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Snubbing Chelsea and Mourinho, missing Spain’s glory and stories from 20 years in soccer

A while ago now, thieves broke into Joaquin Sanchez’s house and took the most valuable thing in there. They didn’t touch the television or the electrics, didn’t drive off with his car; they didn’t lift any jewellery either. “Nah,” he grins. Instead, they stole football shirts.

“I had some in a box and, bloody hell, the bastards found them,” Joaquín says. “They took David [Beckham]’s, Ronaldo, Lampard, quite a few.”

The 39-year-old winger laughs about it now — he laughs about most things — but it hurt. Which, looking back on this chat, feels appropriate somehow.

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“Luckily,” he says, “I have a lot more. I don’t even know how many. They’re locked up in storage at the moment. It’s all thanks to my wife; I’d always swapped them, but she said to me ‘one day these will be a reminder of everything you’ve done,’ so I started to collect them up properly. I don’t know where I’ll put them all.”

Maybe Real Betis will display them at the stadium — “that would be lovely,” he says. There are hundreds of them, mementos from a long and unique 20-year career that runs from Betis to Valencia to Málaga to the Italian Serie A and back again, spanning the whole of the 21st century. Then there was his time with the Spain national team, albeit not for as long as he would have liked. There was almost moves to Chelsea and Real Madrid.

This weekend, Betis face the team where Joaquín was destined to be the next galáctico, Real Madrid — or so they always said.

In the end, that didn’t happen either. So much more did, though. Everybody’s favourite cheeky scamp, a universally popular figure in Spanish football, Joaquín made his first team debut in August 2000. Twenty years on, there’s still a glint in his eye. There are lots of laughs too, but there’s something else that’s clear over the course of our long conversation: a depth, a seriousness, a hint of sadness at times, although that usually comes with a smile.

There are moments of genuine poignancy, too. At one point, he says “we’re getting sentimental” — how could you not?

It hasn’t always been funny, and him being funny hasn’t always helped, he suggests. But then, he is who he is. And nor has it stopped him playing way after everyone else has given up.

The first reports mentioning Joaquín in the national press come from last century, with the Betis youth team winning its second successive Spanish title, beating Real Madrid. “Good times”, he says. Different times, too. He has watched the game, and the world, change. And he has made a lot of friends along the way.

Every year at Christmas, the stars from that Betis team meet up: Juanito, Rivas, Arzu, Doblas, Ito, Benjamin, Toni Prats, Luis Fernández and the rest. It’s not just that, at 39, Joaquín is the only one left; it’s that the rest are long gone. “It’s sad but it’s true,” he says, cracking up, “the most recent is Toni Doblas — and he retired five years ago.”

“It doesn’t feel like 20 years; it feels like yesterday. Time goes by so fast, all the more so in football. I still feel the same way about football, the same desire, excitement and commitment. Unfortunately, I have only got a very little bit of time left.”

ESPN: You’re seen as a character who is always smiling, always joking. You go and do an interview, and people ask you to tell a joke. Which is fun, of course, but can that distract from what you actually are? Still playing at 39, it feels like your career destroys two myths. One: football’s so serious that there’s no room for fun. And two: you’re just a funny guy, who doesn’t take it seriously.

[Joaquín laughs, a big smile filling the screen, which is an answer in itself and, as will soon become clear, is how most answers begin.] Yes, that has followed me throughout my career: my personality, my attitude to life. I do feel that’s me. I have never hidden; I have always been transparent, and there have been moments when it has cost me, for sure. I haven’t just been telling jokes for 20 years. I’ve always had enthusiasm, hunger, the desire to be professional, and now even more than ever with the passing of the years.

I’m 39 and competing at the highest level. Every year is harder and still being part of that is a privilege.

Have you been close to giving up in the past few years? There were suggestions that Quique Setien [Real Betis manager, 2017-19] gave you a new lease of life just when your career might have come to an end.

I’ve been doing this for 20 years; I’ve never done anything that’s not kicking a ball. There are times you think about [leaving it], but what keeps me going is that I can still compete. If I felt it was too much, I would have retired long ago. There were moments when retiring went through my mind. You feel you’re not playing well, not contributing. There were moments in my third season [back] when I saw that this just wasn’t working, but fortunately, a coach came along [Setien] and there were structural changes, and the club took a step forward, which changed things.

