Joaquín, el del Betis: The story of a legend
A 0-0 draw between Compostela and Real Betis in Segunda in September 2000 never seemed likely to go down in history. But for one man, Joaquín Sánchez Rodríguez, it was a day that he would never forget. It was his Betis debut, and the start of one of the most enchanting love stories in Spanish football.
“What we often say is that Joaquín is one of the 13 green bars in the crest of Real Betis,” explains Betis fan Enrique Roldán (@enrolcan). To put it simply, “Joaquín encapsulates everything about Real Betis,” says David Whitworth (@DCWh1tw0rth), of RTVBetis. “I’m so Bético that even Sevillistas respect me,” the great man himself once said.
One of the greatest characters in the game, his talents go far beyond his performances on the field. A natural performer, he puts on a show in any context. From television interviews to adverts to bombing down Betis’ right flank, Joaquín is an entertainer, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Reviving a phoenix from the ashes
Betis were at one of many low points in their history at the time that Joaquín arrived onto the scene. Down in Segunda, competing with their city rivals Sevilla, this explosive new winger was to prove crucial to getting Betis out of the second tier.
That debut campaign saw him feature frequently, often from the bench initially, but he made himself a regular in his second season, firing Betis to promotion. In Primera, he looked at home almost immediately, starting 33 of the 34 games which he was available for, to send Betis to Europe and catch the eye of many. Including Spain coach José Antonio Camacho.
In 2002, at only 20 years of age, Camacho called him up to his Spain squad for the World Cup. Joaquín was a central figure, but devastatingly, his campaign ended in heartbreak as he missed Spain’s final penalty. In golden goal extra-time, the linesman’s flag had signalled that Joaquín had run the ball out of play in the build-up to a Fernando Morientes strike that would’ve won Spain the quarter-final, though replays showed that the ball had not in fact crossed the line.
“The goal looked small, then it looked big, then it was narrow, it was everything! It’s complicated to be in that situation, the first experience I had as a footballer at a World Cup at 20, and to be in a shoot-out. I’d face it differently now, I’ve re-lived it many times because it’s followed me through my career,” Joaquín reflected in 2020.
That setback was minimal though, and he continued to set the world alight from the green and white side of Seville. “He was a hugely important player in the last glorious era for Betis, between 2000 and 2006 approximately. At the time, he was the star of the club and was loved by every Bético,” Enrique adds.
In 2002/03, Joaquín added even more to his game. He ended the season with 12 goals and 13 assists from 45 appearances. He was loving life in every sense. A youngster let loose in Seville, he reaped the benefits. “I used to go out at night more than the rubbish collectors,” he joked. “The president [Manuel Ruiz de Lopera] once told me that he’d hired a private detective to keep an eye on me, but that he’d asked for a pay rise because he hadn’t seen his family in five days!”
The highlight of his career, on and off the pitch, came in 2005. Betis finished in fourth, which remains their highest finish this century, but even more importantly, they won the Copa del Rey with a 2-1 win over Osasuna at the Estadio Vicente Calderón. “As we arrived, our fans were on their knees chanting to our bus. When we got back to Seville and got off the train, I got goosebumps, there were just people everywhere,” he remembers.
The iconic scene came weeks later, that same summer, as he got married. Joaquín had not invited Lopera to his wedding, but he turned up anyway. “He came over to me and told me he had the Copa trophy in his car, I thought he was joking, then he brought it up and put it on the altar,” Joaquín recalled.
It was evident that even with Betis in Europe and silverware on show, they would not be able to hold onto their prodigy forever. Joaquín attracted the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. But this was the first time that we saw that Joaquín was truly a different kind of footballer. “I didn’t want to go to Chelsea, no matter what they paid me. What would I do in London with all that rain?” he wrote in his book, Vivir con Arte, “I was happy in Seville, with my Betis. Why would I leave? Can any amount of money pay for my happiness? No. Maybe I wasn’t ambitious with money, but I was ambitious with my happiness.”
When the time came and talks with Valencia hit the rocks, Joaquín’s contract included a clause that the club could choose which team he would join on loan and failure to do so would result in a fine for the player. Betis president Lopera told him that the only offer he would accept would be a loan to Albacete. “They wear white just like Valencia,” was Lopera’s response. So, being Joaquín, he got into his car and he went to Albacete, fulfilling the clause in his contract, and hung around the stadium for a few hours and asked some local builders to take a photo of him at the club offices, before returning to Seville. The loan was cancelled hours after his return.
