From Jorge Molina to Joaquín, 2019/20 belongs to LaLiga’s Golden Oldies
Written by Alex Brotherton
There’s been plenty of hype around some of LaLiga’s younger starlets this season, and rightly so. Rodrygo Goes has impressed for Real Madrid, Martin Ødegaard has shown Real Sociedad the flair he showcased in his teenage years and Ansu Fati, a 17-year-old kid from Guinea-Bissau, is being touted as the heir to Lionel Messi’s throne. But a select group of senior players aren’t ready to give up the limelight just yet.
To watch them play is just like watching a player ten years their junior. As opponents young enough to be their children question their ability and try to exploit their weary legs, they rise to the challenge. They come off the bench to score ridiculous goals, they captain their teams imperiously and they give their all. LaLiga’s old-timers often get ignored in the headlines, but they deserve more respect.
In the same season that Ansu Fati became Barcelona’s youngest-ever LaLiga goal scorer, Getafe’s Jorge Molina went to the other extreme. With his first-half strike against Deportivo Aláves in a 1-1 drawback in August, the Spaniard became Getafe’s oldest-ever league goalscorer at the ripe old age of 37 years and 131 days.
It took a mammoth journey for Molina to break that record. After undertaking a journeyman-like career with the likes of Alcoyano, Benidorm, Poli Ejido and Elche, it wasn’t until he turned 29 that the striker made his LaLiga bow, turning out for Real Betis in 2011/12.
Since that career milestone, he’s only gone from strength to strength. During his 30s, he has scored 50 top-flight goals (compared to the five he scored during his 20s), the majority of those for Getafe. He has been integral to the rise of the club in the Madrid suburbs, spearheading their rise from the basement of Segunda to the Europa League knockout stages. In 2018/19 he scored a career-best 14 goals in 38 games, as Getafe finished fifth to return to Europe after an eight-season absence.
A late bloomer as footballers go, and surely one of the only cases of an elite footballer being older than the club they play for, Euan McTear tells me that Molina has simply got better with age: “His experience and education make him a very intelligent player. He’s gone and got his coaching badges and has a degree in physical education, so he’s constantly learning and knows much more now about football, sport and fitness than he did when he was younger”.
But as Euan explains, his intelligence doesn’t mean he is lacking physically, “Technically he is a brilliant footballer, and he is fitter than ever before. He often covers more ground in matches than his teammates”.
While Molina has become a Getafe legend in a relatively short space of time, down in Seville another talisman in the twilight of his career has forged a unique bond with his club over ten-and-a-half seasons. As Radio Betis host David Whitworth simply puts it, “Betis is Joaquín and Joaquín is Betis”.
Joaquín Sánchez joined Real Betis at 16 and has been a cornerstone of the club ever since. To date, he has made 328 top-flight appearances for the club, scoring 52 goals, despite operating mostly in a wide role. He was integral in the club’s historic Copa del Rey triumph of 2004/05, still, one of only three honours Betis have won.
Joaquín may have spent nine years away from the Benito Villamarín between 2006 and 2015, but his heart has always been at Betis. “His love for football and for Betis give him untold motivation to do his best for the club”, David tells us. “He gives the supporters so much hope and joy, he is the perfect emblem, talisman and ambassador for the club”.
In truth, Joaquín’s love for Betis is no surprise: before he was a player, he was a fan, and in 2017 he became the club’s fourth-largest shareholder. What is surprising is the way in which the club captain, playing in a physically demanding position on the flanks, has maintained his performance levels. He has scored in 20 consecutive professional seasons, and he has scored eight league goals this campaign, his best-ever single-season tally, and that means he has improved in each of the last five seasons, judging on this metric alone. Not bad for a 38-year-old.
“He is still very sharp mentally and is very spatially aware”, explains David. “He’s very economical with his runs now and has a knack of being in the right place at the right time”.
But nothing encapsulates Joaquín’s age-defying abilities more than his first-half performance in December’s 3-2 win against Athletic Club. In the first 20 minutes, he netted three times, breaking the record for LaLiga’s oldest hat-trick scorer, a record that had been held by Alfredo di Stéfano for 55 years. What’s even more impressive is that it was his first professional hat-trick.
“There’s a tremendous sense of pride for Béticos that he finally scored his first hat-trick and broke the record”, David confesses. “The supporters here cherish, worship and adore him”.
One player who commands similar adulation wherever he plays, whether it be at Villarreal, Recreativo Huelva, Málaga or Arsenal, is Santi Cazorla. The 35-year-old playmaker has had an injury-ravaged career, but he has nonetheless wowed crowds and bamboozled opposition players wherever he’s gone. Cazorla, part of Spain’s European Championship-winning sides of 2008 and 2012, departed LaLiga when Arsenal signed him in 2012.
After an impressive three seasons with the London club, a freak complication relating to an Achilles injury threatened to end his career. After eight surgeries, the affected area contracted gangrene and a skin graft was required to solve the issue. Santi never represented Arsenal again after that – but there were fears that he would never walk again, never mind play.
Yet in the summer of 2018, he returned to his first club, Villarreal, and after 636 days on the sidelines, he made his return. He has been imperious ever since. So far this season Cazorla has a league return of eight goals and five assists in 22 games, as well as four goals in the Copa del Rey. But there’s more to his game than stats.
The diminutive playmaker glides across the pitch, never breaking into a sprint but somehow dominating the midfield. He sprays balls out wide, he dinks it in behind, he dribbles and he slaloms. He always knows the right ball to play, never too risky but never too safe. To be a striker in front of Santi must be a dream.
In La Liga Lowdown’s Paco Polit’s view, it’s like the Asturian magician has a new lease of life, “After being on the brink of retirement, you can sense he's playing for himself, for pure enjoyment. The happiness and joy from just being able to run, pass and score without pain in his heel is the main reason he's so brilliant”.
In a season that has seen older players wind back the clocks, it seems appropriate that the best goal was scored by a 38-year-old. Aritz Aduriz had not long announced that he would retire at the end of the 2019/20 campaign, signalling an end to his romantic association with Athletic Club, when he came on against Barcelona as an 88th-minute substitute.
Within a minute he had scored an unstoppable overhead kick, sending San Mamés into raptures and earning his side a huge opening-day scalp. With that strike, Aduriz has scored in 15 consecutive LaLiga seasons, a feat only equalled by Lionel Messi.
The Basque striker has had three separate spells at Athletic, scoring more than 170 goals in more than 400 appearances in all competitions. Between 2012 and 2018, from the ages of 31 to 37, Aduriz scored 93 league goals.
Journalist Dan Parry thinks his late-blooming has a lot to do with the faith shown in him: “During his third spell, he finally felt important. Throughout most of his career, he was the sort of striker signed to compete with another first-choice attacker. But when Fernando Llorente wanted out, Aduriz really took his opportunity”.
He may have played little since the overhead kick, but his loyal service and crucial goals mean he will remain an Athletic Club legend forever.
There are clear reasons why these four ageing stars are able to perform whilst pushing 40. They are all intelligent and technically gifted, with years of experience enabling them to make the right decisions in every situation. All four have supporter-like bonds with their clubs, the kind of affection not born out of winning major titles but by sticking around during the tough times. All feel loved and appreciated in the twilight of their careers, but crucially, they simply haven’t fallen out of love with football.
Why else would they still be playing at the ages of 35, 37, 38 and 39? Enjoy them whilst you can. LaLiga will be a poorer place without them.
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