Enjoy Joaquin while you can. Football won’t be the same without him

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TALAVERA DE LA REINA, Spain


“And wearing No. 17…”

Wait, is that … all of them?

Thursday night in Talavera, Toledo province, and there were fireworks everywhere. On the bridges into the town — population 83,303, main industry pottery — banners declared the local football team “a way of life” and there was life all right, that feeling that only happens when there are fiestas or football, an event like this.

From the bars alongside El Prado, wedged in among the buildings the way a ground is supposed to be, the flats at the top offering a view of the pitch below, people spilled onto packed streets. Many weren’t actually going to get in, a few hopefuls sidling up to doors and asking questions to which they know the answer is “no,” all 4,200 tickets had gone, but still they came. This had to be seen, lived. Even if it was from the outside.

The Copa del Rey does that.

Talavera have never played in the first division and never played in the second either. They sit one place above the relegation zone in Primera RFEF Group I, Spain’s theoretically amateur third-to-fourth tier. On Sunday against Real Union, one fan said to his mate as he made his way in, “most of this lot won’t be here,” but this time El Prado was full, blue and white scarfs swirling, Father Christmas beating a drum, songs sung. This was a chance to face Real Betis, the third best side in the country, a moment that mobilised everybody.

Which meant it was also a chance to see him. Maybe the last chance. Not just for them, but for everyone. For so long, Joaquin defied time, but time is finally running out.

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Now, make no mistake here: Talavera were here to beat Betis, here to compete, not just host them and then wish them well, to shake Joaquin’s hand and wave him on his way with an easy win. In an ideal world, they would send him home defeated.

They almost did that too, the noise rising as they took the team from the first division all the way to extra-time. Talavera were still level in the 116th minute and might have led too — they hit the post and missed at least three clear chances — and were not finally beaten until two late goals made it 4-2. They had possibly deserved more, and they certainly deserve more than being reduced to just the stage Joaquin trod, another leg in his farewell tour.

This was more than that; the Copa del Rey is more than that. But here’s the thing: it also was that.

And while they’re not alone, Talavera expressed that better than anyone. When the two teams came out of the tunnel in the corner on Thursday night, the home players were all wearing the same shirt. It was a Talavera shirt, sure, but on the back of was a No. 17 — his No. 17. They bore his name.

But then if Joaquin is Betis’ player, he seems to have become everyone’s player too.

When Joaquin was little, he dreamed of being a bullfighter, escaping out of the window and sneaking down to the local ring to practice. But it was football he was really good at, even if — cliche alert — there was something of the plaza about him, an old-fashioned winger toying with opponents. Arte, they inevitably call it in Andalusia.

Coming up through the youth system at Betis, he would end up leading a generation of players called up to save them when they slipped into second division, dragging them back to the top flight in his first season with the senior squad. It was 2000.

Yes, 2000.

The year before, 1999-2000, he had played with Betis’ B team in Segunda B — the level that Talavera play at — but Joaquin’s first-team debut had come in September 2000. We’re just about to head into 2022. No wonder it feels like there’s never been a time he wasn’t around, all the more so when he’s been such a public figure; no wonder it feels like some part of us all will be lost when he he’s finally gone.

Maybe he was always going to keep going a little longer than is normal: Joaquin once claimed that he was so strong because he was breastfed until the age of six. He even recalled games played out on the square in El Puerto de Santa Maria, where he’s from, when “the other kids would run to the water fountain and I would run to my mum’s chest.”

Well, it’s a theory.

That he even told that story, giggling as he did so, delivered with the accent of Cadiz province — home of carnival and the place where funny seems to come as standard — said much about him. A cheeky monkey with a mischievous glint in his eye, he has always been a bit different: seemingly as happy cracking jokes or dancing about as scoring goals or beating defenders. This is the man who hypnotised a hen on television, told teammates there would be a fine for anyone not going out until 5 a.m. after winning the derby, and whose post-playing days will be spent on screen, presenting.

That has made him popular, but it didn’t make him a player. Or perhaps it did; there’s something to be said for the importance of fun, which football is supposed to be. Silly doesn’t necessarily mean not being serious about sport. One coach insists that while Joaquin carries the power that comes with being a local idol, as he has got older, certain concessions have been conceded to him — he’s the one playing as a wildcard in possession drills, allowing him less running and more of the ball.

His attitude helps the team, bringing joy to them all. He makes their working environment better.

And as Joaquin quite rightly says, he hasn’t lasted so long because he’s funny. Sometimes that may even have counted against him.

“That https://a.espncdn.com/photo/2021/1217/r952384_1296x729_16-9.jpg has followed me throughout my career: my personality, my attitude to life,” he told ESPN. “I do feel that’s me. I have never hidden; I have always been transparent, and there have been moments when it has cost me, for sure. I haven’t just been telling jokes for 20 years. I’ve always had enthusiasm, hunger, the desire to be professional, and now even more than ever with the passing of the years.”

There have been lots of years. It is 19 since he first went to the World Cup. The first time he won the Copa del Rey, he posed with it wearing absolutely nothing and the next day the trophy was at the altar, guest of honour at his wedding. If Betis do win the Copa del Rey this year, it would come 17 years later. When he scored against tiny Alicante in the previous round last week, it made it 21 top-level seasons in which he had scored. No one can match that.

He has played more games for Betis than anyone else, ever, despite leaving in 2006 — he didn’t want to — and not coming back again for a decade. He has played 915 professional games. At 587, only Andoni Zubizarreta has played more first-division games in Spain — and not only was Zubi a goalkeeper, but Joaquin was away from LaLiga for two years, playing in Italy. Add those games and he would be not just out in front but off over the horizon. He was the next Galactico, they said. The one after Luis Figo, that is. Figo has been retired for 12 years.

