game-to-game fan. Real Madrid Femenino’s viewership took a leap in the 2021/22 season thanks to the Champions League, but Cardona largely missed out, suffering two severe injuries that limited her to 7 appearances and 2 starts in the league. What people did witness was a shell of the old MVP, devoid of rhythm and confidence.

Now, they will never see the real Cardona — not in a white shirt, anyway. And that is so hard to accept. What was supposed to be the beginning of a legendary story has already come to its conclusion, siloing Cardona and the experiences she crafted into a very specific period in history.

It’s hard to look at the decision not to renew her as anything but a massive mistake. The headstrong personality that we love could not have been easy to handle in the negotiating room nor on the physio table, where she apparently accelerated her recovery contrary to advice from club doctors, such was her desire to return to the pitch. But to let any of that get in the way of retaining one of the brightest talents in the world — one that had rapidly become a leader in a squad culture that has yet to truly manifest — seems like an inability to see the bigger picture.

Replacing Real Madrid’s best player of 20/21 will be far from an easy task, yet, an absolutely necessary one. The team’s offense flagged in Cardona’s (and Asllani’s) absence, recording an incredibly mediocre 41 league goals (34 less than the prior season). Whatever happened between her and Rossell — or Toril — surely, there must’ve been a way to make it work. Surely, there had to have been a pathway to retaining Cardona. I refuse to accept that there wasn’t.

For once, I can’t tell whether that is Om the analyst or Om the fan speaking. For once, I don’t care.

So, here I sit, with my emotions reignited, unable to control what I had sought to master for so long. As a reward, the pain is overwhelming.

But, for a little while, it was the opposite. For the briefest of periods, I felt alive — I felt invested. And, once again, I felt love for Real Madrid.

Gracias Marta. Por todo.

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