Joaquin Sanchez knows about performing under pressure.
The Real Betis winger and club captain, still playing at 41, has seen more Seville Derbies — LaLiga‘s fieriest fixture — than any other player. He’s taken and missed a decisive penalty in a World Cup quarterfinal. Last season he helped win his club’s first trophy in 17 years, coming off the bench as Betis beat Valencia in the Copa del Rey final.
Delivering on the pitch is one thing, but what about racing a high-powered MotoGP bike? Recording a song with one of flamenco’s biggest stars? Cooking a dish worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant? Or dancing like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction?
As a 20-year career in football nears its end, Joaquin has taken on these new challenges in his latest challenge: finding success, and good ratings, as a prime-time television presenter.
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So far, he’s proven just as effective in front of the TV cameras as in a Betis shirt. Joaquin’s debut show “El Novato” — “The Rookie” in English — saw him paired with a different Spanish celebrity each week, trying and often failing to learn their profession. It was a smash hit last fall for Antena 3, Spain’s most-watched channel.
The debut episode earned an unprecedented 30% audience share and got just under three million viewers in October — a significant figure for Spain, a country with a population of 47 million. A second series, “La Penultima y me voy,” is a more conventional documentary following Joaquin’s home life with wife Susana and two daughters that is already on the air.
As Betis prepare to take on Manchester United in the Europa League on Thursday, Joaquin spoke to ESPN about the most difficult season of his career, as well as how he is handling the stress of combining top-level football with nascent TV stardom.
Joaquin: Full-time footballer, part-time TV star
“This last year, I haven’t been playing as much.”
Real Betis have just finished training on a recent Monday morning at their training ground to the south of Seville, and Joaquin is describing an unfamiliar feeling: not being the centre of attention. The man who is Betis’ record appearance holder, a rare player who enjoys near-universal name recognition in Spain among non-football fans and whose longevity earns standing ovations wherever he plays, is now struggling for game time.
“It’s a fact of life,” Joaquin tells ESPN. “It isn’t easy to play every game at 41 years of age. But I think the important thing is to adapt as quickly as possible to your situation, to the role that the Boss [coach Manuel Pellegrini] wants from you. It’s not easy for me personally. I’ve been lucky throughout my career. I’ve always felt important. I’ve always tried to work as hard as possible, to be an important player.”
He has been important, too. As a Betis youth product, he starred as the team won the Copa del Rey and qualified for Europe, then made a record-breaking move to Valencia, played Champions League football with Malaga and spent two years in Serie A at Fiorentina before making a hero’s return to Betis. His second stint culminated in a second Copa win for the club, 17 years after the first.
Knowing when to retire is never easy. Betis’ improvement under Pellegrini has meant a stronger squad, with Nabil Fekir, Sergio Canales, Juanmi and Luiz Henrique competing for places on the wing. Joaquin has just one LaLiga start this season, with 10 appearances as a substitute. With hindsight, last year’s cup final might have made for the perfect send-off.
“You think about it, of course,” Joaquin says. “You try to focus on the day-to-day, to take advantage of the time you have left in football, every moment, every day, every situation with your teammates, not just in games but in training, in the locker room, enjoying those moments that you’re going to miss a lot. But undoubtedly you think about the end of your career.”
It’s a transition many footballers struggle with, but for Joaquin, a career in the media always felt like the next step. His jokes, anecdotes and stories — getting married with the Copa del Rey, naked dressing room photos with the same trophy, claiming to be a tennis fan when he’s never held a racket, giving post-match interviews in Italian when he couldn’t really speak it — have often threatened to overshadow the football.
17 years after the Copa del Rey trophy was guest of honour at his wedding, 40-year-old Joaquin wins it again with Real Betis! 🏆 pic.twitter.com/GF7B87K1Lw
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 23, 2022
A TV career isn’t daunting when you’ve previously attempted to hypnotize a chicken, live on air — he claimed it was a hidden talent of his that he wanted to show off — but Joaquin says the chance to front his own series was unexpected.
