Joaquín: the record-breaker, the joker and the nearly-man

Joaquín: the record-breaker, the joker and the nearly-man

Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, David Villa, Xavi, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fàbregas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, David Silva. They were all present on that podium in Vienna as Spain were crowned European champions. All of them repeated the trophy-lifting feat two years later in Johannesburg as part of Spain’s first World Cup-winning squad.

There was, however, someone missing. Arguably Spain’s most exciting and eccentric player from previous major tournaments did not earn any medals for his services. He was sitting at home, watching on TV. “I was in the squad for the two years of qualifying for Euro 2008 and I played almost every game,” Joaquín later said, “but in the end, I didn’t go to the championship. I think I deserved to go and I feel sorry, above all, for myself.”

These were fairly tepid words by a more mature Joaquín, compared to the snide comments that had landed him in hot water under Luis Aragonés. “At the moment, the national team is a disaster,” he scolded after Spain’s 3-2 defeat to Northern Ireland – David Healy’s hat-trick and all – in qualifying. “It’s chaotic and Luis doesn’t know how to manage these difficult moments.” Joaquín did play a handful of times for his country after that, but it marked the beginning of the end.

A gigantic personality and perhaps the physical embodiment of Andalusia’s very particular wit and humour, Joaquín first burst on to the international scene in February 2002, at the age of 20. “When I was called up to play for the Spanish national team, I stopped at a service station and cried,” he said on his first call-up.

By then, his reputation was already on an exponential rise, set against the axis of anticipation that comes with many a breakthrough youngster in Spain. Picked up by Real Betis in his early teens, the tricky winger would make his first-team debut for Los Verdiblancos just after his 19th birthday. Cheeky by nature, on and off the pitch, Joaquín took no time at all to charm his public, whether they supported Betis or not.

It was at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan where his performances reached global audiences, although that first rendition ended on a sour note. In the quarter-finals against South Korea, Joaquín thought he’d set up a golden goal, sending Spain through to their first World Cup semi-final. The goal, though, was ruled out, with the linesman adjudging – incorrectly, it turned out – Joaquín to have taken the ball out of play before he crossed to Fernando Morientes.

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“It’s like they were taking the piss out of us,” the Betis midfielder told AS later that summer. It was his miss in the subsequent shootout that had ultimately cost Spain a place in the last four.

Despite this disappointment, Joaquín’s talent was still cherished at home, especially in the south of Spain. Born just down the coast from Cádiz, he was bitten by the bullfighting bug as a youngster. Even today, he still harbours that dream of stepping into a ring. “I tell my wife that I can’t get this idea out of my head. She says I’m getting more stupid by the day,” Joaquín laughed in 2019.

As a boy, it was his mother, naturally, who persuaded him to turn from matador to footballer. “I used to go to the [bullfighting] school in El Puerto but my mother took me out during the week and gave me a ball.” Joaquín shares his love for bullfighting with his brother Ricardo – one of eight siblings – who also played in the Betis academy.

All those at the Estadio Benito Villamarín would’ve been glad Joaquín followed his mother’s advice in the end. His displays in the green and white of Betis were earning him acclaim far and wide and keeping him in the Spain squad. At Euro 2004, the winger started the crunch group decider against Portugal in Lisbon, though Nuno Gomes’s second-half strike ended La Roja’s tournament there and then.

Head coach Iñaki Sáez stepped down that summer and was succeeded by Aragonés. At club level, Joaquín was playing under his sixth different manager, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer. Under the former Barcelona boss, Betis reached new heights – and so did Joaquín’s stock.

The 23-year-old featured in every single LaLiga fixture in the 2004/05 season, only failing to start one of them. Not a potent goalscorer by any stretch of the imagination, Joaquín’s task was to provide and prevent down the right wing, fulfilling both offensive and defensive duties to a tee.

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He did make a habit of finding the net at the Camp Nou towards the backend of the campaign, as Betis pushed for a historic Champions League place, scoring twice in a manic 3-3 draw. His second, a cute finish in off the near post, had put the visitors two goals ahead, but Samuel Eto’o and Giovanni van Bronkhorst rescued a point for Frank Rijkaard’s Blaugrana.

Ahead of the final round of matches in LaLiga that season, it was common knowledge that an Andalusian club would qualify for the Champions League for the first time since its rebranding in 1992. What nobody dared to predict, though, was whether it would be Betis or Sevilla.

A win at Son Moix would do it for Los Verdiblancos, but a late Real Mallorca equaliser caused heartbeats to fluctuate in the southern districts of Seville. Fortunately for them, Málaga had dealt Sevilla a defeat at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, confirming Betis’s place at Europe’s top table for the first time.

