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Valencia's Joaquín on the way back

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It wasn't always this way. Spanish images of the World Cup used to be very different. And few more so than in 2002, the World Cup that ended with Spain robbed by an Egyptian referee and South Korean hosts, defeated at the quarterfinal stage. Again. But while for many the image of that World Cup was defender Iván Helguera getting held back as he tried to beat up Gamal Al Ghandour, another seemed somehow more powerful, more heartbreaking. More eloquent and unfair. Outside Spain's hotel, a camera caught Joaquín Sánchez sitting in the window, staring sadly into space. Motionless, alone.

Gone was the smile, the cheeky grin that defined him.

Joaquín had just turned 21. A flying right winger, he had been Spain's best player at the World Cup, as well as the man -- the kid -- who provided the perfect cross that should have put Spain into a historic semifinal only for the linesman to rule that he had run out of play. He hadn't. It wasn't even close. Instead of Spain going through, the game somehow reached a penalty shootout. And fate intervened. Of all people, Joaquín missed the vital kick. It could hardly have been more cruel. Some feared that the revelation of the tournament would be sunk by it.

Fortunately, it didn't happen. Not yet, at least. Rather than being made a scapegoat, Joaquín was clutched to the nation's chest almost as much as he clutched to his mother's -- this, after all, is the man who admitted to being breast-fed until the age of 6, joking to El Pais: "When we played football in the square, the other lads would run to the drinking fountain when they were thirsty; I would run to my mum's [breasts]." When the national team returned to Barajas airport, the greatest cheers and gestures of support were for him. He was everyone's favorite.

"That might even have ended up being good for me," he told Diario AS recently as he looked back on 2002, "because of the amount of affection I was given by everyone."

It was not surprising that everyone rallied round Joaquín. Not only had he been an unfair victim of the greatest of robberies, but you could hardly wish to meet a more likable player. Always giggling, Joaquín was the original blue-eyed boy, a cheeky character. He admitted that he had always wanted to be a bullfighter, not a footballer, claimed to be able to tell dozens of aftershaves apart with his eyes shut, and, when asked if being a footballer gave him more success with girls, he joked, a glint in his eye, "Well, to be fair, I was pretty good at pulling already."

Laughter seemed to be his natural state. His puppet on the Spanish satirical show Noticias del Guiñol -- and only a handful of players even had puppets -- spent the entire time howling in amusement. For Joaquín, everything was funny. When you met him, you saw that it was not an act. It was impossible not to warm to him.

But that was not the only reason. There was also excitement because of his play. That same character shone through; there was a joy about him, an alegría. He was as classically Andalucían on the pitch as off it: The land where they boast about guasa, a special sense of humor, is also the land where they say their footballers have duende -- that magical touch.

His puppet not only laughed all the time but it also carried around a bicycle tire. In Spanish, a bicicleta is also a step-over. "Not every singer is an artist, nor every painter or poet. It's possible to sing or paint or rhyme and that's it," one columnist said. "It's the same with football: Lots of people can play with the ball but very few are like Joaquín."

That had been especially evident during the 2002 World Cup. One writer claimed, "It looked like Garrincha himself was wearing a Spain shirt: Joaquín has magic, class and an exquisite touch." The country's best-selling newspaper, El País, described him as "unstoppable on the run, capable of leaving any opponent dumped on the floor with his electric dribbling and pace." One pundit said he was as good a player as had ever emerged in Spain.

At his beloved Real Betis, the side he had carried into a first Champions League, he was a hero -- the man who, when he married, stood at the alter with his wife, the priest ... and the Copa del Rey he had helped the team win.

Not that anyone expected him to be there for long. He was going to be a big superstar for someone else's team. Barcelona offered €25 million ($33 million). Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Alex Ferguson's Manchester United made bids, too. So did Real Madrid. President Florentino Pérez made no secret of his desire to sign him, constantly going on about how Joaquín would be the next galáctico.

Meanwhile, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, the Betis owner and president, played hard ball. He even sent Joaquín on loan to Albacete just to prove he could, and then he called him back within hours. Joaquín went, took a picture of himself outside the ground and returned, just to make sure he could not be accused of disobeying orders. He threatened to send Joaquín to Siberia. "Time for a woolly hat, then," the winger joked. And eventually, he joined Valencia in August 2006 for €25 million.

