Football does not often provide fairytale finales, but Saturday’s Copa del Rey final between Real Betis and Valencia could end with one of the biggest feel-good stories of this or any other season.
Betis captain Joaquin, now 40 and one of Spain’s most popular personalities, has the chance to crown his career by leading his beloved team to their first title in 17 years – with the added spice of the final being played in Seville, their home city.
This is the story of what makes Joaquin so special.
Teen talent to national institution
Joaquin is the oldest player in La Liga and a national institution. He has provided more than two decades of entertainment on the pitch since making his debut for Betis, aged 19, in September 2000.
A traditional winger with wonderful ball skills, a mesmerising change of pace and wicked delivery into the box, it was immediately obvious he was a special talent.
He stayed with his boyhood club Betis for six seasons, winning the Copa del Rey in 2005 and becoming a regular in the Spain team.
The winger’s consistent brilliance led to a move to Valencia for £20m in 2006. Another Copa del Rey triumph followed two years later, but he gradually became less important for Los Che and joined Malaga in 2011.
His spell on the south coast was unexpectedly successful, with Manuel Pellegrini leading an exciting team to a fourth-placed finish and a Champions League quarter-final. Joaquin then left Spain for the first time to spend a couple of seasons with Fiorentina, before making a romantic return to his boyhood club Betis in 2015.
By then he was 34 and everyone assumed his second stint at Betis would be a brief and fond farewell. But seven years later he is still there, performing at a high enough level to make 31 appearances in all competitions this season under Pellegrini, his former coach at Malaga.
Joaquin’s longevity is illustrated by the fact that – despite spending two years in Italy – he has made more La Liga appearances than any other outfield player (595), overtaking Real Madrid legend Raul (550) and closing in on ex-Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta (621).
He will also become the league’s oldest goalscorer if he finds the net between now and the end of the season.
But dry statistics alone do not begin to do this man justice.
Future TV star
Joaquin is a national treasure as much for his personality as his football ability.
With a smile that lights up any room, his natural charisma and sense of fun have long charmed the nation.
Whether he is cracking jokes on social media in the small hours during a bout of insomnia, dressing up in all manner of costumes to perform bizarre dance routines, or making fun of everyone and everything (mostly himself) during a TV interview, laughs are never far away when Joaquin is around.
Most (in)famously, when he won the Copa del Rey with Valencia in 2008, he celebrated by posing for a photo with the trophy totally naked. He later claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that he was wearing underpants and the image had been photoshopped.
The same trophy had featured in more family-friendly photos three years earlier, when he won it with Betis and a few weeks later took it to his wedding, proudly placing it on the altar and at the centre of the ceremonial photos.
He is just enormously likeable, and his nationwide popularity was shown last year when a multi-national shaving company, which has previously hired glamorous megastars such as David Beckham, Jennifer Lopez and Roger Federer to star in their ad campaigns, was looking for the right person to appeal to the Spanish market.
Their choice was not one of the stars of Barcelona or Real Madrid, but Joaquin.
A final fling?
Joaquin’s down-to-earth personality and wicked sense of humour make him a natural on television, and it has been suggested he has already agreed a contract to present his own chat show on national TV when he retires.
For the last few months it was widely expected that time would arrive this summer. Earlier in the campaign he was being used sparingly by Pellegrini, and said: “I want to enjoy football, but also to play.”
In recent weeks his wish to spend more time on the field has been granted, as he has made 14 appearances since the start of February, including four starts. He has performed well, reminding everyone what a dedicated professional he is.
With Betis likely to qualify for European football again next season, the extra games that would bring for the club would surely mean regular action for Joaquin next season and make it tough for the evergreen skipper to decide now is the time to walk away from football.
On the other hand, he could conclude there is no better way than to go out on a high, with another Copa del Rey triumph – lifted in his own city – to savour.
All over Spain, neutrals are hoping Saturday’s final gives him that choice to make.
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