Joaquin: The Real Betis Joker Who's Having the Last Laugh

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 22, 2019

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07: Joaquin Sanchez of Real Betis celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Semi Final first leg match between Real Betis and Valencia CF at Estadio Benito Villamarin on February 07, 2019 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Valladolid, which is perched in the north-west of Spain, was once the country's capital city.

Renowned explorer Christopher Columbus died there, and it's where Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, used to live. Its football team, Real Valladolid, hasn't had much success, but on Sunday its stadium will make a bit of history when Real Betis captain Joaquin is set to pass Barcelona's iconic star Xavi Hernandez in seventh position on the list of players to have made the most appearances in La Liga.

Provided he stays fit, the 37-year-old will bypass Iker Casillas—Spain's FIFA World Cup-winning captain and another giant of Spanish football history—on the ladder by the end of the season. It's an extraordinary achievement, which is roundly celebrated by Spanish football fans because he's one of their favourite sons.

According to Spanish football writer and broadcaster Cayetano Ros, Joaquin stands alongside Andres Iniesta and Santi Cazorla as Spain's most popular footballer currently in the game.

"He's an artist, a showman and an exceptional person," says Rafael Pineda, a journalist with El Pais who first interviewed Joaquin in 2000 when he broke into the first team at Real Betis, which is one of the two big clubs in Seville along with Sevilla.

"He's beloved in Seville," Pineda adds. "He's from a very humble family. He basically made all the people in his family rich, but he's never acted like a star. He's a regular guy, very down to earth, who is always there for charity work or practically for anything which he's invited to do. He's such a personality. When he leaves football, it's easy to see him being lined up to do media work or television."

Everyone knows Joaquin in Spain for his jokes and japes. A few years ago, he went on El Hormiguero, a hit daily TV show. During the interview, the show's host had a hen dropped in front of Joaquin while he tipped off the audience that one of his guest's hidden talents was his ability to hypnotise hens. Joaquin laughed easily and then went about hypnotising the hen. He set to his bizarre task with the kind of earnestness that it would be difficult to imagine, say, LeBron James or Roger Federer mustering.

Joaquin's defining moment in football happened a long time ago. As a 20-year-old, he lit up Spain's progress at the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea. When Spain met South Korea in the quarter-finals, Joaquin ran the hosts ragged. A couple of minutes into extra time, he skinned his marker and lobbed a delicate cross on to the head of Fernando Morientes, who came in at the back post to score.

"That, there, was a synopsis of his career," Ros says. "He beat his man, got to the byline and crossed the ball into the box. It was a perfect cross. The ball flew so softly. It was ideal for a centre-forward to head into the goal."

Only the goal wasn't allowed. Joaquin was pulled up for crossing the ball when it was out of play. Video replays show the ball never went out of play. In one of the most notorious matches in World Cup history, several dodgy referring decisions—referred to as "an affront to sport" by the Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward—led to Spain's elimination. They lost in a penalty shootout, during which Joaquin was the only player to miss.

Joaquin was a mainstay in Spain's national team for several years. He amassed more than 50 caps, also playing a part in a run to the round of 16 of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, but he fell out of favour with coach Luis Aragones and failed to make the squad for the nation's historic UEFA Euro 2008-winning campaign and subsequent victories in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2012.

"This is his great shame," Pineda says. "He missed the train."

Although he flirted with a move to Real Madrid during the club's Galactico years, Joaquin never joined one of the country's Big Two: Barcelona or Madrid. Along with the fact that he missed out on his national team's glories, it helps to explain why Joaquin is not more widely known around the world. On his CV, he only has two Copa del Rey medals to show for almost two decades playing top-flight football. It's a meagre return for a player of his talent.

Joaquin won Spain's domestic cup competition with Real Betis in 2005. He brought the cup along to the church for his wedding ceremony a few weeks later. He never played in his other cup-winning final, however—he was an unused sub in Valencia's win over Getafe in the 2008 decider, with his side featuring Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa.

Joaquin left Real Betis for Valencia in a big-money move in 2006. He spent five seasons at Valencia in the middle of a volatile period in its history. During what should have been the peak years of his career, he had a mixed return at the club.

