To the outsiders looking in, the sight of a teary 34-year-old, with his right forearm and two of his fingers hastily wrapped in a plaster cast must have appeared bemusing and bewildering.
Yet over 19,000 Beticos flocked to the Estadio Benito Villamarin to witness the homecoming of Joaquin Sanchez Rodriguez. Eduardo Macia, the club’s Sporting Director described the move as “Betis welcoming its soul back into the body.”
The sentiment was genuine, the euphoria was palpable and the emotion tangible and raw – the player admitted that he required the plaster cast after punching a table in frustration when it appeared the deal might collapse.
Joaquin’s first spell at Los Verdiblancos ended in 2006, his 12-year association with the Andalucians concluding with an €18 million move to Valencia only a year after winning the Copa Del Rey with his boyhood heros. At the time the winger was approaching his prime, dazzling opponents with his dribbling ability and direct style of incisive, attacking play.
He starred for Spain at two World Cups but eventually found himself edged out of the international scene, falling victim to the nation’s move towards a “tiki taka” style stranglehold of possession that had no time for traditional wingers.
Indeed, the Spaniard represents a breed of player that is becoming increasingly rare in the cut-throat world of modern football. He does not fit with the norm, he does not play by the rules set down by restrictive tactics and disciplinarian managers, and crucially, he views and judges the game not based on results but entertainment value. He is a risk taker, rarely playing the ‘safe’ option and constantly seeking to thrill the expectant fans he performs to.
If Joaquin does not fit the profile of a modern footballer then he certainly fits the motto of Betis: “Viva el Betis manque pierda!”, or “Long live Betis, even when they lose!”
They will not win the league this season, and aren’t expected to win any other trophies in 2016, but they guarantee entertainment – even if it comes, at times, at their own expense. The 1998 world record signing of Denilson is one of the most famous benchmark-raising deals to backfire in football history, with the move transparently an ego-massage for then Betis President Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, who was later jailed for tax fraud.
Regardless of such missteps and relegations however, they are a club that remain pumped full of emotion and colour, doing justice to their home-town of Seville, which is arguably the most vibrant and encapsulating city in all of Spain. Their long-standing rivalry with their equally admirable city neighbours Sevilla had always been an encounter which saw emotions run high, but the death of Antonio Puerta – a native of the city – back in 2006 turned the rivalry on it’s head, uniting both clubs and altering the tone and ferocity of a derby which had previously looked increasingly ugly.
Betis then suffered a tragedy of their own when centre half Miki Roque died of pelvic cancer in 2012. The lives of both Puerta and Roque are today both celebrated and remembered across the city’s divide, and are now a source of pride and strength.
Like Joaquin, current Betis boss Pepe Mel is in his second spell at the club; appointed last December with the bewildered Andalucians lying in seventh in Spain’s second tier before the former West Brom coach rejuvenated the side and led them to the Segunda title and promotion back into La Liga.
Prior to his return, Betis descended into complete turmoil during his 12-month absence, lurching from one catastrophe to the next, with their off-field incompetence (five managerial changes occurred during Mel’s year-long break) complemented by a total free-fall on the field of play that culminated, somewhat inevitably, in relegation in 2014. Quite the stumble for a team that had climbed up to qualify and compete in the Europa League.
The situation is unlikely to be as dire this time around. The club have learned harsh lessons and have recruited extensively this summer, with Joaquin their tenth, and final arrival. Their first was equally as impressive – the thrillingly talented Rafael van der Vaart who left behind the captain’s armband at Hamburg to relocate to Spain’s sunny south coast.
It was a move that drew many parallels to that of Joaquin. The Dutchman’s arrival was a homecoming of sorts – his maternal grandparents live in Andalucia and his presentation in front of a four-figure crowd at the Villamarin saw him give his grandmother Dolores a big kiss on the cheek. As with Joaquin, van der Vaart’s move was labelled as ‘a dream’ and his natural ability and carefree attitude also fit into the Betis idealism of entertainment above all else.
Joaquin’s unveiling did demonstrate the size and potential of Los Verdiblancos, not just by the calibre of the signing but also in the numbers who turned up to celebrate his return. Just short of 20,000 descended upon their stadium – a mammoth yet notably outdated amphitheatre in the southern Heliopolis area of Seville – a better attendance than five of the ten fixtures to take place the previous weekend in La Liga. The move was also the catalyst for a late surge of season ticket sales, with 2,000 fans taking the club’s total to 43,000 for the season – fifth in the league and reportedly only 1,700 less than third-placed Atletico Madrid.
Those figures justify the €2 million that Betis paid to Fiorentina for Joaquin, who had been reluctant to sell. Then again, there’s usually a premium when it comes to buying back your soul, especially when it’s coveted by another. Fans of the Viola certainly didn’t want to let the Spaniard leave.
“Matador, non ci lasciare. Con la pelota ci hai fatto innamorare” (“Matador do not leave us. With the ball at your feet you have made us love you”), read the banner on display at the club’s training ground. But Joaquin had his heart set, again letting his emotion get the better of him.
All summer long he and Betis had not only flirted publicly through the media and the internet. They expressed their love and admiration for each other. Posting on his Instagram page, the winger published a sombre photo of himself with the caption: “I want to return home”.
This was a relatively tame statement for a man who famously admitted during an interview that he was breastfed until the age of seven, and of whom there is a picture of him celebrating the Copa Del Rey triumph totally naked in 2008 with Valencia, dancing over the trophy, which was an honorary member at his wedding later that year, along with every single one of his teammates.
Back in the flesh at Betis, that cheeky smile, razor wit and raw emotion is arguably back where it belongs at a club that has regained its soul. Whether this life-long entertainer can help carry this circus on another flight of fancy and silverware without the big top falling in is another thing, but whatever happens, with Joaquin, the show must go on.