Last year we took a bit of a step back, but in general, in the last three or four years the club has made great strides. And I’m really excited about this season.

Maybe the first time people really noticed you, at least outside Spain, was the 2002 World Cup. You were a revelation, but it ended with you missing the vital penalty in the shoot-out [Spain were eliminated by tournament co-hosts South Korea in the quarterfinals, losing 5-3 on spot-kicks after a 0-0 result]. There’s an image of you afterwards sitting in the window of your hotel, looking lost …

Pfff … I’d gone all night without sleeping …

What were you thinking?

It was a night I will never forget. After the game, I spoke to my family and they all said, “Be proud, because what you have done is huge, Joaquí. Forget it. Only the people who are there can take penalties.” And I said: “Yeah, yeah, but the one who missed it was me …”

[Joaquín laughs.] It’s hard to take it all on board. I had only just turned 20, and that night was hard. There were players who were idols for me, people I had dreamed of two days before: Nadal, [Gaizka] Mendieta, Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique, Raul, [Fernando] Morientes … now I was at a World Cup with them. And for that to happen, to feel like singled out because you missed the penalty that sent us home … I was all over the place. I was 20, and you don’t know how you’ll approach your career or life after that.

It could have sunk you.

Correct. People knew me because of that penalty, but in the long term maybe that was good for me. My career kept growing.

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0:52

Sid Lowe believes Barcelona have enough forwards and don’t need to replace Madrid-bound Luis Suarez.

You were becoming a huge star. Chelsea wanted to sign you.

It all happened very quickly. I played the 2002 World Cup, I had my first year in [Spanish Primera Division]: it all came at once. It was a lovely time, but I remember the stress too. Teams started taking an interest [in me]; it wasn’t easy to take it all on board. And when the moment of truth came, I just didn’t want to go. I didn’t see myself leaving Betis. I was happy.

As Don Manuel [Ruiz de Lopera, the Betis president] said, “Here comes the Russian again with another offer,” hahaha! People always say to me: “Joaquín, don’t you regret it?” No. I know I missed an important opportunity to play for a great team and earn a lot of money, to win trophies, but it just wasn’t what I had in mind. So, I have no regrets. I was happy where I was.

Did you talk to Jose Mourinho?

Yes, yes. Well, in the meeting I didn’t, because I never turned up. [Joaquín cracks up laughing.]

What?!

They were all at the Alfonso XIII hotel, and I didn’t go. I didn’t want to go because I knew if I went, I was going to end up on my way to England. I spoke to Mourinho and I apologised. And afterwards, he thanked me. He said: “I appreciate you being honest because, well, you are the first footballer that has said no to me.”

It was a done deal, it seemed.

Well, between the clubs [it was ]… it was the first time Lopera said to me that I had to leave, because they had reached an agreement. I don’t remember how much: €36m, €37m, €38m, I don’t know. That was one of the few times Lopera said for the good of the club, I had to go.

The other club that seemed to be permanently about to sign you was Real Madrid. Why didn’t you become the next galáctico?

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. I was very young. There was something there that I never understood. If I was going to leave, [Madrid] was the most likely. They were prepared to buy me, it seemed, and Lopera said he would negotiate with them. But I can’t tell you exactly why I never went.

I don’t know if the clubs didn’t reach an agreement [on transfer fees]. I don’t know if, at the moment of truth, Florentino [Perez] didn’t go through with it. I remember being 21, 22, and thinking I was a Madrid player. Unfortunately, for one reason or another it wasn’t to be.

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1:40

Sid Lowe says it’s very difficult to believe Real Madrid would spend money on a striker Edinson Cavani’s age.

Staying at Betis worked out for you, in the end. Should more young players resist that kind of offer?

A decision like that is difficult to take so young, and this is such a big business that a player’s word doesn’t always count. Sometimes a player goes even though he knows he’s not going to be important [at the new club]. But I understand why: it’s difficult to turn down. It’s an opportunity to get on board, feel important, earn money and aspire to win trophies, but sometimes we forget the most important thing: to play.

[Pauses] Look, I respect every decision, and every player has his own way of thinking. But young players need to play, and if you go to a big club and you don’t get any playing time, we could be ruining a player.

People say “Joaquín, imagine if you had gone to one of those clubs: your career might not have been the same.” And it’s true … or not. Maybe, maybe not. I can’t complain, I feel privileged to have had a career in which I played where I wanted to. Sometimes it worked better than others, but I don’t regret anything.

