OLE777 – Joaquin leading Real Betis to Copa del Rey glory was the perfect end to his career except it’s not the end

Joaquin leading Real Betis to Copa del Rey glory was the perfect end to his career except it's not the end


“I believe in faith,” Hector Bellerin said. “And when you’re in this situation, you’ll pray to anything: new religions that have just come up.”

It was 12:49, Sunday morning. Down on the touchline, William Carvalho was on his knees, head pressed against the turf, hands together. Please.

Up in the stands above, they crossed themselves: once, twice, three times, as many as they could. Somewhere in there, this sea of green, Maria Dolores left her seat and paced, grasping images of the Virgin Mary, mini postcards of Christ.

That was her boy down there and she couldn’t watch. Stitched into Juan Miranda‘s shirt was a photograph: in it, he appears with his family on the day he had been presented as a Real Betis player, the team he and they had always supported. Now here he was, standing there, in his city, surrounded but alone, entrusted with the final penalty in the shootout at the end of the biggest game any of them had ever played. Score and Betis would win just the third Copa del Rey in their 114-year history, only their fourth trophy ever. No pressure, kid.

Not just any kid, either: the kid who had been there the last time Betis won anything, 17 long years ago. A fan aged five, that day Miranda caught the train to Madrid with his family and headed to the Vicente Calderon, a stadium that’s not there anymore, to see Betis lift the cup.

Years had passed and doing it again depended on him, a footballer now, not just a fan. His dad Juan Jesus had signed him up as a socio when he was a newborn baby. Member number 33,933 then, shirt number 33 now, he knew what this meant.

“I was crapping myself, completely crapping myself,” Miranda said. “I had to score, one way or the other; it didn’t matter how.”

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Miranda sent the ball into the net, slipped to his knees and covered his face with his shirt, collapsing. You could see his body heaving, sobbing as the rest of them ran towards him. Claudio Bravo took the corner flag and threw it in celebration. Maria Dolores sprinted back down the stairs and embraced Juan Jesus. At that moment television cameras closed in on a crowd scene, the madness depicted perfectly: in the middle were a pair of feet, sticking up, connected to a body upside down off the bottom of the screen. The place had gone wild.

“That’s the beauty of football,” Bellerin said. “When Miranda scores that penalty it’s just … pfff … climax. And I went … well, everywhere.”

They all did, running wild. Not really knowing where to go and not really caring, either. Some fans left the stands and sprinted across the athletics track towards the pitch.

Real Betis Balompie is a special team from a special city, idiosyncratic and unique, very much of its place but of everywhere too: this is a huge club with a gigantic fan base if not very much success, the product of the diaspora of the ’60s and ’70s putting beticos all over. Long live Betis even when they lose, the slogan runs; well, now they had won, too. For only the fourth time ever, there was a major trophy to offer their fans.

“There’s something about this club that makes you fall in love,” said Joaquin, the captain. “Magical,” he called it; the team had “given our souls.”

He was sent up to get the trophy from the King, Felipe VI. He had thought about this moment so often. It had been hard to sleep with so much going through his head, he admitted. “How many times I ‘lifted’ it!” Sitting next to him in the pre-match news conference, striker Borja Iglesias leant in and told him that this time was for real.

Joaquin was going to tell the King that this was for his royal grandmother who had been a Betis fan, but with all the emotion, he forgot. And so he collected it, had a few words, and took it down to his teammates, waiting on the grass, and the party began.

After the semifinal, Joaquin had joked he was very much a copas kind of man — usually in a long glass. He had warned that if they won the final, he’d be gone for days. “What’s the plan?” one player asked after the final; “drink ourselves silly,” another replied. It was 3.45 in the morning before they even left the stadium. Fans were heading to Plaza Nueva. By the time you read this, those hangovers might just have cleared.

It was wild, and why not? There’s something brilliantly bonkers about Betis anyway, something uniquely emotional, winning the cup was genuinely huge anyway, a moment that will be eternal, and there were so many things that made them winning it this season and this way special, so many little and not so little stories.

At the age of 68 and after 34 years in coaching, this was Manuel Pellegrini’s first trophy in Spain, the place that became home.

Once the outstanding prospect of his generation, Sergio Canales had won the cup too. It was his second medal, but it felt like a first: the last was 11 years ago, he hadn’t played in the 2011 final with Real Madrid and he had been through three cruciate ligament tears, a fish tattoo covering his knee, scars from the stitches as bones.

Iglesias had arrived at Betis as their most expensive player, and found that the goals deserted him at first. Unable to fathom it and seeking phycological help, he watched what was happening around him, desperate to feel fully part of it, aware that it would be amazing when he was. And now he was; now he had scored in the final and more than anyone else in the competition this year, history made. “All fans are special but Betis is unique,” he said.

As for Bellerin, he admitted he had consulted the data to decide where to go this season, but it hadn’t just been about the stats: it was about sentiment, too. This was a year on loan to enjoy and to make others enjoy, heading to the club his father supports, whose shirt he had been given to wear as a kid. When Bellerin signed from Arsenal, he took great joy in calling him up and saying, “Dad, I’m going to Betis,” receiving in return a club keyring his father had clung onto pretty much his whole life. When Bellerin senior met the club legend Rafa Gordillo for the first time, he “almost cried.” Before the final, the family had eaten lunch together, talking about the game — or they would have done if Bellerin had been able to eat anything.

“I’ve never been so nervous,” he admitted.

As the penalty shootout started, Bellerin had decided that “whatever will be will be,” that “whatever is written for me will happen.” There was a reason for that, and it’s not just because he’s super cool, although he is: “it’s the only way for me to cope, otherwise it will be too much.” By the end of the night, his dad was standing there on the turf, beaming and holding the cup. He was grateful; his son was grateful, too. It had been so much fun that when it came to the end of his post-match interview, Bellerin took the microphone, looked at the camera and said: “I just want to say thanks to my dad for being a Betis fan.”

