La Liga's maverick magicians entertain Spain from their backyards
Any other 37-year-old man with a mop of shockingly bleached hair, dancing wildly late on a Sunday night, shirt off and posing like the Hulk in full "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry" mode, would draw derogatory comments about his "midlife crisis." But Joaquin Sanchez is no ordinary man. No ordinary footballer, either.
Somehow, the Real Betis captain is dreams made flesh. Wildly talented at football, uproariously funny, durable given that his club's medics announced last season that he's been born with a privileged physique that has gifted him the body fat, stamina and ability to recuperate of a man 10 years younger.
His is also a storybook life.
Sunday in the Estadio Benito Villamarin, his back-post header with 10 minutes left against 10-man Sevilla in that city's derbi gave the green-and-white hordes and the club he adores their first home victory against the hated enemy since 2006. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
Only two players on the pitch had also starred in that 2-1 Betis win 12 years ago: Jesus Navas and ... yes, you guessed, Joaquin.
His goal was only his second in 33 matches against Los Rojiblancos for four different clubs (his beloved Betis, plus Valencia, Malaga and Fiorentina) on a night when his 20th Sevilla derbi meant that nobody in history has played that fixture more often than he.
The goal that lit the touchpaper, and probably sparked a baby boom scheduled for around May/June 2019 in the Andalusian capital, was also his first touch on the ball since being brought on as a substitute five long minutes previously. It was glorious, explosive, poetic and contagiously exciting to be near. The stadium shook. I promise you.
And Joaquin's magical moment was also his part in the weekend when Spain's mavericks, La Liga's loping, lovely lone wolves, had their day.
Further north El Comandante, also known as Jose Luis Morales, put in yet another jaw-dropping performance to ensure that since his club, Levante, finally began taking him seriously (at the age of 27) they've not lost their city derbi at home to Valencia. The highlight of the Commander's classy, sassy performance against bigger, richer, more successful rivals was Levante's first goal.
On Day 1 of the season, Morales had beaten five Betis players, putting Sergio Canales on his backside in the penalty area, across a 75-metre run for Levante's second goal in a 3-0 away win. Against Valencia he fancied more of the same. This move he began by nutmegging the Dane, Daniel Wass, and then he continued by beating five more opponents in white before slipping a pass that ended with Roger Marti scoring.
It was epic, just a thing of galloping beauty as his pace, technique and daring all merged into a kind of drug that induced the Levante fans to roar their defiance at their lordly neighbours. It was pure magic. Find it, watch it.
Then there's an old favourite whose turn it was again this weekend.
Iago Aspas is a wizard. Brighter than most footballers, addicted to watching the sport that he adores, he's just off the back of scoring 49 times in the past two seasons. Big numbers for a guy the world seemed to think was a football nomad, and some thought a football no-good too.
He wasn't a hit at Liverpool, nor Sevilla, but too few took account of the thing that Aspas most needs: trust. Left on the bench too often at both clubs, feeling unloved, his returns were measly. But his utter brilliance in the past couple of seasons took Celta to the Copa del Rey semifinal and to the Europa League semis too.
Up in Vigo he's the captain, the guru, the magic man.
Spain -- or at least Fernando Hierro -- simply didn't pay attention to what makes him tick, benching him during their stale World Cup campaign only to suddenly need him to convert a penalty against Russia to stay in the competition. Guess what happened.
Now he's started the season gingerly but, on Saturday, facing a title candidate in Atletico Madrid -- the team against whom he'd never scored nor registered a home victory -- Aspas puffed his chest out, led the Atleti defence a merry dance, and not only notched his first goal but ensured that Celta would win and hit the international break placed third in the league.
Several things link these three men: they are entertainers, mavericks, idiosyncratic, not always predictable in life let alone the pitch. But each -- Aspas, Morales and Joaquin -- is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most popular, most inspirational player at his club. They make the turnstiles click. They make little hearts go pitter-patter.
This was their weekend; they made Spanish football great in their own inimitable way. But for each man the sweetness was augmented by the fact that, of course, they've all had it tough.
If you swim against the tide, if you are small and slight like Aspas, if you are known to be impish, irreverent and prone to child-like hilarity like Joaquin, then sometimes people hold it against you.
One famous example of Joaquin's butterfly mind was when, at Malaga, he was whiling away the time in an interview making up answers and the reporter asked him what his favourite sport was outside football. Like a flash, our hero said "Tennis!" -- not only poker-faced, but enthusiastically.
In the background, his teammate Julio Baptista can't help himself. He's cracking up with laughter and intervenes in the filmed interview to declare, "You've never played tennis in your life!"
Joaquin breaks and addresses his teammate as "Hulio" (which is how you'd say "July," not the way Julio the Brazilian name is pronounced) before the two are reduced to tears of laughter. It's funny, and part of the stuff on which good dressing rooms are based.
In fact, the anecdote is so famous that Joaquin is now widely nicknamed "Hulio" by everyone who knows him. But his jaunty outlook on life isn't for everyone; some see just the larking, not the luscious talent.
"Seventeen years I've had in the elite of football, that hasn't come by chance," he'll often be quoted as saying.
Aspas, across his career, was used in all sorts of positions; some coaches simply didn't understand what he had in his locker. Sevilla and Liverpool wasted him.
Joaquin, infamously, fell foul of Luis Aragones on Spain duty and, at the last moment, was left out of La Roja's squad that won Euro 2008 -- the worst moment of his life.
Morales simply wasn't trusted as he hit what should have been the breakthrough years, seasons when he could already have been a multimillionaire and trophy winner. Instead this guy, who currently performs like he's one of Europe's most exciting, hardest-to-stop creative influences, didn't turn professional until the age of 24 -- utterly crazy in retrospect. Clubs thought he was a greyhound, but little else.
Now, one of the things that makes them, and their weekends, still more magical is that they are "home" doing it for the people who love them best.
Aspas still lives in the tiny community where he was brought up, and every time he pulls on that sky-blue shirt he's playing for friends, family, neighbours, his kids.
Morales is Madrileno by birth, but as soon as his profile started to rise he said about Levante, "This is where I'm loved, this is the club which took a chance on me. I'd rather renew my contract and stay for life than make a big move now."
Joaquin? Well, he's the chap who flat turned down Jose Mourinho's demand that he join Chelsea with the added offer of "writing your own cheque for the wages you want."
On Sunday, after the delirious, throat-sore crowd had begun to move out of the Benito Villamarin, the goal hero, the ultimate maverick, pointed out: "This was a dream; to score the winner for the club I love after 12 years of not beating Sevilla here ... I've always said that I was privileged, but this is ultra special."
Last season, when he captained Betis to a 5-3 win at Sevilla, he warned in a postmatch interview that any of his teammates found to have stopped partying in celebration before the next three long nights were over would be fined. This time the party will likely last a year or more.
And, for that reason, long live the entertainers, the risk takers, the odd fellows, those who invent, make our hearts soar and who produce the magic we saw this weekend from Iago the Wizard, Comandante Morales and Joaquin "Hulio" Sanchez.