When you did go, it was to Valencia, where you had three very different coaches …

The first period was not easy. In the end I felt like an important player, but at first it wasn’t easy. Quique [Sanchez Flores] was demanding. Physically, he liked a very strong team. And it was hard to keep pace with that, but it was good. The second coach …

[Long pause.] I’m not even going to name [the coach, Ronald Koeman]. Genuinely, he didn’t do anything for me. You know very well how all that ended up. These are things that you have to go through and, well, I learnt from that, thank God. It wasn’t good.

The last [coach] Unai Emery, there were good and bad moments. All in all, I’m very grateful to Valencia, they were fantastic with me. But given how big my signing was, there was something missing. I don’t know how to explain it, but that nagging feeling is still there. It’s a personal thing. The fans there were always brilliant with me, although in the end things did not turn out as well as I hoped.

Is “tears of a clown” an appropriate phrase here? Because you’re a joker, do we not realise you’re hurting too? Under Koeman, with Albelda, Cañizares and Angulo all forced out, it must have been horrible.

[Joaquín shakes his head.] Hombre, I’m a human like anyone else; things hurt me. Because of the way I am maybe I deal with it differently and it doesn’t show. Or I don’t express it. But I had a tough time. There were players who had been excluded, every morning there was a really tense situation. When you wake up, you have no desire to go in, [and] that says it all. It was screwed up. It was a very unpleasant situation.

The dressing room was divided. Some players couldn’t enter because they had been excluded. It really was very bad, and it hurt us because we were a club where no one deserved that. Institutionally, it was painful.

You once said that Unai Emery’s [coaching] videos went on so long that you ran out of popcorn.

He came from Almeria with huge enthusiasm and brought important changes. Tactically, he was one of the coaches that best prepared games, so professional. But as he was so intense … [Laughs] that he made your head explode. And the videos thing, it’s true. I think he’s improved: I think the clips are more normal [in length] now. Back then, you see the videos, they show you, they explain it very well, and the on-pitch work is extraordinary. You learn loads. But it was too much. He’s so tireless, he wears you down, he’s so professional that … [Laughs again.] It’s hard, to be honest, yeah.

What about coach Manuel Pellegrini, who you worked with at Malaga?

He’s very clear, his ideas are very defined. I had a wonderful time with him at Malaga. We’ll never forget it.

At Malaga, you reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League and were seconds away from the semifinal against Dortmund …

It was very painful because, the way we fell was … very sad, very sad. Back then, if we’d VAR, we would have been in the semifinal. I went off in the 86th minute, and I thought I was [going to] the semifinal. I left clapping the fans and in the semis. I sat down, and what happened happened. We came back and it was sad, painful, people with tears in their eyes. But when we got to Malaga, all that [sadness] was taken away. It was as if we had won the Champions league, the way they welcomed us.

My hairs stand on end when I remember it because the whole of Malaga was there at the airport and you saw in their faces what we had done, you could see that there was pain, but they were so proud of us, of everything we had done in such a difficult year…

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1:18

ESPN FC’s Julien Laurens and Gab Marcotti react to Luis Suarez closing in on a move to Atletico Madrid.

When you see Malaga in crisis, struggling against relegation down from the second division and in huge trouble economically, having to lay off virtually all their players and staff, what do you think? In a way, their problems start with you: with overspending on a dream that was unrealistic…

Unfortunately, and much as it hurts me to say this, it was a matter of time. You could see it coming. That year, we had a bad time of it. We went practically the whole season without getting paid. That has an impact not because of the economics, but because of the psychology. It’s hard to keep going.

What’s happening now was a matter of time. They don’t deserve it because the fans are fantastic, it’s a lovely city, a good place to play. And I think that they have taken a step forward, removing that person [owner Sheik Al-Thani]. It’s sad to see them [in crisis]. Let’s hope that they can recover institutionally and things can improve.

At the time you were at Málaga, some people wanted you back in the national team, where you hadn’t been since 2008 and haven’t returned since. Did you see it as a possibility too? You missed out on the golden age of the Spanish national team.

[There’s a big intake of breath and Joaquín shakes his head, pauses. There’s a sad look.] I should have seen it as a possibility, but … I don’t know. It’s what we were talking about before, about the way I am. I think in these kinds of things it hasn’t done me any favour, but it shouldn’t be like that.

