Joaquín 800: The Man Behind the Smile – Part One

Joaquín

There is a much-loved footballer in southern Spain in the province of Andalucía. He transcends his own profession in terms of the sheer popularity and admiration showered upon him. Throughout time, a footballer appears on the scene who can reach out to the masses far beyond their day-to-day profession.

However, this particular ‘personaje’ or personality is unique in so many ways. Representing a fascinating blend of elegance and charm married to a fierce will to win. He recently reached a landmark by celebrating his 800th club game in professional football against Athletic Club Bilbao. 800 and not out: The emblematic Joaquín Sánchez Rodríguez, better known as simply Joaquín.

Joaquín: The Man Behind the Smile

The Journey of Joaquín

From his upbringing in his native El Puerto de Santa María, Joaquín possessed a thirst for football. He lived, breathed and slept the beautiful game from childhood. A football-mad lad with a dream to reach the very top. Born into a family of four brothers and sisters, his life was very much centred around the two fs: family and football.

It was his uncle, known as ‘El Chino,’ who noticed his talent. He encouraged his talented nephew to focus on honing his footballing skills. He would regularly take the young protégé the hour’s journey between El Puerto and Seville to be coached by Spanish football club Real Betis Balompié.

The Andalusian club noticed something special in the young Joaquín and took a keen interest in his footballing development. However, there would be a problem on the horizon. As a family-orientated lad, he missed his family and friends when staying at the Betis lodgings. He grew tired of the constant journeys to the extent he almost quit football.

Crucially, his family and the club persuaded him to pursue a dream which deep down he craved. From that moment on, Joaquín would never look back.

In the 1999/00 season, he commenced his professional career with the academy team and played 27 matches, scoring two goals. A progressive first season would promote him to the first team for the 2000/01 season, making his debut on 26th August 2000.

A Breakthrough Moment for Joaquín

What the club already knew became evidently apparent to the wider world – a superstar was in the making. In that season, he played 38 of the 42 matches in the second tier. He scored three goals, enough to secure promotion to the Primera División.

With the club back in the big time and making rapid progress, so too progressed the footballer. He matured and improved in harmony with his team season-after-season. He would make 256 appearances over a further five-year period. As such, the rough diamond became the crown jewel. This propelled him to becoming a regular in the Spanish national team.

Trophies and Landmark Achievements

His elegance, dribbling ability and sheer pace as a tricky right-winger drove Real Betis to a memorable 2004/05 season. This included a Copa Del Rey trophy and qualification for the Champions League for the first time in their history – the first Andalusian club to achieve the feat.

One former teammate of Joaquín in that glorious era was forward Luis Eduardo Schmidt ‘Edu’ who played for five seasons with Real Betis and now works as a football representative back in his native Brazil. He remembers him with great fondness:

“I greatly enjoyed his talents on the field and even now as a supporter. As a colleague and as a dear friend, we shared so many wonderful memories together. Playing with him was a lot of fun. We both achieved a lot of goals and assists for each other in Betis.

“He’s one of those footballers who needs to have guidance to bring out the best of him. To take care of him in some ways physically and technically. He’s a crucial player who can settle a match with one moment of magic, one movement of real quality to penetrate the opposition or one mazy dribble to unlock the door.”

With his performances drawing acclaim and accolades from his peers, club supporters and La Liga alike so too did interest begin from overseas.

The Joaquín to Chelsea No Deal

The following season, Joaquín would showcase his talents to a wider audience in the Champions League; in fact, he played in all six group matches which featured both Liverpool and Chelsea. It was precisely the Chelsea meeting which alerted their owner Roman Abramovich of his ability. He subsequently sounded out his technical team to secure his services at all cost.

After positive talks between both parties, a deal was agreed of €36 million euros for a five-year deal. It also included a prospective friendly match between the two clubs. It was a done deal with only the footballer’s signature to seal the deal.