That was how he forced his move to Mestalla through. €25 million was the princely fee paid for his services by Valencia, who offered him a five-year contract with an option for another 12 months if he performed well.
“When he arrived at Valencia, it generated a lot of excitement, but in the end his performances weren’t that great,” reflects Valencia fan Álvaro Benzal (@ImAlvaroBA). “He’s always been popular at Mestalla, but some felt that he cost too much for what he produced.”
Joaquín was a regular throughout his five years at the club, but he never quite fulfilled the expectations that many had. Expected to be among the greatest talents of his generation, he had faded into becoming one of many talents at Mestalla, but not standing out from the crowd.
Fans were patient, appreciating his consistency, if lacking the star-factor, and his hard work. His character endeared fans to him, and he was given a standing ovation by Mestalla when he returned to Spain years later as a sign of that admiration. Sadly though, his time at Valencia did not go as he had hoped.
His relationship with Ronald Koeman proved to be the beginning of the end. One particularly famous clash saw Koeman publicly say that “he cost 30 million euros, but his performances are worth 30 euros,” to which Joaquín responded that, “he doesn’t have the balls to say anything to my face.” It’s fair to say that they weren’t the best of friends. “I wouldn’t bring him to Betis even as a kitman,” Joaquín said of his former coach years later.
Around this time, his international career came to an end, too. “Right now, the national team is a disaster, and to be honest, I don’t think Luis [Aragonés] can manage these difficulties,” he said, having been left out of the Spain squad. He would return for a further two international appearances, but never featured under Vicente del Bosque as the team reached a golden era. “I was very happy for Spain’s victory, but on the inside I was dying with shame not to be there,” he later reflected.
Valencia wanted rid, and Joaquín wanted out. He got his wish and a deal was done to form part of an exciting, if albeit misleading, new project on the south coast. Back home in Andalusia, Málaga was to be his new home for a fee of just €4 million.
“When he came, he had stagnated and it felt like he didn’t have much left in him, but Málaga gave him the breath of fresh air that he needed to enjoy the game again and it got his best form back,” Kiko García Delgado (@kikogd) of SportDir(ect Radio told La Liga Lowdown.
It was just what he needed, and just what Málaga needed too. “If at Valencia I learnt that sometimes your talent and effort isn’t enough, a personal question matters, at Málaga I learnt that a united group can go very far, whatever external problems there could be,” Joaquín confessed years later.
Two goals on his home debut against Granada was the ideal start, but injuries disrupted much of that first campaign. A leader on and off the field, he was influential even in his absence, returning to form immediately after his injury. Despite having left Valencia under a cloud, Málaga ended the campaign in fourth, only three points behind Joaquín’s former team.
2012/13 gave Málaga their debut Champions League campaign, and with 20 previous appearances in the competition, Joaquín was one of few to have previously played at that level. During that historic run, he was the man for the big moments. He scored a winner against Milan and gave Málaga the lead in that fateful 3-2 defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund which sent Málaga out at the quarter-finals stage.
“Joaquín brought quality, and also experience to go ahead in important games. He was crucial to that historic season,” Kiko added. Sadly, the reality of Málaga’s financial situation hit home and the club could no longer afford to pay many of their key players, not only Joaquín, and the squad was dismantled, despite their achievements. “The legacy he left was more than that of someone who was only at the club for two years, like many of the players that season,” said Chris Márquez (@ChrisMLG6) of Guiricast.
Now aged 32, he was available for €2 million that summer, only seven years after he commanded a fee worth 10 times as much. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t resist,” he exclaimed as he joined Fiorentina, with what felt like one last hurrah in his career. His move abroad came a decade after he had turned down a move to Chelsea, but Italy felt like a more natural fit. Even if Italians weren’t sure what to expect.
“While we didn't know that he was such a character, his personality was something that we heard referenced as much as his quality,” Tito Kohout, Managing Editor of Viola Nation (@Viola_Nation), told La Liga Lowdown. His reputation preceded him, he didn’t disappoint. “He delighted the crowds, both with his flamboyant play and his personality,” Fiorentina fan Chloe Beresford (@ChloeJBeresford) said.
It wasn’t all tricks and showboating, though. The traits that he had learnt from his time at Málaga paid off. This was a new Joaquín. No longer the star of the team, bombing down the flank, he had become a more versatile option. “He could act as a wing-back, a winger, a second striker. He provided quality, assists and goals, as well as his experience in handling pressure and leadership,” Fiorentina’s social media manager and journalist Vieri Capretta (@VieriCapretta) remembered.
