You must be Joaquín, they said, and he was: unique, no one quite like him, a cheeky scamp with a glint in his eye, a grin on his face, an endless supply of gags, the uncontainable urge to tell them and, armed with a gaditano accent, the delivery to do them justice. Ask anyone in Spain for their favourite Joaquín moments and their face will light up much like his and they won’t want for one. Or two, or three, or four.
Maybe they’ll say the day he was presented at Málaga and decided that keepy-ups were fine but stand-up was better, taking the mic and, in front of thousands of fans, telling a joke instead; the time, asked what the best thing about rooming with Álvaro Cejudo was, he replied that waking up to a cup of coffee and a good morning kiss; or the night he hypnotised a hen, live on TV.
These days, pretty much the only time an interview with him doesn’t end with the presenter saying “tell us a joke, then” is when it starts like that. And somehow, he never lets them down. Eduardo Iturralde González, a Spanish referee, recalls one match during which Joaquín, not impressed with his decisions, sidled up to him and asked: “I heard you got married.” “Erm, yes,” Iturralde replied. To which Joaquín grinned: “You’re making a mistake.” Most, though, will mention that interview when, asked his hobby, Joaquín said tennis, the camera spinning round to see Julio Baptista doubled over. “‘Tennis,’ he says! He’s never played tennis in his life,” Baptista blurts out. “I don’t even know to pick up a racket, Húlio,” Joaquín replies, rumbled and rolling about.
Yep, ask the Spanish about Joaquín and they’ll remember the jokes, the dances, the singing, the one-liners, the stories, the times he fell about laughing and they couldn’t help falling about with him. Look up “Joaquín’s best moments” on YouTube, and there will be giggling not goals. Which is great, but it’s also not entirely fair. “I haven’t been playing at the top for over 16 years because I’m funny,” says the 36-year-old. No, he’s been there for 16 years because he’s brilliant, too often lost amid the laughter.
When Joaquín was little, he used to climb out the window and sneak down to the local bullring in El Puerto de Santa María, where he took on tiny toros.. One of nine kids, he attributed his strength to being breastfed until the age of six, and it wasn’t just that he said so, it was that he recalled football matches in the plaza where while the other kids would head to the water fountain for a drink, he would head straight for his mum. He stood out young, all tricks, skills, speed and daring, a winger always willing to take people on. Spain’s best player at the 2002 World Cup, a revelation whose tournament ended cruelly, the kid who missed the vital penalty, the image of him staring blankly out of a window more painful because it was so undeserved; the leading light in a young, dynamic, exciting side that came up from segunda, he turned down José Mourinho aged 20. “That takes balls,” he said later, but he liked being at Betis and, besides, there were bigger things to come. Or so everyone thought.
Included in the team of the year in 2002 and 2005, Joaquín was due to be the next galáctico, but it never quite happened, Florentino Pérez’s promises going unfulfilled. The only Madrid shirts he got were ones he swapped and he had them stolen. “The burglars didn’t take any money, but they did take the shirts,” he grumbled. He never got a medal with Spain, six years in the squad ending in 2008, “and they go and start winning, the buggers!” he said.
“I could have done more? Maybe,” he said. “I could have done less too.”
He did plenty. With Betis, he won a Copa del Rey that he posed with wearing nothing but that grin, and that presided over the altar on his wedding day. Then came Valencia, via Albacete, where Betis’s infamous, vindictive and very odd owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera sent him for one day as punishmentNext was Málaga, where they were minutes from a Champions League semi-final. And, finally, Fiorentina, where his Italian was almost as good as his art criticism. “There’s a big bloke there, nude,” he giggled. “It’s a pretty city – it’s just a pity it’s not finished.”
And then in 2015, Joaquín came home. He was 34, but it wasn’t the end. This season, in particular, there has been a revival under Quique Setién, a manager who appreciates art and inspiration and who says the key is giving players “something they like: the ball”. Joaquín’s enthusiasm, always there, has been enhanced.