The milestones are multiple, all those blasts from a very distant past. The first time he scored a hat trick was … oh, just two years ago. At 38 years, 140 days old, no one had done it later. It was like he was actually getting better, he just never seemed to stop.

Until now.

Joaquin is 40. It is not easy anymore. It hasn’t been for a while, a fact too easily overlooked. He has played through pain and gritted teeth not just with a smile. And this time it really is almost the end. Not long ago, he admitted that this will be his last season; he said that all he could aspire to now is that the young “kids don’t take the piss,” to not feel out of place. He said he knew that he would have to look after himself, that the minutes he played would have to be played in small doses.

“I know I’m 40, not 20,” he said not long ago. “The other day I played with kids who hadn’t been born when I made my debut and I said to myself, ‘There’s no place for me here’. I would like to enjoy what I have left. This will surely be my last year; may it be a lovely year.”

He is not alone. It is not just Joaquin that wants to enjoy Joaquin’s last season; it is everyone else.

“I knew he was physically incredible but the age he has reached is too much,” his dad Aurelio told El Confidencial recently. “Betis have had some good players but none greater than Joaquin. His lifts the masses, and not just the Betis fans but wherever he goes.”

Aurelio would say that, but he is right too.

When he spoke to ESPN during lockdown, Joaquin — very much a people person — said that football without fans was “s—.” The prospect of seeing out his playing days in silence was a dreadful one. “It would be very sad to leave without fans,” he said. That seemed a very real possibility, but by continuing for an extra season, past his 40th birthday, it has been avoided. Now, with supporters back, universally popular, with everyone aware that his is the last dance and feeling like he belongs to all of them, he has been handed a standing ovation pretty much everywhere he plays.

It is a luxury not afforded to most players, but Joaquin is not most players. In truth, it also doesn’t happen as often as he would like. The competitiveness remains, the pride too. “I’m captain and I know what I can do, but I am a player and I want to play,” he said at the start of the season, unable to avoid chucking a little joke in too. “Fortunately, Manuel [Pellegrini] knows me perfectly. Sometimes he doesn’t put me in and I make life hard for him.”

In LaLiga, Joaquin has played eight times, but none of those have been starts. He has been on the pitch just 120 minutes. Watch him and, quite honestly, you’re often left with the feeling that it should be more. There’s something about the touch, the vision, the quality that still sets him apart. Put bluntly, he is better than others. He may not be able to run like he once did but he can still play. Besides, you just want to see him, for everything that he is and has been, to enjoy him as much as possible before he goes. And, soppy though it may sound, to thank him for the days.

All of which makes the Copa del Rey and the Europa League even more important. That’s where Joaquin gets the chance he might not in the league. Where everyone else does too.

Joaquin has started all six Europa League matches and both Copa del Rey games so far. If this is the farewell tour, these are the stages on which it is played out, where homages can be held. In the case of the small clubs in the cup, it is a chance for those Spanish fans who thought they would never have had it, who thought he would never come to their place. So far, he has played two teams he had not faced in two decades in the game. One Sevilla-based newspaper even previewed this tie in Talavera as an opportunity not to go through so much as to pay tribute to him.

Which, if it wasn’t the whole truth — again: Talavera wanted to win and so did Betis — it was part of the truth.

And so there he was in Alicante, facing the club from Regional Preferente, way, way down the footballing pyramid, and handed a standing ovation as he went off. And so here he was a week later, Betis’ 40-year-old captain, getting cheered by his opponents’ fans as the teams were read out pre-game. Here he was watching Talavera’s team come out of the tunnel, every player wearing his name and number on their commemorative shirt, the badges of both clubs stitched onto the chest. One of them was handed over by Talavera captain Juan Gongora before they started, another homage to a player becoming accustomed to them now.

“I will never tire of saying that this is a real privilege for me,” Joaquin said after beating Alicante. “Those standing ovations are the best thing I will take with me. I would like to say thank you to them for the affection.

“At the stage of my career that I am, people might think that these kinds of games don’t matter to me but I go on with a special enthusiasm, with the desire to feel like a footballer still. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, but this is a chance to show what I can do, to prove that I can be competitive.”

It is a line that, for all the laughs, helps to define him — one that helps to explain how he lasted so long. How the bloody hell he made it to Thursday night. It is also one that was made clear in Talavera. Playing to left of him, Rodri was four months old when Joaquin made his debut. Diego Lainez, who came on for him, was three months old. There was a moment in the first half when Joaquin was left in a heap on the floor, bundled over from behind. He was helped to his feet by the referee, Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez — who is also younger than him. It was a bad foul, he hobbled for a bit and Pellegrini later said he had a gash on his Achilles, but he didn’t stop.

He’s been trying to avoid stopping for years now. In fact, he shone. For as long as he was on the pitch, he was probably Betis’ best player, playing off the right, the left and the middle. Every time the ball came to him, the move got better. Every decision was right, every touch clean. And from the spot, he scored the goal that gave Betis a lead that they lost again without him. They weren’t the same without him and, although the match was still a hell of contest with Talavera tearing into Betis, nor will football be. Everyone, it seems, knows that now.

Which is why when his shirt number came up again with 67 minutes played on the biggest night they had had here for years, despite the fact that Joaquin had scored the goal that looked set to deny them the victory they wanted more than anything else, El Prado did what everyone else is doing these days and stood to applaud the grand old man from the field one last time.