He still had that humorous streak in him, even in Italian. In perhaps one of his most famous interviews, he exceeded even Steve McClaren’s wildest dreams by doing an Italian television interview in Spanish, with the odd escuadra and an Italian accent thrown in. “They started asking me, I made a Colacao of languages, and I ended up speaking Spanish, I had no idea how to speak Italian,” he joked when asked about that interview shortly after his return to Spain.
His versatility and rapid integration translated into team success. Part of Vincenzo Montella’s success, the team finished in the top four twice, were runners-up in the Coppa Italia and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League. As part of a valuable squad, featuring Liverpool ace Mohamed Salah, current Atlético Madrid defender Stefan Savić and Juventus midfielder Juan Cuadrado, he played a leading role.
Sadly, by the end of his second season in Italy, Joaquín was desperate to return home. He told Fiore that he wanted to go back to Seville and would not play until a deal could be done. It wasn’t done easily. He eventually had to be separated from his coach Paulo Sousa, having broken a bone in his hand punching a chair in a fit of rage.
And so it was. Joaquín, el del Betis, was back home. And even Fiorentina fans recognised the connection that had driven the move. “There was definitely some frustration at the way he forced his way out, but I don't think very many people begrudged him the chance to return to his boyhood club to finish out his career,” Tito adds.
In stark contrast, Betis fans were jubilant. “I think that Joaquín is in Betis’ top five players in history,” Enrique says. 20,000 Béticos packed out the Benito for a special presentation to welcome him back to the city of Seville.
“The day I came back from Italy and the fans received me that way, I knew that it would be forever,” Joaquín said. Days later, he made his first appearance back the club, providing a pinpoint cross to Rubén Castro to score against Real Sociedad. “I believe that that day it wasn’t just Joaquín who returned to the Villamarín, but Betis themselves,” Enrique analyses.
Few expected then that Joaquín would go on to become quite as crucial to the club for years to come as he did. “To get three great years out of him would have been terrific but to still be playing now at 40 and a good level is testament to him and the nutritional staff at the club,” David adds. “I know that especially the nutritionist Giuseppe Ricciardi worked hard on him to focus him on his eating habits to prolong his footballing career and that has succeeded and some.”
Captain and the undisputed leader in every sense, Joaquín has been the public face for the players through thick and thin, and has often been the star of the show. Many would be forgiven for not realising that he is now approaching his 41st birthday, instead improving with each passing game. “I think he’s someone who loves football, and loves Betis, and that’s why he’s been able to not only maintain, but improve his level as the team has improved year after year,” Enrique assesses.
He’s still got it, even now. Aged 38, he became the oldest player to score a hat-trick in LaLiga after netting three goals in 18 minutes against Athletic Club in 2019. Even in 2022, he is still a regular for Betis, with 31 appearances under his belt at the time of writing.
His existing contract is up in the summer, but rumours persist that he could still extend his contract as a player for another year. “He’s key to the team, on and off the field, for his quality and his personality, I hope he renews,” defender Édgar said. “I would love to see him play another season and it would be a decision based on footballing merit, not sentiment, as he does deserve another year, proving still influential,” David adds.
But first, a Copa del Rey final. An opportunity to win silverware with his boyhood club at the tail-end of his career. It means the world to him. Any doubts you could have about that are soon dismissed just by watching his pre-match team-talk in the Betis dressing room before the semi-final second leg against Rayo Vallecano: “Look me in the face, all of you, we’re here for you. I don’t know whether to speak to you as a friend, as a team-mate, as a captain, or what, but I’m going to speak to you as a Bético. Because I know what a lot of those people outside feel tonight, and they will be here to the death with us. They have suffered for many years, but effort and sacrifice will take us to glory, that’s the reward. There’s nothing better than making people happy. Tonight we have that opportunity. Let’s get out there and show that we want to be in the final.”
And now it truly is all to play for, according to Enrique: “I said that I think he’s in Betis’ top five players, but he’s only won one Copa del Rey with us. If he wins a second one, I think that we’d need to make a raking for him alone.”
Joaquín, el del Betis, is facing history. He knows his days are numbered, and this could be his last shot to cement his place as the greatest legend in the history books of the club he has always loved. Whatever happens in the final in Seville, he will be around for a long time to come yet. As a television personality, as a football star, or as a Betis representative, Joaquín will always be an entertainer.
To follow Joaquín's mischiefs and success, follow @LaLigaLowdown on Twitter.