At the start of July that summer, Joaquín got married to Susana and, while he was waiting for his bride to arrive at the church, Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera turned up with a special guest. A month before, Serra Ferrer had guided Betis to just their second Copa del Rey triumph, beating Osasuna in extra time in the final at the Estadio Vicente Calderón. The trophy, on the president’s insistence, would make an appearance at Joaquiín’s wedding.

After a disagreement over where to situate the trophy, Lopera put it centre stage. “There I was getting married with the Copa behind me,” the groom remembered some years later. “All the photos I have in the album have the trophy there in the background.”

Despite attractive offers from elsewhere, Joaquín was rarely tempted to divorce his beloved Betis. Chelsea were one of the clubs to come in for him, but the midfielder stood José Mourinho up ahead of a meeting in Seville. “I knew if I went, I would end up going to England. So I didn’t go,” Joaquin later admitted. “I spoke to Mourinho later and apologised. And afterwards he thanked me. He said: ‘I appreciate you being honest because, well, you are the first footballer that has said no to me’.”

After representing Spain at the 2006 World Cup, Joaquín returned to Seville to find himself the subject in a tense transfer saga.

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Real Madrid came calling but were rebuffed by Lopera, who insisted on more and more money. For his part, Joaquín was disappointed, having grown up following Los Blancos as a lot of young Spaniards do. In the end, Valencia struck a deal with Betis to sign Joaquín for €18m plus Mario Regueiro. When the Valencia forward refused to switch Mestalla for the Benito Villamarín, the transfer was delayed. In the meantime, angered at Joaquín taking a percentage of the transfer fee himself, Lopera decided to teach his player a lesson. 

“In one of the negotiations with Don Manuel, he told me that I wasn’t going to Valencia but rather to Albacete because, in the end, I would be wearing white anyway,” Joaquín later revealed on his YouTube channel. So, in a farcical turn of events, the Spanish international was forced to travel to Albacete inside 24 hours in order to avoid being fined by Lopera.

That’s exactly what he did, getting a picture at the second tier club’s stadium before setting off for Seville again. He didn’t go home empty-handed, though. “They gave me cheese and knives,” he chuckled. Long story short, Joaquín would sign for Valencia days before the transfer window closed, with Regueiro staying put too.

After almost a decade away from the club, which had included spells at Valencia, Málaga and Fiorentina – his comedic value grew further in Florence with an interview he gave in incredibly broken Italian to the local media, à la David Moyes in Spain – Joaquín returned home to the Benito Villamarín in the summer of 2015.

By then, he was having to adapt to the ever-quickening pace of the modern game while seeing his own speed dwindle with the passing of age. Although he’d been out of the country for just two years, Joaquín’s Spanish homecoming was greeted with fanfare all over, as his popularity as a person began to exceed his reputation as a footballer.

While he continued to captain Betis and thrive in his usual right-wing slot, Joaquín’s personality, particularly on TV, would see the invites for talk shows roll in. On the popular Antena 3 programme, El Hormiguero, he was asked to back up a previous claim that he could hypnotise gallinas – hens.

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So, with the cameras homing in, the audience silent and viewers watching the live show from home, Joaquín sat there, massaging a hen’s neck until it appeared to fall under his control. The clip is, of course, out there on the internet if you fancy a laugh or if you’re looking for tips on how to hypnotise hens.

Footballers are often the subject of compilation videos on social media. You’ll find stacks of clips of players like Neymar on YouTube, with each fancy trick raising Joey Barton’s blood pressure higher and higher. For Joaquín, though, the attention that surrounds him is mainly centred on his off-the-field antics.

One YouTube channel has put together a series of up to 14 videos, each lasting more than ten minutes, and none of them feature the Betis winger playing any football. Instead, you get two hours’ worth of little clips that almost all end in its protagonist baring his cheeky grin or burying his face into the shoulder of one of his teammates after telling a joke.

Joaquín is so much more than this nice-guy persona, however, having spent his entire footballing life trying to prove he wasn’t just a flash in the pan in his early-20s. He has made more appearances than any other outfield player in LaLiga history and he may well catch leader Andoni Zubizarreta before he hangs up his boots.

In December 2019, he became the oldest player to score a hat-trick in LaLiga history, netting the first treble of his lengthy career against Athletic. “I don’t think it’s going to happen again,” he blushed afterwards. This is the real Joaquín, rightly lauded for his ability with a ball and his charisma in front of a camera.

“I’m relaxed but also serious in my job,” Joaquin told El País in 2016. “I haven’t spent 16 years in the elite because I’m funny. Yes, I have learned to do my job naturally, always enjoying myself. Football is a career for privileged people.”

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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