Football doesn’t often deliver fairytale finals, but Saturday’s Copa del Rey final between Real Betis and Valencia could end in one of the biggest feel-good stories of this season or any other.
Betis captain Joaquin, now 40 and one of Spain’s most popular personalities, has the chance to crown his career by leading his beloved side to their first title in 17 years – with the extra spice of the final which will be played in Seville, their hometown.
This is the story of what makes Joaquin so special.
Teen talent at National Institution
Joaquin is La Liga’s oldest player and a national institution. He has provided more than two decades of on-pitch entertainment since making his debut for Betis, aged 19, in September 2000.
A traditional winger with wonderful ball skills, a fascinating change of pace and a wicked delivery into the box, it was immediately apparent 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 squad.
The winger’s consistent brilliance led to a move to Valencia for £20million in 2006. Another Copa del Rey triumph followed two years later, but it gradually became less important for Los Che and has joined Málaga in 2011.
His time on the south coast was an unexpected success, with Manuel Pellegrini leading a thrilling side to a fourth-place finish and a Champions League quarter-final. Joaquin then left Spain for the first time to spend a few seasons with Fiorentina, before making a romantic return to his boyhood club Betis in 2015.
He was 34 at the time and everyone assumed his second spell 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 manager 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), surpassing Real Madrid legend Raul (550) and coming close of former Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta (621).
He will also become the league’s oldest goalscorer if he finds the net by the end of the season.
But arid statistics aren’t enough to do this man justice.
future tv star
Joaquin is a national treasure as much for his personality as for his footballing abilities.
With a smile that lights up any room, his natural charisma and sense of fun have long charmed the nation.
Whether he’s cracking early morning social media jokes during a bout of insomnia, dressing up in all kinds of costumes to perform bizarre dance routines, or making fun of everyone and everything (especially himself) during a TV interview, the 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 picture with the trophy totally naked. He later claimed, unconvincingly, that he was wearing underwear and that the image had been airbrushed.
The same trophy had featured in more family photos three years earlier when he won it with Betis and a few weeks later he took it to his wedding, placing it proudly on the altar and center stage ceremony photos.
He’s just downright likable, and his nationwide popularity was demonstrated last year when a multinational shaving company, which has previously hired glamorous megastars such as David Beckham, Jennifer Lopez and Roger Federer to star in their advertising campaigns, was looking for the right person to appeal to the Spanish market.
Their choice wasn’t one of the Barcelona or Real Madrid stars, but Joaquin.
One last adventure?
Joaquin’s down-to-earth personality and sense of humor make him a natural character on TV, and it’s been suggested he’s already got a deal to present his own talk show on national TV. when he retires.
For the past few months, the weather was expected to arrive this summer. Earlier in the campaign, he was used sparingly by Pellegrini and said: “I want to enjoy football, but also to play.”
In recent weeks, his wish for more time on the pitch has been granted, as he has made 14 appearances since early February, including four starts. He performed well, reminding everyone what a dedicated professional he is.
With Betis likely to qualify for European football again next season, the extra games this would bring the club would surely mean regular action for Joaquin next season and make it difficult for the evergreen skipper to decide now that he it’s time to step away from football.
On the other hand, he might conclude that there’s no better way than to go out in style, with another Copa del Rey triumph – won in his own city – to savor.
Across Spain, neutrals will be hoping Saturday’s final will give them that choice.