Joaquin: Real Betis icon on 'love story' with boyhood club & his next chapter at age 37

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How to become a Spanish football folk hero

When meeting Joaquin, you can be sure of three things. His love for Real Betis will shine through, his outgoing personality will charm you and, as everyone at the club warned us, he will be late.

He is the kind of player who is always last off the training pitch and last out of the showers. His team-mates laughed when they found out we were waiting for him. There was a knowing look that said 'that's Joaquin'.

During an hour and a half of training, the 37-year-old was the centre of attention - constantly joking with team-mates, organising games with his coaches, then refusing to let go of a six-a-side defeat, complaining bitterly in the warm-down.

When he finally emerged and sat down in the warm spring Seville sunshine for just shy of an hour for this interview, the affection he has for his boyhood club could not have been plainer.

It is, in his own words, a "love story". One that began as a 16-year-old, when he would make the hour journey every day from his hometown of El Puerto de Santa Maria to train with the Betis youth team.

"It didn't take long for me to start loving these colours," he tells BBC Sport. "It was a dream I had as a child to train and play for the team. When you're lucky enough to make it, you love it forever."

Joaquin made his professional debut with Betis as a 19-year-old in 2000. Nineteen years later he is still playing for them in Spain's top flight, week in, week out.

On Saturday evening, Joaquin will make his 513th La Liga appearance in one of the most fiercely contested matches in Spanish football, when Betis play against city rivals Sevilla in a fixture known as El Gran Derbi.

The former Spain international is Betis' captain, their most iconic player, and now a shareholder too. He says he is the club's "fourth biggest owner", having paid over 1m euros (£860,000) for 2% in 2017.

"It's a way of giving something back after everything Betis have given me," he says. "I feel and identify with this club. When the shares went on sale I wanted to contribute and play a part.

"Now I joke about being the boss, but really I want my team-mates to identify with me. I try and make them feel the way I feel, to understand how much it means for so many people, and to give that little bit extra on the pitch."

Having burst on to the scene as an exciting teenage winger, Joaquin established himself as one of Europe's brightest talents as he helped Betis into the Champions League and to victory in the Spanish Cup in 2005, before Valencia paid a then club record 25m euros (£21.5m) for him the following year.

Moves to Malaga in 2011 and Italian club Fiorentina in 2013 followed, but he returned to Betis in 2015. This is where his heart lies, and at all the other clubs he played for he was always known as 'Joaquin el de Betis' - the one from Betis.

Joaquin
Joaquin is set to make his 513th Spanish league appearance

There had been other big offers before he left for Valencia, and if there is a feeling his career never quite lived up to early promise, he admits love may have got in the way. A move to Manchester United was a possibility in 2003, while he also came very close to joining Real Madrid.

"My dad sometimes still tells me, my love for Betis made me lose so many great chances," he says.

"I know I lost a chance to go to a big team; it could have been nice. But now when I look back, I see it wasn't meant to be.

"Sometimes I still ask myself what would have happened if I had moved to Madrid. It's true that got really close, the closest one to happen, but I just felt it wasn't for me."

Some 20,000 fans came to Betis' Benito Villamarin Stadium to welcome him home when he re-signed from Fiorentina four years ago, and the bond is still strong.

A fifth of all shirts sold by the club this season bear his name, and in the Pena Betica Barrio de la Feria, a small fans' bar down a dark backstreet in the heart of Seville, supporters light up at the mention of his name.

"Joaquin is a symbol of the club," says fan Antonio Brea. "When he plays, he gives the team a sensation of security, of power, of love.

"I hope he can play until he is 40. He is in a very good physical condition, like Ryan Giggs was."

In the Pena, packed with men, women and children and one of 450 such fan bars around the world, Tim Tooher, an English expat, explains a little more about Betis fans' complicated relationship with their club.

"When people ask where I'm from, I say I'm from Seville but I'm 'Betico', it's at the forefront of who people feel they are," he says. "But there is a masochistic self-identity."

Brea adds: "Betis is like love - you enjoy but you suffer too."

It helps explain the club motto, 'Viva el Betis aunque pierda', which translates as: 'Long live Betis even when they lose.'

Joaquin
Joaquin, now 37, joined Betis as a teenager

The Betis trophy cabinet is not exactly brimming. They have won the Spanish league just once, in 1935 under Irish manager Patrick O'Connell.

The club yo-yoed between the top two divisions during much of the 20th century and since 2000 they have been relegated four times from La Liga. But having returned to the top-flight in 2015, more stability, if not silverware, has followed.

Loyalty has been a defining trait of the Betis fans who pride themselves on sticking with their team. Now they, like Joaquin, are playing a big role in the club's transformation.

Last season Betis finished sixth, one place above Sevilla. That meant a return to European football after a three-year absence, and this term they reached the knockout stages of the Europa League. They topped their group ahead of AC Milan but lost to French side Rennes in the last 32. Rivals Sevilla have won that competition five times since 2006.

Earlier this season, Joaquin got the winner in a 1-0 home win against Sevilla. He also scored as Betis beat Barcelona 4-3 in November, securing their first win at the Nou Camp in over 20 years.

When president Angel Haro and chief executive Jose Miguel Lopez Catalan took over three years ago, neither had any football experience. Haro has a background in renewable energy, while Lopez Catalan runs a video game company, but they are both lifelong Betis fans.