His father, who is also his representative Aurelio Sánchez, picked up the then Chelsea manager José Mourinho from the Hotel Alfonso XIII to the offices of the then President of Betis, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, to be present on behalf of Joaquin’s contract signing. However, there was one factor neither party saw forthcoming: A rejection of the deal and no signature.

The reason? Joaquín’s pure love and feeling for Betis allied to his disinterest in the fortunes which awaited. He was also perfectly aware the climate in London wouldn’t suit his outgoing, extrovert nature. The difference between Seville and London the relative difference between night and day.

To the dismay of both Betis president and Chelsea owner, a deal was not concluded. The player remained in the Betis ranks.

However, with Betis floundering the season after, Joaquín ultimately knew he would have to leave to progress his career. La Liga outfit Valencia came calling and this time the deal would be done. Nonetheless, it was a transfer not made easy as Lopera originally punished him for both wanting to leave his club and for the Chelsea debacle.

The Phantom Transfer

Subsequently, Lopera sent him to second division club Albacete Balompié on loan. To people’s amazement, Joaquín personally drove the five hundred kilometre journey to greet officials. Nevertheless, upon his arrival, he found no representative at the club’s offices present. So he posted a photo of himself with construction workers at the stadium.

It was a comical time but soon after, the deal was declared null and void as common sense prevailed: Joaquín finally secured his move to Valencia.

Joaquín Flies the Nest

During the following nine seasons, he continued playing in La Liga with Valencia and Málaga. And in Serie A with Fiorentina before making a heroes return to Betis in 2015. His signing was on the final day of the August transfer window – and it was highly controversial. With talks between Fiorentina and Betis becoming fraught to the point the deal was nearly off, Joaquín punched a coffee table in dismay – and broke two fingers.

To his relief, the deal went through at the very last moment. At his unveiling – greeted by twenty thousand Betis supporters – he posed with a white cast on his arm as an example of the emotional time he endured to push through a return to ‘his’ team.

The Boyhood Hero Returns

In this second coming for the Green and Whites, he has played five seasons, making 185 appearances and scoring 22 goals to date. Joaquín helped his team return to the European scene, featuring prominently in the 2018/19 Europa League campaign. An unbeaten group stage campaign included a famous victory against AC Milan at the San Siro, ensuring Betis topped their group.

On reflecting how Joaquín has kept in shape over his career, former teammate Edu heaped more praise:

“His footwork is impressive both technically and aesthetically. With even more merit given he has matured over time with age and experience. He understands his movements more intelligently nowadays. His sense of positioning on the pitch has notably improved such is the capability of his football brain. Thanks to this, he reads the game with more thought through more economical sprints. So he creates danger at the right place at the right time. He’s a special football who has got better through his career. He’s learnt to look after his body and take care of himself and full credit to him.”

First Career Hat Trick

Last season, the midfield maestro continued to marvel and defy his age despite entering this twilight period of his career – scoring eight goals in 31 appearances and one goal away from his best tally of nine set in 2002/03 during his first spell. He has 32 assists and 57 goals in Betis colours. He remarkably scored the first hat-trick of his career in November 2019 in a 3-2 win over Athletic Club Bilbao. Very much the finest of fine wine.

“A hard-worker who doesn’t complain to train and work on his game every single day shows still at his age he’s looking to improve. It’s no coincidence he’s still at the top of his game,” says Manuel Alcantarilla, physiotherapist of Betis since 2012.

“He has an amazing capacity genetically speaking to be able to perform at optimum level allied to his determination and drive. He’s a unique and transparent person who we deeply cherish.”

The Spanish footballing icon, now a spritely 39-years-old, appears second in the top ten standings of record games played in La Liga with 559 games with 441 matches for his beloved Betis.

A Record Breaker

This season Joaquín overtook Real Madrid legend Raúl to become La Liga’s record outfield appearance holder. Now he has reached 800 matches, a towering figure for a giant of a man steeped in the pantheons of football. And there are many more opportunities to increase his legendary milestone. The talismanic attacker is under contract with Betis until 2021 to take him to his 40th birthday.

An evergreen Joaquín in all senses.

 

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