A Betis youth-teamer and now shareholder, having invested €1m “because it’s my life”, Joaquín may be older, but he has always wanted the ball. The talent hasn’t gone and nor have the legs. Anyway, Setién insists talent is more about intelligence and understanding than anything else, about knowing and Joaquín knows. Usually considered a pure right-winger, he has moved inside into midfield, more associative, or has played on the left, where the tendency is to come inside and combine.
Just after Christmas, Joaquín renewed his contract until 2020 – an agreement he announced, headband on, racket in hand, with a video saying he’s not ready for a tennis career just yet, and one that he claimed was cheap: “I’ve spent that much in shares that the second year comes free,” he joked. One thing’s for sure: it was right. He has played 482 first division games, including 29 of the 32 so far this season, 25 as a starter. It is on merit; at 87, only two current players have more assists in primera: Messi (148) and Ronaldo (88) and his tally is still growing.
Joaquín came on to help Betis beat Real Madrid at the Bernabéu; he led them in the 5-3 victory over Sevilla; and then on Friday night, he set off on the run that defeated Girona, dashing from deep, slowing up, drawing the defender in and setting off again, accelerating smoothly, covering 50, 60, 70 yards before slipping a perfect ball into Loren Morón to clip in a classy finish. “I had nothing left,” he said. “If it had been the second half I’d have asked to come straight off, but it was still the first and it would have looked bad.”
When Joaquín started at Betis, the stadium PA came up with a rhyming announcement (well, just about rhyming in sevillano, anyway). “With the feint and the sprint … Joaquín,” it ran. On Friday, that Joaquín returned: the finta and the esprín there again.” “Joaquín provides the art,” El País cheered. It wasn’t just the art, it was the objective too: Betis’s win was their fifth in a row – their best run for over 20 years – and it puts them fifth, within touching distance of an astonishing European place, “top of the mortals” as one member of staff puts it.
It’s not just about Joaquín of course. There’s Fabián and Morón for a start, and the shift in recent weeks is striking, the defensive improvement with a new formation and Marc Bartra – this was the first time in their entire history that they have gone four wins in a row without conceding, and it’s 384 minutes since they last conceded. But that can wait for another day, and there is something seductive about Joaquín, impossible not to love, something about the fun in his football that fits this Betis, something about the importance of enjoyment.
Not long ago, there was a moment during an interview when Setién was asked which player he saw himself in, just as Joaquín walked past. “Tell them who really makes the difference,” he shouted smiling. “I told him the other day: ‘míster, I’ve kept you here six months. I don’t know how long it’s been that a manager was here six months’.”
“I tell you something,” Setién shot back. “You’ve rarely enjoyed playing football as much as you are now.”
Off camera now, heading home, Joaquín delivered another punchline.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s true.”
• Florin Andone sat on the bench chewing his bib and holding his heart, barely able to take any more, his team-mates suffering alongside him, while out on the pitch Lucas Pérez turned to the Athletic fans abusing him for wasting time with a gesture that said: “What do you expect me to do?” Depor had taken the lead at San Mamés, but now they were under pressure. In the end, though, they did hold on, to secure a second win in a row – having gone 15 without any. Five points separate them from safety. Maybe they’re not entirely sunk yet.
• Málaga and Las Palmas are, though. Down in Málaga Isco was wonderful, the home fans applauding and chanting for him to take a free-kick for them. He’d already taken one for Madrid, curling it into the net.
• Sevilla’s season summed up in one sunny afternoon, a 2-2 draw with Villarreal that was good and bad and kind of baffling.
• On what one Barcelona-supporting radio reporter called a “sad”, “desolate” day, in the rain and under grey skies and darker moods, Ernesto Valverde’s became the best team in La Liga history, racking up a record 39th game without a defeat and taking another step closer to the title. But no one was much in the mood for celebrating – and not just because they weren’t very good in their 2-1 win over Valencia. “We know that there’s a depressive entorno here,” Valverde said afterwards. “And this week I wasn’t really in a state to think about records.
• Damián Suárez. Boom! Goal of the season?
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