TO THE OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN, the sight of a teary 34-year-old, with his right forearm and two of his fingers hastily wrapped in a plaster cast must have appeared bemusing and bewildering. Indeed, over 19,000 Beticos flocked to the Estadio Benito Villamarín to witness the homecoming of Joaquín Sánchez Rodríguez.
Eduardo Macía, the club’s sporting director described the move as “Betis welcoming its soul back into the body”. The sentiment was genuine, the euphoria was palpable and the emotion tangible and raw – the player admitted that he required the plaster cast after punching a table in frustration when it appeared the deal might collapse.
Joaquín’s first spell at Los Verdiblancos ended in 2006, his 12-year association with the Andalucíans concluding with an €18 million move to Valencia only a year after winning the Copa Del Rey with his boyhood heroes. At the time the winger was approaching his prime, dazzling opponents with his dribbling ability and direct style of incisive, attacking play. He starred for Spain at two World Cups but eventually found himself edged out of the international scene, falling victim to the nation’s move towards a tiki-taka style stranglehold of possession that had no time for traditional wingers.
The Spaniard represents a breed of player that is becoming increasingly rare in the cutthroat world of modern football. He does not fit with the norm, he does not play by the rules and, crucially, he views the game not based on results and statistics but judges the game on entertainment value. He is a risk taker, rarely playing the ‘safe’ option and constantly seeking to thrill the expectant fans.
‘The soul of Betis’ – a club who’s motto is Viva el Betis manque pierda! (long live Betis, even when they lose!)
If Joaquín does not fit the profile of a modern footballer, Betis are a club that is refreshingly unique. They will not win the league or indeed any other trophies this season, but they guarantee entertainment – even if at times it’s at their own expense. The 1998 world record signing of Denílson was the most famous move to backfire, with the move transparently an ego-massage for then Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, who was later jailed for tax fraud.
They are a club pumped full of emotion and colour, doing justice to their hometown which is arguably the most vibrant and encapsulating city in all of Spain. Their long-standing rivalry with equally admirable city neighbours Sevilla had always been an encounter which saw emotions run high, but the death of Los Rojiblancos’ Antonio Puerta – a native of the city – back in 2006 turned the rivalry on it’s head, uniting both clubs and altering the tone and ferocity of a derby which had previously been turning increasingly ugly.
* * * *
A hero to the Beticos
* * * *
Betis then suffered a recent tragedy of their own, when centre half Miki Roqué died of pelvic cancer in 2012. The lives of both Puerta and Roqué are both celebrated and remembered across the city’s divide, and are now a source of pride and strength.
Like Joaquín, current Betis boss Pepe Mel is in his second spell at the club; appointed last December with the bewildered Andalucíans lying in seventh before the former West Brom coach rejuvenated the side and led them to the Segunda title. During his 12-month absence Betis descended into complete turmoil. They lurched from one catastrophe to the next, with their off-field incompetence – five managerial changes occurred during Mel’s yearlong break – complemented by total free-fall on the pitch, culminating somewhat inevitably in relegation.
The situation is unlikely to be as dire this time around; the club have learned harsh lessons and have recruited extensively this summer, with Joaquín their tenth and final arrival. Their first was equally as impressive – the thrillingly talented Hamburg captain Rafael van der Vaart. It was a move that drew many parallels to that of Joaquín, the Dutchman’s arrival was a homecoming of sorts – his maternal grandparents live in Andalucía and his presentation in front of a four-figure crowd at the Villamarín saw him give his grandmother Dolores a big kiss on the cheek. Like Joaquín, van der Vaart’s move was “a dream” and his natural ability and carefree attitude also fit into the Betis idealism of entertainment above all else.
Joaquín’s unveiling demonstrated the size and potential of Los Verdiblancos, not just by the calibre of the signing but also in the numbers who turned up to celebrate his return. Just short of 20,000 descended upon the Villamarín – a mammoth yet notably out-dated amphitheatre in the southern Heliopolis area of Seville – a better attendance than five of the ten La Liga fixtures to take place the previous weekend. The move was also the catalyst for a late surge of season ticket sales, with 2,000 fans taking the club’s total to 43,000 for the season – fifth in the league and reportedly only 1,700 less than third-placed Atlético Madrid.
Those figures justify the €2 million that Betis paid to Fiorentina, who had been reluctant to sell. La Viola fans agreed – ‘Matador, non ci lasciare. Con la pelota ci hai fatto innamorare’ (Matador do not leave us. With the ball at your feet you have made us love you), was the banner on display at the club’s training ground. But Joaquín had his heart set, again letting his emotion get the better of him.
All summer long he and Betis had not only flirted publicly, but they had expressed their love for one another. Posting on his Instagram page, the winger published a sombre photo of himself with the caption: ‘I want to return home’. This was relatively tame for a man who famously admitted during an interview that he was breastfed until the age of seven, of whom there is a picture of him celebrating the Copa Del Rey triumph totally naked, dancing over the trophy, which was an honorary member at his wedding later that year, along with every single one of his teammates.
That cheeky smile, razor wit and raw emotion is back at his club, a club which has rediscovered its soul.
By Colin Millar. Follow @Millar_Colin