“I promise you, I hadn’t thought about it,” he tells ESPN. “And much less before retiring [as a player]. Having a television series on a network as important as Antena 3, that they would choose me for a primetime programme … I’ve always done things on social media, interviews, showing a little bit of my life and how I lead it. I didn’t expect it at all, but I’ve tried to enjoy it and take advantage of the opportunity. I hope it won’t be the last one!”
Clubs are used to players’ media and sponsorship obligations, and players can spend their free time — within reason — as they see fit. Still, making a 12-episode TV series, with each episode focusing on a different co-star, filming in multiple locations, is a different level of commitment.
“[We talked about it] with the club,” Joaquin says. “They already knew that if I had the opportunity, I wanted to do a little bit of television. The first thing I said was that my profession is being a footballer… I wanted to make TV as long as my profession allowed me to do so. I had to be able to train, to play and be in perfect condition. That came first.
“I trained in the morning, filmed in the afternoon, traveling when I could … Last year [Betis] were alive in three competitions until the end of the season and that changed our plans a bit. There were 12 shows, and we spent almost a year filming because “El Novato” isn’t an easy format: it requires a lot of time.”
After triumph at Betis, a successful career in media next?
The first episode of “El Novato” aired on Oct. 5, 2022 and saw Joaquin interview Spain’s top chef, David Munoz — owner of Madrid’s three Michelin star restaurant DiverXO — before struggling to chop potatoes and carrots, and learning to fry the perfect egg. The next week he was showing off his singing voice, recording with flamenco singer Rosario Flores. Later episodes found him learn how to survive in zero gravity with Spain’s first astronaut, Pedro Duque, and race Spanish MotoGP star Marc Marquez.
The reception was largely positive. “A good interviewer knows how to listen. Tonight I learnt that Joaquin Sanchez knows, and he does it better than many presenters,” TV critic Jimina Sabadu wrote in the El Pais newspaper. “He listens, keeps the conversation going, and tells the odd joke. He’s the perfect interviewer.”
“I was surprised,” Joaquin tells ESPN. “I never thought I could have my own show, to be on the other side of the table and conduct interviews with important people in journalism, television, cooking, artists of all kinds.
“I’m very demanding. I prepared for the interviews, but even so it wasn’t easy, because as the name of the show says, I am a novice! I think I improved in each show.
“The first interview was with David Munoz, the world’s most important chef. We had a 30% [audience] share, which hadn’t happened for 10 years. Expectations were high but we never thought we were going to be an audience leader over 12 nights.”
With all the jokes and tall tales, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about a great footballer — someone who played over 50 times for Spain at three major tournaments between 2002 and 2006 — and a great professional, capable of the dedication and discipline required to extend his top-level career to the age of 41. Is he a great TV presenter too?
“I’m a little cautious there,” Joaquin laughs. “I’m not a TV presenter. I’m a football player. Being a presenter requires a lot of time, a lot of work … I know this was an opportunity that was given to me and I could take advantage of it. But it requires many, many hours of work, just like football. That’s why I say I still feel like a football player.”
For how much longer remains to be seen. But there’s little doubt Joaquin will stay involved at Betis, his club, where he’s already a minority shareholder.
“I’d like to be able to contribute my experience, to help the club which has given me everything,” he says. “With the possibility that, if I can combine both, I continue enjoying what TV can give me. But I’m very clear, I’d like to continue to be linked to the club that I love, to my Betis. If I have the time and the patience and the opportunity to keep enjoying TV and if people also enjoy it, that’s great.”
Whatever happens against United in the Europa League round of 16 — and in LaLiga, as Betis chase a top-four finish — Joaquin isn’t going anywhere. So what would he tell other players who might be considering branching out beyond football?
“As long you respect your profession — whether you’re a football player or a carpenter — I think you have to live your own life,” he says. “I’m a person who has enjoyed football in every way. I enjoy my personal life. I’ve made mistakes, I’m not saying I didn’t, but I never wanted to offend or disrespect anyone.
“Everyone has to go their own way. Do what you feel, what you love. If you do that, you’ll never make a mistake. Do what makes you feel complete. People might like it, they might not, but you’ll feel satisfied.”