Thousands gathered outside the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in front of the iconic and eye-catching mosaic of Sevilla’s club crest, surrounded by those of 60 visiting teams. The Andalusian’s side clash with Deportivo La Coruña was still over an hour away, but the match itself was almost an afterthought on 8 April 2017.
“Gloria Eterna Leyenda Sevillista” (Sevillista Legend, Eternal Glory) read the banner held by fans, placed between a giant montage of Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, better known as Monchi, and nine banners – one for each trophy won in the tenure of the sporting director.
As a TV camera panned to the 48-year-old, staring down from the balcony at the adjacent Nervión shopping centre, surrounded by his family, he can be seen temporarily placing his head in his hands, overcome with emotion. Just as at the press conference a fortnight previously – where he had confirmed his departure from the club after just shy of three decades – he was unable to prevent tears filling his eyes.
The timing of his departure was typical of Monchi; understated yet calculated, ensuring minimum disruption and maximum efficiency for all parties. The son of a joiner in the shipyards of San Fernando, Cádiz had never wanted the club to cause a fuss, but the entire build-up to Los Rojiblancos’ final match of his tenure was focused, entirely predictably, upon him.
Ahead of kick-off, nine replica trophies stood in the centre circle – better than a rate of a major trophy every two years, a remarkable indication of the Andalucian club’s modern success. In the 110 years of its existence before Monchi’s appointment, they had won four.
The second oldest club in Spain have always been steeped in history but rarely had they been treated to such success, conquering the Europa League five times in the space of a decade – more major European trophies than any other club, surpassing Barcelona and Real Madrid, and unique in football’s modern era.
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He may have normalised the success and revamped expectations but Monchi – whose transformation from back-up goalkeeper to El Lobo de Sevilla (The Wolf of Seville) had long since been completed – took a different focus to the event, sporting a Sevilla top emblazoned with ’16 Puerta’ in memory of the highly-rated Sevillista whose cardiac arrest had traumatically begun on the same pitch a decade earlier. An emotion of a different kind, this is a club which has been through a lot.
This is the man who has seen it all, first hand. His 17-year tenure as sporting director was preceded by a decade-long stint in the first-team squad, where he largely deputised to the long-serving goalkeeper Juan Carlos Unzué, who would later gain traction as Luis Enrique’s assistant manager at Celta Vigo and Barcelona.
Indeed, Monchi only played 85 league matches for the Andalusians with a career-best 26 appearances in the 1996/97 campaign, one which subsequently saw the club relegated to the second tier. The following campaign’s Copa del Rey pitted the Sevillistas against tiny Isla Cristina, which proved to be somewhat of a nadir for both player and club.
The goalkeeper could only watch as a lobbed effort left him stranded and nestled into the back of the net to secure one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history and leave the home fans stunned. Fury quickly took hold. It has since emerged that Monchi, so engulfed by shame, requested the kit man drive him out of the grounds in the boot of his car to avoid detection.
His career coincided with La Liga’s growing global appeal and he was teammates with exotic imports such as Diego Maradona – whom he is still close friends with and who once bought him a Cartier watch after the Argentine spotted his fake Rolex – Diego Simeone, Davor Šuker, Toni Polster, Iván Zamorano and Bebeto, alongside playing under 13 different managers and seven presidents. However, at an ever-changing club, it was ‘The Last Monkey’ who was the constant.
That was until his retirement at the age of just 30, bringing the end to a relatively unspectacular playing career at a lowly age for an outfield player, no less a goalkeeper. But he wanted to focus on a longer-term career; viewed as personable and extremely knowledgeable, he had briefly studied law. His temporary absence saw Sevilla relegated at the end of their first season back in the top flight. They had hit rock bottom.
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Out of sight and out of mind as they languished in Segunda, the appointment of Monchi as the club’s new sporting director was barely a footnote in Spain’s sporting press. Viewed as a convenient cost-cutting move by a club in dire financial straits, the appointment was low-key and understated, just like his playing career.
The Andalucian was tasked with two objectives by the board: develop the club’s youth system and implement a vast scouting policy both inside and outside Spain. His success on both fronts has been tangible, consistent and adaptable with a constant stream of high-quality players progressing through the club’s youth system and blended into squads of affordable signings with sell-on values.
Buy low, sell high is applied to success in the stock market but the sporting director took this to heart, as the following 24 players cost Sevilla a total of €49 million in transfer fees and were sold for six times the price – a combined fee of €295m: Andrés Palop, Dani Alves, Federico Fazio, Martin Cáceres, Adriano, Ivan Rakitić, Júlio Baptista, Seydou Keita, Christian Poulsen, Luís Fabiano, Carlos Bacca, Sergio Ramos, Jesús Navas, Alberto Moreno, Luis Alberto, José Antonio Reyes, Renato, Gary Medel, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Enzo Maresca, Aleix Vidal, Diego López, Kevin Gameiro and Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Pragmatism has been a key part of his working methods and in the summer of 2015, he was persuaded by then-boss Unai Emery to sign striker Fernando Llorente from Juventus despite reservations. The following year, due to the insistence of Jorge Sampaoli, he constructed a loan deal for Samir Nasri. Such short-term transfers veered from his usual transfer model due to lack of sell-on value, but believing the immediate impact would outweigh any potential risks, the deals were done.
Forwards Luciano Vietto and Stefan Jovetić – the Montenegrin was the 151st and final arrival under Monchi – were brought in temporarily with a similar pretence. For context, the club’s longest-serving player, Vicente Iborra, had joined only three years earlier.
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“No one takes a ‘what great economic results’ banner to the stadium,” Monchi insists, which is of course perfectly logical. Fans care about success and Sevilla fans have received plenty but the fine details cannot be ignored. One of Spain’s most productive youth academies and a global scouting network exceeding 700 shows the modernity and progressive nature of Los Rojiblancos, a club that the sporting director has built in his image. They’re flexible, pragmatic and sustainable.
Instant promotion back to La Liga at the turn of the millennium has been followed by 16 consecutive top-half finishes, many of which has seen the club push for Champions League places. In 2006/07 they narrowly missed out on the league title, and a decade on, in Monchi’s final season, they maintained a top three place and feasible title challenge until fatigue set in during March. Then there are the five Europa League crowns, two Spanish Cup triumphs, the 2007 Spanish Super Cup and 2006 UEFA Super Cup.
The club’s prospering youth system was highlighted when Sevilla Atlético won a second promotion inside a decade to Spain’s second tier – the only B side to compete at such a high level. Their recent 6-2 victory over Real Valladolid came immediately after Monchi’s departure and was significant; the season in which he’d arrived, Valladolid had been a La Liga outfit, a division above Sevilla’s first team.
Ivan Rakitić, the Barcelona midfielder and former Sevilla captain, compared securing the sporting director to ‘10 fantastic signings’ for any club, which alone should be enough to whet the appetite for AS Roma fans following his move to the Italian giants.
His departure will undoubtedly worry Sevillistas, the one thread which has knit together all the success. Monchi remains a season ticket holder at the Sánchez Pizjuán and member 8,554, while right-hand man Óscar Arias has stayed on and will take his stead.
Whether or not Arias – who has enjoyed successful spells in the role at Recreativo and Las Palmas – can continue to reap similar rewards from Monchi’s brainchild and meticulous system remains to be seen, while a fresh start in a different country, culture and football environment will be testing. One dynasty has ended, but perhaps two more have just begun
By Colin Millar @Millar_Colin