“This has been a season that I have really enjoyed and my family has really enjoyed,” Bellerin said. “My dad hasn’t been able to see his team win a cup in 17 years so for me it was more than football.”

It always is, which is why it matters. And here especially. For Miranda too, becoming a legend right there. Not that he would have it. “I’m not a legend,” he insisted. “Joaquin is a legend.”

No arguing with that, at least not with the bit about Joaquin.

If Miranda was there the last time that Betis won the Copa del Rey, so was Joaquin. The difference is that Joaquin was playing. As of Sunday, no player has ever won more titles with Betis: Joaquin now has two of the four they have ever lifted. Seventeen years have passed between his first and his second, the same number as on his shirt. At the end of the game, he was reminded that he is history at the club, his voice breaking and tears fighting through as he listened. This was his final season, or so he had said, every game another stop on a farewell tour, universally popular, applauded everywhere he went.

The last dance could not have been better. Reward, as he put it even before the final, for 20 years of love for football.

There was a gorgeous symmetry, the closing of a circle with Miranda, like some harmony had been found. The closing of a circle for him, too.

There was also a photo, which there had to be. With him, at least: no one else would have done the same, but then Joaquin is no one else. This is only his third ever title from an astonishing career. In 2005, he won the cup with Betis, and that weekend it presided over his wedding to Susana Saborido, a famous photo of it sitting shining at the alter, green and white ribbons hanging from the handles. In 2008, he won it with Valencia, an even more (in)famous photo appearing of him standing there in the dressing room with the cup wearing absolutely nothing but that smile. In the small hours of Saturday night, Sunday morning, he replicated that picture, only a cartoon of the club’s mascot covering his modesty.

He must be Joaquin, and he frequently is; there is no one quite like him. He’s always been funny; he has also always been a brilliant footballer, more serious than it seemed, handily destroying the myth that a scowl is necessary to succeed, still less to survive. No one has been standing as long as him, after all.

Joaquin is the youngest of eight children, four boys sleeping in bunk beds in one room of the modest family home in El Puerto de Santamaria, four girls sleeping in bunk beds in the other. He made his debut for Betis in Compostela in September 2000 in the second division, bringing Betis up at the end of the season, leading a generation that would save them. He played at the World Cup in 2002, a cheeky scamp with a grin that everyone assumed would slip away with time but never did. He left — not because he wanted to but because, needing the money, Betis made him — and headed to Valencia, Malaga and Fiorentina, but he came back again.

When Joaquin finally returned to Betis, his club, the club where he now owned a significant chunk of the shares, he was 34. He likes to say that the secret to his longevity, his strength, is being breast fed until he was seven but still everyone assumed he was coming home to retire, including him: a season or two and he would call it a day. That was seven years ago. He is 40, the oldest player in LaLiga, the man who has played more games in Primera than any other outfield player ever, even after spending two years abroad. At the end of the final, he hugged his daughters, Daniela and Salma clinging onto him and crying. “You thought I’d retire without winning anything,” he told them.

In truth, they all had. And right to the end, right to his moment. In the shootout, you see, Joaquin too had stepped up to take a penalty. Football writes fantastic scripts; it also writes cruel, twisted ones. Everyone had scored when his turn came, the ball flying in the net. His took a more torturous, heart-stopping route.

His moment, he admitted afterwards, reminded him of “that day in Korea.” That day in Korea, 20 years earlier, still a kid, younger even than Miranda is now, Joaquin had missed the decisive penalty as Spain were knocked out of the World Cup. Television cameras caught him sitting in a window at the team hotel, looking out forlorn. It could have broken him then, and it could have broken him now, 20 years on.

It didn’t. Joaquin admits that it’s not always easy being him, carrying the responsibility and symbolism that he does. Before the semifinal, Joaquin had gathered his teammates and spoke to them “not as a player, a teammate, or a captain, but a Betis fan.” He told them that his uncle, the one who used to take him to football training there when he was a kid, but had passed away since, unable to share in his career, had always said to him that the greatest gift on earth is the ability “to make people happy.” They had done so then, giving them the chance to do so again — a first final in almost two decades, in their own city.

After 120 minutes, it was level. And so it went to the spot, place of summary justice, a knife edge upon which to balance. One man at a time, walking alone from the halfway line as if walking the plank, while everyone else just pleads. And this time it was his turn.

The responsibility could hardly be greater, standing on the spot for Betis’s second penalty, five minutes before Miranda would take their last. All that wait. All that weight, too. All the years, all the emotion invested. All the pressure, everything it means. His moment and their moment too, his club. An entire career feeling like it was leading to this. A longer career than anyone else, ever. So many people depending on it, on one shot. And the memory of Korea coming back, even after all these years.

“I tried to trick the keeper and, well, you saw how that went,” he said afterwards, laughing, which he could do then. Alongside him Iglesias said he wasn’t watching; he couldn’t. “No? Good job,” Joaquin shot back. “You would have crapped yourself.”

The goalkeeper reached it, got a hand to it. Of all the people to miss in the final, it could have been Joaquin: youth teamer, captain, shareholder, their everything. Somehow, though, the ball squeezed in by the post. And, it felt, an entire country breathed. This wasn’t even just Betis fans anymore.

“It went in … thank God,” Joaquin said.

And so there at the end was Miranda, the kid who at the age of five had watched Joaquin win the cup and would help him win another aged 22, everyone praying, everyone erupting. The perfect end, only it wasn’t the end at all. Not yet. There’s going to be an encore, one more year. As the celebrations started, Joaquin was asked what he was going to do now.

“I can’t stop now,” he grinned. “We’ve just started winning.”



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