They were all there except him, everyone waiting for the old man again. It was six minutes to two, time to go, and in the tunnel at the Benito Villamarín 21 players lined up ready to go out alongside the referee, Valentín Pizarro Gómez, and one of his assistants. Just up the stairs, the other linesman stood by the dressing-room door, flag in one hand, getting a little impatient. “We’re only missing Joaquín,” he called down, “… yeah I know.” Alongside him the Betis manager, Joan Francesc Ferrer ‘Rubi’, wore a look that said what do you want me to do? so the linesman took a step inside. “Come on Joaquín!” he shouted. “Let’s go mate. We’re waiting for you here.” Rubi looked at his watch, then stuck his head round the door, nervous now.
The next time he looked it said one minute past two, 01.28 on the screens around the stadium, and the place was going wild. Joaquín had finally left the dressing room, high-fived his manager and, with linesman in tow shouting “come on let’s go”, led them into the sunshine. He had shaken hands with all of Athletic’s players, Betis’s anthem booming round as he went along the line, and posed for a team picture with dozens of kids, many in wheelchairs. He had chosen ends, Iñaki Williams calling wrong, stood head bowed in silence in honor of former player Francisco Aparicio, and belted the ball into the net. He had been out only seven minutes, touched the ball only twice, and hadn’t even been playing 90 seconds, but he had already scored.
Nine minutes and three seconds later, he had scored again. And nine minutes and 19 seconds after that, he had scored another.
It had taken 19 minutes. Nineteen minutes and 19 years, which made it all the more special.
Five times Joaquín had touched the ball, three times he had guided it into the net, all of them perfect finishes. He had thumped at his chest when he got the first, hand pounding at the badge of the club where he began his career, owns 2% of the shares, and wants to be the president one day; now he thumped it harder, heart racing, standing before the crowd, arms wide. “The euphoria,” he said later, “I didn’t even believe it.” Nor did anyone else. Athletic had the league’s best defense, conceding just nine times; now, in less than 20 minutes they had let in a third again, the scoreboard showing 19.50 and 3-0.
And that was just the start, each stat sillier than the last, leaving you to choose which you liked best. “My daughters didn’t stop crying: they’re not used to seeing their dad score goals. They said: ‘Hey Dad, how cool that you scored three goals; I didn’t think you’d ever do that,’” Joaquín admitted later. “And I said: ‘Nor did I.’” He arrived on 100 goals, averaging just over one every eight games across his career and he had never scored a hat-trick, not even at youth level. The Benito Villamarín had not seen any of their players score a hat-trick since Finidi George, 22 years earlier. And only six players had scored a hat-trick inside 20 minutes for anyone, anywhere. But now he’d gone and blown away all those records in the blink of an eye.
Yet if it was fast, it was also slow: it had taken Joaquín until he was 38 years and 140 days old to get a hat-trick, long after most have retired. On Sunday he was the oldest man on the pitch – and that includes the referee – and became the oldest player to score three in a La Liga match, overtaking Alfredo Di Stéfano at 37 years 255 days in 1964. This is his 20th senior season; he has scored in all of them.
The day Joaquín made his first-team debut, at the start of 2000-01, the Betis captain Juan Merino hid his boots. “One day you’ll have to clean them,” Joaquín told him. Today, Merino would have to join a queue. Joaquín won the Copa del Rey, one of only three trophies in the club’s history, posing with the trophy wearing nothing at all and then placing it at the altar when he got married a few days later. Back then, most expected him to be a superstar somewhere. When it was suggested that his dad was off negotiating a move away Joaquín replied: “Nah, he’s on the sofa at home with his arse hanging out the back of his trousers as usual.” Mourinho’s Chelsea came. And he was the galáctico that never was, Florentino Pérez making a show of publicly courting him. But in the end he joined Valencia after six seasons at home – not least because Betis needed him to.
He went to Málaga and Fiorentina, then he came back again. He was 34; he’d be lucky to have a season ahead of him, most thought. That was four and a half years ago now, and there will be more. Betis are expected to announce a new contract soon, taking him beyond his 40th birthday, Joaquín joking on Sunday night that he could turn the screw a little bit now. Not that it is just the hat-trick; it is the three games in a row he has scored, the role played both on and off the pitch in pulling Betis away from the relegation zone and their manager away from the sack, the way he is playing. It is 12 years since Joaquín was in the Spain squad – the country’s best player at the 2002 World Cup, the kid who least deserved to miss in that shootout against South Korea – but it might not be so daft to suggest he would fit in again now. In the past couple of years, he has actually got better.
When Lionel Messi said the words that couldn’t be unsaid last week, depressing everyone when he admitted, at 32, that retirement is close, Joaquín noted: “Well, he hasn’t got my physique, has he?” He was joking but there was something in it, something that expressed hope for everyone, maybe even Messi. His dad reckons he is so strong because he was breastfed until he was seven. And yet it’s psychological too, enthusiasm renewed over the past couple of years. Derby wins followed with Setien, a new style that suited him: after one, in which he scored the winner, he said could leave football “a happy man”, but staying made him even happier man, and that’s the key.
The day after Messi scored his 35th league hat-trick – more than anyone else ever – Joaquin scored his first – later than anyone else ever. This was something to celebrate, for all of us. Joaquín put out a video saying he was exhausted and staying at home, only to crack up and giggle: “No one believes that for a minute,” announcing: “I’m off out for a wee drink.” Meanwhile, his feat was splashed across every front page. “Superhero”, “Joaquín performs magic”, “Monumental”, ran the three headlines in Diario de Sevilla alone.
What he had done was a reminder of the power of enjoyment, further evidence that a grin isn’t a handicap and a joke isn’t a crime, still unprofessionalism; that scowling seriousness is not the only route to success, and happiness helps. Everyone’s favorite cheeky scamp, more famous for his gags than his goals, Joaquín isn’t just a comedian, he is also a competitor; he’s not still playing because he’s funny, but he may well still be playing because it’s fun, another way of clinging to your childhood. “I have kids of 19 and one of 38 in my team,” Rubi said. Emerson, who provided the assist for the first, was one the day Joaquín made his first-team debut. Diego Laínez, playing alongside him, was two months old. Loren Moron made the third. His dad played against Joaquín, now he plays with him, just like Sergio Canales. “Granddad,” Canales wrote on the ball, “it’s an honor to play with you.”
“If I had known how much hassle there would be, I wouldn’t have done it,” Joaquín joked on Sunday night. He might even have scored more, the clock showing 90.57 when he raced into the area and drew a sharp save from Unai Simón. “I was as stiff as dried cod: if I’d stopped to control it, I’d have fallen over,” he said. Besides, three was just enough. Athletic pulled two back but Betis had won again – that’s three in a row now, a single defeat in six, Europe in sight instead of relegation – and standing pitchside at the end the ball under his arm, Joaquín was beaming, barely able to believe it. “This was my first hat-trick and I think it’ll be my last,” he said. Back in the dressing room, everyone was waiting for him again. When at last he arrived, they got to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.