They started selling shares in Betis and 14,000 were snapped up by supporters, ex-players, coaches and celebrities - around 55% of the club is now owned by ordinary fans.

Sitting on the edge of the pitch, under blue skies over Betis' vast 60,000-seater stadium - the fourth biggest in Spain - Lopez Catalan explains the "project".

He points to a wristband with the words 'hora Betis hora', which means 'now Betis now'.

"It was a moment that if we don't change Betis, don't compare Betis to a modern club, then we could be still in the second division and not competing like we are now - in Europe and aiming to finish fourth, fifth or sixth in the league," he says.

"We have an important message in the stadium on a sign that says: 'From parents to children, from grandparents to grandchildren, a passion called Betis.'

"You see how Chinese, American or Arab companies come to Europe and it is very attractive to own a club. That is something we want to avoid. We want the fans to be the owners of Betis, the future of the club. We see Betis like a family, one of the most important things in your life."

The club recognise the importance of attracting younger fans. Of 50,000 season tickets (they have another 10,000 people on the waiting list) 14,000 were sold to under-14s for 79 euros each.

"That is the future for us," adds Lopez Catalan. "It can hit our income with [the price of] these tickets, but that is not as important."

Go back to the Pena and you will see kids decked out in green and white singing the club's songs. Tooher explains how his four-year-old daughter wanted her birthday party there.

"She doesn't understand football yet, but she's Betica. In her heart she's green and white - it's a deep thing already," he says.

Young fans at the Pena
Young Betis fans at the Pena Betica Barrio de la Feria

Betis have historically drawn their fan base from the working class in Seville, with the perception that the elite favour the city's more recently successful side, Sevilla.

Andalusia has an unemployment rate of more than 20% - the highest in Spain - and historically that has seen Betis fans leave the area to seek opportunities elsewhere. But as Betis' director of communications Julio Jimenez Heras says: "People took in their suitcase their families and Betis."

Penas have cropped up all over the world. There is one in London, one in Blyth in north-east England - owing much to the local team Blyth Spartans wearing the same colours - plus Edinburgh, Dublin, New York, Miami, Cape Town and Argentina. In the north-east of Spain, Catalonia has between 30-35.

Betis are one of the country's largest clubs and like to say they are fourth in a number of categories: stadium size, season ticket holders, TV audience and social media following.

"We want to put Betis to the world," says Lopez Catalan.

Back among the orange tree-lined streets of Seville's Heliopolis district, all the attention falls on Saturday's derby at Sevilla's Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, just 4km from Betis' stadium.

Betis have won the past two derbies and another victory could be crucial to this season's rivalry. They are ninth and Sevilla are fifth, with six points between them. A potential European spot is at stake.

There is also the added drama of the match taking place the day before one of the city's biggest festivals, Semana Santa - Holy Week. The derby is the most important match of the season, an intense occasion. The rivalry runs deep. As Brea says in the Pena: "Families are divided."

You are unlikely to see the colour red in Betis' stadium. It is Sevilla's colour. When Betis went into partnership with Coca-Cola, they requested the logo be changed to green in the stadium. They claim to be one of the first clubs, alongside Boca Juniors of Argentina, to have been granted the request. One club employee says he would never let his son wear red.

"It is not common the way this city lives football," says Joaquin.

"Everything stops. I don't know another city that lives football this way. People get really emotional and feelings run high. It's the only thing that matters and means so much for the fans.

"It's all about bragging rights. The day after the match they go to work and see their colleagues and make jokes and brag. But if we lose it is one whole week of suffering."

No-one likes to wind up Sevilla fans more than Joaquin. No-one better understands the importance of a derby win.

After his winner in the reverse fixture in September, he said scoring against "eternal rivals" meant he could "leave football a happy man." Following Betis' dramatic 5-3 away victory last season, he said: "There will be no rest tonight. Anyone who gets home before five in the morning gets fined."

He says now: "Joking around with Sevilla fans, always I love it, but always with respect. It is a tradition in the city, joking with neighbours and friends who support the other team, in a nice way. We do not like to go too far, we just love to joke in Seville - it is part of the culture."

Joaquin has one more year left on his contract and Saturday's game is likely to be one of his final derbies. He is now less a flying winger and more of a scheming central midfielder.

"I do not have much time left, but I don't really care," he says. "Even if I retire soon, I will be happy. I enjoy every day coming here for work and training with my team-mates.

"There are no secrets about playing at the top level at this age. I feel lucky because the league is very demanding. I am limited by my age, my body, but you can always change something, such as your way of playing.

"The key thing is I am still just as excited as I was on the first day. I work really hard, I feel important, and that plays a big part as good mental health helps the body."

Joaquin says he counts his Betis debut and his first of 51 caps for Spain as the greatest moments of his career. Asked whether he regrets anything, he shakes his head.

"I don't regret anything of what I've done in football. I could have played in other teams, maybe I could have gone to a bigger team, but all the decisions were made based on my happiness and that of my family. I was not looking for money."

Joaquin's great loves: Betis, family and football.

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Betis fans
Betis fans own about 55% of the club's shares
Joaquin
Joaquin scored the winner in a 1-0 victory in the home league fixture against Sevilla earlier this season
Joaquin arrives for his interview with the BBC
Joaquin arriving for the interview at Betis' training ground
Real Betis
'From parents to children, from grandparents to grandchildren, a passion called Betis' is a message displayed around the club's stadium
Joaquin
Joaquin sits on a wall of legends inside the Benito Villamarin

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