For the Mestalla club, it was a statement of intent; for Joaquín, it turned out to be a disaster. He was just one of a number of players the club had bought that it could not really afford under the catastrophic presidency of Juan Soler. The club hit financial rock bottom and collapsed into crisis. Valencia was falling apart behind the scenes, political wrangling and personality clashes eventually going so far that they ended up in court: captain against president. Instead of a tilt at the title, Valencia was fending off relegation.

"Things have not been as I expected," Joaquín said midway through last season. That was an understatement. In each of his first four seasons at the club, he started at least 11 games on the bench rather than in the first XI. In his first season, he started just 22 of 38 league games. In terms of overall minutes, he never got near the most called-upon players; in his first campaign, 2006-07, for instance, he played 800 minutes fewer than David Villa. From age 25 to age 29, the years that should have seen a special player at his peak, he slipped away.

There were flashes, but he got few goals and delivered few star performances. He was accused of not giving his all; his laid-back demeanor seemed to count against him. "I am too open," he complained. "People see me coming." The jokiness became a flaw, not a quality. But that was the way he was, his character. It was as if having a sense of humor was a crime.

Having a voice certainly was. And in October 2006, soon after joining Valencia, he lost his place in the Spain squad. After the selección lost to Northern Ireland, he was asked if the national team had become a despelote, a shambles. He said that it had, that Luis Aragonés was not sure how to turn things round. He had played 51 times for Spain. He would not play again. "[Speaking up] cost me," he said, sadly.

Spain, meanwhile, turned it around. Joaquin was dropped at the start of qualifying for Euro 2008. Spain eventually qualified. And won it. The World Cup followed. For Spain, it was a huge success; for Joaquín, another nail in the coffin. His presence when it went so wrong and his absence when it went so right made him the cause, the cancer that needed to be rooted out, even though he wasn't. Few wanted him back. Another generation was coming through. Not just for Spain but for Valencia, too. Back at Mestalla, Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata and, most of all, Pablo Hernández were taking center stage. Joaquín was becoming more and more irrelevant.

Last season, Joaquín started only 17 times. He played just eight complete games in the league. There were minor clashes with coach Unai Emery. He started to talk openly of seeing out his contract and leaving. The only promise he made was that he would not depart under a cloud. "It is hard," he said, "to smile these days." He made a decision to keep his head down and make the best of a bad situation. It was as if he was denying himself. He became determined to "shut my mouth and work."

Joaquín, in his own words, "pulled on the overalls every day and went home covered in oil." He worked and worked and worked. He felt he always had. Now, though, there was an added seriousness about him -- almost a self-consciousness about his endeavor. In a way, it was a pity, almost as if he felt he had to bury his personality to be taken seriously as a player. A recent request for a lighthearted interview was turned down precisely because it was lighthearted. The explanation was simple: "That image of Joaquín as the joker has done him more harm than good."

With other circumstances coinciding in his favor, it has worked. In the summer, Villa and Silva departed. It was time to take on some responsibility. "We have to step forward now, out of the shadows," Joaquín said. At 29, almost without noticing it, he had become a veteran. He inherited the captain's armband, along with David Navarro.

"I am a reference now." Joaquín said. "That makes me feel more committed, it gives me desire. I have to play an important role." Now he is indeed playing an important role. What looked impossible nine months ago is becoming a reality. He is still not undisputed in his position, his resurrection is still not complete, but the atmosphere is different and he is having an impact once again, getting more and more important with each week. There was even talk last week of an old flame showing interest: Some reports claimed that Manchester United wanted to buy him.

The offer would not be what it was in 2004, and Joaquín is not the same player he was back then, either. But -- and this is what matters -- it at least illustrates that he is a player once more. Joaquín, whose second child was just born in Valencia, is unlikely to leave now. But the very fact that there is an offer at all is comforting. It says something. Joaquín matters again.

Looking back on 2002, on the years before he signed with Valencia, on the player who was going to conquer the world, it is hard to not to feel a tinge of sadness, a sense of loss at what might have been. But at 29, there is still time, once again, to enjoy his football, still time for him to bring some joy to the game. For him to put a smile back on people's faces. Not least his own. There's something missing without it.