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Can Joaquin Rediscover His Old Touch?

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Once upon a time I was falling in love
But now I’m only falling apart
There’s nothing I could do
A Total Eclipse of the heart

— Bonnie Tyler

Total eclipse of Joaquin, more like. Once upon a time everyone was falling in love with the boyish faced footballer from the heart of Seville; now the myth that he could be one of Spain’s very best is fast falling apart. Once upon a time everyone flocked to the Ruiz de Lopera to watch one of Spain’s most exciting promises in action; now they just hope to catch a glimpse of his old self in the white-and-black of Valencia.

Once upon a time, Joaquin was being christened as the Spanish Figo; how he is struggling to hold onto his Spanish status (as an international), the Figo tag been long rendered to the wild winds. Joaquin Sanchez Rodriguez is still 26 but he has been in top flight professional football for so long that it appears that he has been here forever. Long enough to earn 41 international caps for Spain, appearance in two World Cups and one European Championship, over 180 matches La Liga matches for Real Betis and till now over 50 games for Valencia.

It might be premature, and indeed it is premature, to kindle the whispers of the demise of the player as gifted as Joaquin but for anyone who has watched the former Real Betis winger, who boasts of having been breastfed until he was six, play for Valencia since the start of the 2006-2007 season would doubtless have been led to contemplate the downward spiral in his form. Joaquin is now a pale shadow of the player that he was when he burst onto the scene with Real Betis at the turn of the century and more worryingly doesn’t appear to be in the thick of the recovery therapy.

Joaquin’s form took a dip towards the south near the tail-end of the 2005-2006 season and it has failed to rise since, except on certain exceptional occasions when the Joaquin force has seared to the surface rippling a wave of false dawn. He managed just 5 assists and 5 goals in the entire of last season for Valencia and couldn’t justify the record €25 million t hat Valencia President Juan Soler lashed out to salvage him from the octopusy grasp of Betis’ virtual owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.

Joaquin has increasingly failed to establish himself with conviction on the right wing of this exceptional Valencia team even when he has been gifted the chance and time. The trademark potent runs at defenders that once used to thrash the life out of the opposition have dried up and the mazy dribbles reminiscent of Brazilian sorcerer Denilson too have deserted him. Even question marks on his temperament tore to the fore after he inanely tabbed on the sending-off button against Villarreal in the opening day of this season in La Liga in a vintage slapping-of-the-cheek gesture unique to Spanish football.

The question then is whether this is yet another exemplar of a Spanish talent remaining unfulfilled. Can Joaquin rediscover his long lost twin brother from the attic and reinvent himself?

Only those with hearts of stone wouldn’t nod an affirmative. Those who have followed the progress and development of Joaquin since his debut in La Liga with Real Betis in the 2001-2002 season would tell you that he is a class apart. The lad with a cheeky smile that oozes as much mischief as disbelief, with the deceptive eyes and with a temper that often erupts at the wrong time is also the one with undeniably immense footballing potential. It was Joaquin’s pace, quicksilver dribbles and spot-on crosses that aided him in earning comparison with Portuguese great Luis Figo and at one point there was even a strong possibility that he would be the one to replace the galactico at Real Madrid.

At the heart of Spain’s run-in to the quarter-final in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea was the tricky, deceptive darts along the wings of the player whose cross, had it not been so ruthlessly judged as illegal, could have robbed Korea of a semi-final berth. In fact, Joaquin’s case runs several parallels with the Spanish national team.

Spain are a side with massive talent and potential, Joaquin is a player with massive talent and potential. Spain haven’t won anything in their long and painful memory, Joaquin too hasn’t won anything in his career so far (the Copa del Rey silverware in 2005 hardly qualifies as a major feat to mark his CV). Spain go into every major international competition as one of the favourites, Joaquin starts every match with the crowd holding its breath in anticipation. One day Spain can be entertaining to watch and another day they are simply too rubbish for the bin, one day Joaquin is exhibition stuff and another day he is stupidly and plaintively a nuisance.

Joaquin was also at the heart of the Ruiz de Lopera buzz in the first half of this decade. Real Betis’ surge from being just another promoted side to one that was rubbing shoulders with the elite in Europe in the UEFA Champions League was much augmented, and even to a considerable degree driven, by Joaquin’s energy and commitment.

Strangely and ironically it was that single singular season in 2004-2005 that sparked the Betis meltdown. It was hardly a coincidence then that Joaquin’s loss of form coincided with that of Betis, who not so much got dragged into the relegation dogfight as flew towards it with smiles playing on their faces like an idiot who cannot fathom the day from the night.

Betis opened the floodgates to let their Champions League success rush into their head and in the 2005-2006 season only just managed to stave off relegation into the Segundo Division. Joaquin suffered his first bad season in top flight Spanish football that year and from then on the trajectory has only taken a downward arc.

But then you have the cliché: Form is temporary, class is permanent. It is Joaquin’s class that is abating the hope and expectations to flourish. He is 26 and still has time on his side. He is playing in one of the top European clubs, which it has to be admitted isn’t going through its best patch at the moment. But with an intelligent and reputed club manager (read Ronald Koeman) and a somewhat eccentric but experienced national team coach (read Loius Aragones), Joaquin does possess a good pair of heads to guide him from the doldrums.

That Joaquin still retains his old hunger and passion was exhibited in that 5-1 demolition of Valencia at the Mestalla in the last weekend in October by Real Madrid when he was the only player to have gone into the Valencia dressing room after the match with his head held high. Joaquin’s performance might have gone unheralded in that match when he was a relatively consistent threat to the Real backfour but there’s still a distinct and strong possibility that in the broader picture, he, just like Spain, can still do it.

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