There’s an image of you …

But you have to judge me as a footballer. I’m not saying that I should have been called up [for Spain] and there have been great footballers who have gone and I’m so happy for them — like Santi [Cazorla], [David] Villa — but, well, for me it wasn’t to be.

The main thing is to compete for my club. It’s years now since I stopped thinking beyond that, and certainly not about the national team …

You used the word “despelote” (a “mess” or “joke”) to describe the national team back then, after a defeat against Northern Ireland in 2006. Was that the beginning of the end? Did that word pursue you?

Yeah, but look, quite honestly, that was a “jugarreta” [“I got played”]. Often, when you want to express yourself, and you don’t do it well, and then written down it sounds much worse — it sounded like I was taking the piss out of the selección. But I got called up again, eh? Luis [Aragonés] didn’t think it was that important. He spoke to me, he knew perfectly well what I meant. I was there because I deserved to be.

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1:26

ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno says the Luis Suarez deal for Atletico rests solely on him staying fit.

Soon you weren’t. Was it hard to watch in 2008, 2010 and 2012 as Spain won two Euros and the World Cup?

Yeah, because bear in mind that I dropped out of the squad on the last game. I played two years of qualifying and I missed out on the last game that the national team played in Málaga before going … [Laughs] And then on top of it all, they win it!

Did you watch the final of Euro 2008?

Yes, and I enjoyed it as much as anyone. Teammates called me and congratulated me, and I felt part of it. It was hard, painful, sad, [that] I didn’t get to experience it in person. It was unfair. At that time, I think Aragonés was very, very unfair with me. I have thought about it, dreamed about it, lots of times — and he knows that. I don’t know where he is, but wherever he is, he knows. He knows that I have ‘crapped on his aunt’ a couple of times. You can imagine it. But they had a great team and they deserved it.

I had tears in my eyes [while watching] but I enjoyed it.

Looking back on these 20 years, there have been loads of changes [in football]. Is there anything you miss from when you started?

That wing play, the running beyond people, the dribbling, that one-on-one. I miss that a lot. Football has changed loads — for the better, eh? But that old taste that I began with has been lost. I’ve had to adapt too. There’s so much [emphasis on ball] control, so much tactical work. It’s so hard to score a goal against a team now; before, it wasn’t. Before, you saw more back and forth, more one-on-one battles.

Could the traditional use of wingers come back in style? It’s all cyclical, after all.

Don’t be surprised if it does;everything comes back some day. I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t mind it coming back. Thing is, by the time it does, I’ll … [be gone]

In all these years, is it possible to pick out a player you loved?

I think of my first era, and [there’s] a bit of everything: [Zinedine] Zidane, Ronaldinho, Raúl, Cazorla, pff, Xavi, Guaje. If I’m choosing someone different, I’d say Zidane. But if we’re talking the spectacular, a show: Ronaldinho.

And the full-back who gave you the hardest time?

Wow. I met up with Asier Del Horno recently. He kicked me more than anyone else, and we gave each other a hug. He gave you cramps, not kicks. We saw each other and had a hug. And, you know, that’s the nicest thing — the affection I take with me. Not just from players but fans. To leave the pitch to applause is wonderful.

Last year, there were loads of [good receptions from fans] games, but I remember one in Bilbao where I got an ovation. The Cathedral, wow … I’ll never forget that. I’ve been lucky to have everyone’s affection and that’s the greatest thing you can take with. I feel proud to have enjoyed the experiences I have had over 20 years.

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1:17

Sid Lowe explores how Lionel Messi staying affects Ronald Koeman’s freedom to run the show Barcelona.

It’s a long time. Do you have a target now? You’ve played 824 games, so 1,000 might be but of reach, but could you still be playing at 40?

Of course, absolutely. If I’m in the shape I am, no problem. Thing is, when you get to 30-something, every year you think “let’s see this year.” I have a big year ahead. If I can do another year after that, if my body can take it and they want me to, then I would have no problem carrying on. They won’t be able to drag me out of here.

One thing you have to do is wait until fans return. You can’t leave in an empty stadium …

Playing without fans is s—. It’s so different. It’s sad, very sad. Football without fans, no …

… I don’t know … right now, we can’t do anything, we have to handle it the best we can, be grateful. But football’s not this. People singing, supporting you, whistling, saying things — that’s football. It would be very sad to have to leave without fans.