As Real Betis prepares to host Sevilla on Sunday at Estadio Benito Villamarín for the first Seville derby of the season, Betis captain and Spanish veteran Joaquin Sanchez Rodriguez knows too well the importance of three points–especially against its local rivals in El Gran Derbi.
“In Seville, it’s what everyone talks about in every bar and every street corner. And once you experience it and see the rivalry between both teams, which luckily has been civilized as of late, it’s so intense and honestly, it’s contagious,” the 37-year-old, who has returned to training and gets ready for his 2018-2019 debut after a muscular injury, told SI.com. “You really have to live it to understand, it’s such a Seville feeling, and everyone here knows that it’s one of the most special events of the year. It has a huge impact on everyone who has lived through it.”
The energy was clearly felt back in January when Los Verdiblancos (the Green and Whites) secured a victory in a thrilling 5-3 battle at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan.
“That win really was ended up being so close to my heart," Joaquin said. "Probably second favorite after my first derby, which was actually in the second division a long time ago. Playing at their stadium and seeing our fans go crazy was really, really special.”
Betis, though, still searches for a win this season and has yet to score in two matches, losing 3-0 against Levante in the opener and drawing 0-0 at Alaves. Regardless of the magnitude of the match, three points are needed in order to kick-start the club's campaign, and Joaquin’s return is perfect timing as he readies for another season in Spain’s top division after making his debut in 2000 as a 19-year-old.
Since the turn of the century, no La Liga player has played more league matches than Joaquin, and he remains effective. In 36 appearances in 2017-2018, he recorded four goals and seven assists.
The winger is grateful for his longevity and attributes his physique to certain non-soccer practices such as hot yoga at 104 degrees and his genetics. But his advice is quite simple. “If you want the secret, honestly, it’s about consistently working hard in training and doing everything you can to stay fit and healthy. Working, working, working. I may not be 20 years old, but I have the same mentality, to keep improving and keep enjoying every match as it was my last.”
Another characteristic that perhaps helps the Spanish star stay youthful is his sense of humor, as Joaquin is known around the league as the funniest player in all of Spain. In almost every press conference, he is asked to tell a joke, and more often than not he delivers. In 2011, for example, on the day he was presented as Malaga’s new player under Manuel Pellegrini upon leaving Valencia, instead of doing the traditional juggling showcase the jokester decided to do some stand-up. According to The Guardian's Sid Lowe, the story goes:
It is the final of the Champions League and a man arrives late at the stadium, looking for somewhere to sit, but the place is packed. Suddenly, he sees an empty seat out of the corner of his eye. As he approaches, the woman next to it says: 'you can sit here if you want.' The man is grateful but he can't help wondering how the seat came to be empty; whose seat was it?
'My husband's,' says the woman. 'And where's your husband?' 'He died.' 'I'm so sorry,' says the man, but still he is a bit confused. 'Wasn't there some friend or family member that could have taken the seat today? Why did no one come with you?' 'Because,' says the woman, 'they're all at the funeral.'
Despite his humorous personality, Joaquin’s love for Real Betis is anything but a joke. After playing in Fiorentina for two seasons, he returned to the club who nurtured him, willing to take a pay cut just so he could come back home to the club where he started it all.
Around 20,000 people showed up at the stadium to greet his return in 2015, a higher attendance than half of the league fixtures that took place the weekend before.
“This is a dream come true,” Joaquin said upon his arrival back to the team. “To return to Betis is what I wanted. I'm back home and ready to fight for this club."
As a weathered La Liga player, Joaquin believes the Spanish league has improved and evolved tremendously thanks to the diversity of players, the quality of training and other elements such as the inclusion of VAR.
“The league’s competitiveness has obviously gotten better through the years, but I have noticed it even more since my return after Fiorentina,” he says. “I think you can see how every team in the league is more prepared nowadays than ever before. I mean, just take a look at our first game of the season, losing at home to Levante was a wakeup call, as they came ready and prepared.”
For his country, Joaquin debuted for Spain in 2002 against Portugal and headed to the World Cup that same year. Thanks to his daring, adventurous dribbling and creativity, he dazzled as one of the best Spanish players in the tournament, but it end in a heart-breaking manner as his missed penalty against South Korea sent Spain home in the quarterfinals.
"I pleaded to take that penalty, because I was really confident in myself," he said a few days later. "Now my heart hurts; it is broken. I feel so much impotence. If I could step back in time I would surely score that penalty. I was fine to take it."
It was a cruel way to end his summer, but the attacking midfielder kept improving and developing as a gem of Spanish football. In 2006, he moved to Valencia and became the club’s most expensive signing at the time, and once again he was selected for the World Cup.
After the tournament, his inclusion with the national team diminished, and it could be fair to say that his characteristics as a footballer never quite meshed with the Tiki-Taka philosophy that began to take hold. Spain relied less on wingers and more on central attackers and midfielders who could go out wide, so the need for a Joaquin-type was not as necessary. He remains proud of his achievements with La Roja and hopes his country returns to excellence after a disappointing campaign in Russia.
“I think we have the ideal coach (Luis Enrique) to create another winning, successful team, but it’s a process and we shouldn’t expect that we’ll start winning straight away. But I’m sure the time will come, because there are some amazing players out there.”
As for Real Betis, the captain is excited for a new season. He believes the team can improve on last season's sixth-place finish, which earned the club a UEFA Europa League berth, thanks to arrival of new players such as William Carvalho (from Sporting CP), Sidnei (Deportivo La Coruña) and Takashi Inui (Eibar).
Mexican fans will also enjoy hearing the admiration Joaquin has for his midfield teammate Andres Guardado, the 31-year-old midfielder who opted out of a possible move to MLS last season and signed a new three-year contract with the club.
“What can I sat about Andres, he’s absolutely amazing. Such a dedicated person who contributes so much to the team, showing up everyday with a great work ethic, and we all appreciate him so much,” Joaquin said. “As a person? What can I say, even more so. You can rely on him for everything and is an absolute asset to team.”
When it comes to a player’s career, the beautiful game can often be cruel, only giving players a short window in order to reach their peak and once they turn 30, the clock begins to tick. But for Joaquin it seems as if football is doing everything it can to make sure the charismatic winger stays a little bit longer.