"My memory is he was a player with class, a very elegant player, with a lot of quality, but in Valencia he was asked to work harder," Ros says. "I remember Quique Sanchez Flores was the manager who signed him. He used to tell him that he needed to come to training with his 'working overalls' on. He always wanted him to work harder.

"The thing is, Joaquin came to the club at a chaotic time; there were a lot of problems at board level. A huge amount of debt had been accumulated, the coaches kept changing and there was a lot of fan unrest. He cost a lot of money—€25 million (then £18 million)—so the club expected performances like a crack (superstar), but he didn't reach that point. He was a good player, but he wasn't a crack."

Joaquin never got along with Ronald Koeman.
Joaquin never got along with Ronald Koeman.STRINGER/Getty Images

Ronald Koeman, who is currently managing the Netherlands, replaced Sanchez Flores in 2007. The Dutchman and Joaquin never saw eye to eye. It was Koeman who left the player twisting in the wind when the club won the Copa del Rey during the 2007-08 season.

"He never had a good relationship with Koeman," Ros says. "Koeman didn't want him, and Joaquin had some very strong words for Koeman. He accused Koeman of being a drunk and unprofessional. The problem for Joaquin was that he never had a coach at Valencia who understood him. He has that now at Betis with Quique Setien.

"Setien is a coach who loves the beautiful game. He's different to Sanchez Flores, for example, who likes physical footballers, fighters, guys who work hard. Joaquin isn't this kind of player."

Joaquin has found peace back at Real Betis, the club that has nurtured him since he first joined as an academy player in 1994. He has flourished in particular under Setien, who values his artistry, and it is one of the reasons why Joaquin is having such an impressive, extended final act to his career.

Joaquin's longevity is remarkable. He does yoga at 40 degrees Celsius. He has avoided serious injury. He's hardly ever been out of the game for more than a month. He himself attributes his healthy body to having been breastfed until the age of six.  

"He's stayed playing so long because he has a privileged set of genes," Pineda says. "The doctors at Betis always say that he is an athletic specimen. He has perfect musculature. It's amazing because when he was young, he never took care of himself. He didn't eat well. He went out late at night. He never rested, although now he's different.

"I remember one time when he was young, he went out all night. There was a nightclub here in Seville that had a dust floor. So the next morning he arrived at training, and his shoes were all yellow. When Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, who was the club's coach, saw him he asked where had he come from because his shoes were caked in this yellow dust. Joaquin said he had come running cross-country! He was still drunk. Serra forgive him, and he allowed him to rest."

Joaquin no longer burns the candle at both ends. What is perhaps most impressive about him is that he has transformed his style of play. He used to be an old-fashioned winger, playing wide on the right. Now he has come infield. His game is more nuanced. His transformation is similar in ways to the late-career switch that Ryan Giggs made, which extended his career at Manchester United.

Joaquin during the infamous clash with South Korea in 2002.
Joaquin during the infamous clash with South Korea in 2002.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

"Unless you're a class player, you can't continue to play at the top level at his age," says Manu Sainz, a journalist with Diario AS. "It shows he takes care of himself and that he has a lot of quality. It's interesting that he's been able to reinvent himself. Now he attacks in the centre of the pitch. Before he operated in a limited area—on the wing. It's an incredible metamorphosis for a player at 36 or 37 to recreate himself as a different style of footballer.

"When a player gets to his age, the normal thing that happens is their virtues wither and die. The goalscorer stops scoring goals. The defender becomes slower. But Joaquin has found new skills. He's changed so he continues to be vital. And he's playing at the highest level—in Spain's first division and in the UEFA Europa League (although Betis were knocked out by Rennes on Thursday). He's not playing in Saudi Arabia.

"I never thought he could be so intelligent to rebuild himself as a different footballer. It's clear he really understands football."

This season, he has scored some critical goals, including the winner in the Seville derby in September and from a corner in the first leg of Betis' Copa del Rey semi-final against his old employers Valencia. The two sides meet for the second leg on Thursday.

Tied at 2-2, Real Betis will be looking to seal a place in the final, which is slated to be played in their stadium in May. Joaquin will hope to be there. We don't know when his race will be run. He has a contract until 2020.

"I remember when Joaquin was first playing with Betis," Pineda says. "This was 14, 15 years ago. His father said to us that this guy could play until he's 40 years old. We didn't believe him. But the idea doesn't sound so stupid now."

                       

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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