EVER SINCE THEY invited Andalusian neighbours Recreativo de Huelva to a friendly match on 8 March 1890, history has always been a vital component in the makeup of Sevilla FC. Los Rojiblancos – founded only six weeks previous – ran out 2-0 victors in the first ever recorded football match in Spain. The two oldest clubs on the Iberian Peninsula (Gimnàstic de Tarragona were formed in 1886 but did not form an actual football team until 1914) were formed by British workers. Recre were former by Alexander Mackay and Robert Russell Ross, workers at the Rio Tinto mines, while Sevilla’s existence began as British expatriates celebrated Burns Night.
That inaugural encounter has had particular significance 126 years on as Recre have plunged into the regionalised Spanish third tier with mounting debts calling into question the club’s very existence, while Sevilla’s season culminates in the biggest week of the club’s proud history.
They may carry the name of their home city, but their fierce local rivals Real Betis are traditionally the bigger club in the city. Fans of Los Verdiblancos – traditionally the working-class club of Seville’s docklands, based in the southern Heliopolis district – often mock their city counterparts for having fewer fans. This was evidenced as recently as last season, where Betis averaged more fans on their way to the Segunda title and promotion to Spain’s top flight than fifth-placed Sevilla.
Sevilla’s existence was initially a nomadic one as the club continually relocated from several temporary locations within the city: la Trinidad Field, the Mercantile Field, La Victoria Stadium and the Estadio de Nervión. The Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán was finally completed in 1958 in the swanky Nervión district of downtown Seville. This is the commercial heartbeat of the city, home to various businesses and traditionally the club’s district.
The assumption that this ensured Sevilla represented the well-to-doers in the city is not baseless, though with social lines becoming so blurred in the decades since this holds little relevance today and in any case, the city’s population is generally left-leaning. Biris Norte – the club’s main ultra group who gather behind the Gol Norte – are one of the noisiest and passionate groups in the country, and are strongly associated with left-wing ideals.
Sevilla’s only ever league title came in 1946 and they have been in Spain’s second tier as recently as 2001. Whilst they’ve found more success in the Copa del Rey (five time winners), their 1948 success started a draught of 59 years without a major Spanish honour. At the turn of the millennium, while Valencia were building successive La Liga conquering sides and Deportivo La Coruña were impressing in the Champions League, Sevilla were languishing in the second tier – out of sight and out of mind.
That was the first turning point. It was then that they appointed former goalkeeper Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo (commonly known as Monchi) to the position as Director of Football. Monchi – who spent his entire career at the club, making 85 appearances across 11 seasons – was tasked with two objectives by the board: develop the club’s youth system and implement a vast scouting policy inside and outside Spain.
At the time the appointment went virtually unnoticed, viewed as a convenient cost-cutting appointment by a club in dire financial straits, but its spectacular success would reinvent the club and elevate it from mediocrity to arguably the most vibrant, progressive club in European football.
Monchi was to become known as a slick operator who has earned the nickname ‘El Lobo de Sevilla’ – The Wolf of Seville. Revamping the club’s youth academy and building a worldwide network of over 700 scouts, he can be described as a visionary and is one of the most sought-after individuals in football.
The 22 players listed cost Sevilla a total of €36 million in transfer fees, and were sold for a combined cost of €229 million: 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.
It’s a star-studded cast that was largely bought low and sold high. There are few clubs who have acted as shrewdly in the transfer market as Sevilla under Monchi. Constantly reinventing themselves, finding ways to deal with the harsher economic climate. Identifying younger players and nurturing them into the finished articles. The individuals may have changed but the success has not.
One name not mentioned on that list is Antonio Puerta, who played a significant role in ending the club’s barren run of 58 years without a major honour before tragically collapsing to his death following a match the following year.
Puerta struck a spectacular trademark left-footed thunderbolt in the 100th minute to win the UEFA Cup semi final against Schalke and propel Juande Ramos’s troops into the final, where they easily disposed 4-0 of Middlesbrough in the showpiece to spark a remarkable, unprecedented decade of success.
The Puerta goal has been celebrated every year since and is an iconic moment such was it’s significance and the raw emotion that it produced – the Sevillista born and raised several streets away from the stadium.
The 22-year-old would play a pivotal role in the retaining of the trophy the following season including converting his spot-kick in the final against Espanyol, alongside the lifting of the Copa del Rey and then the Supercopa de España. Sevilla appeared unstoppable with a hugely talented crop of young player complementing South American flair and exuberance.
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In 2006 they routed European champions Barcelona to win the European Super Cup, and the following year their Supercopa triumph was glorious – two victories over Real Madrid including a 6-3 hammering. In between those victories came the second UEFA Cup triumph over Espanyol at Hampden Park and also the first time the Sevillistas led La Liga in over half a century – their title challenge only ending with two matches remaining.
Puerta’s death in 2007 – less than a month after the Supercopa triumph against Real Madrid – was the next turning point. Sevilla’s euphoria gave way to utter grief and sorrow, attempting to comprehend the devastating loss. The Spanish international died three days after collapsing due to a cardiac arrest in a league encounter with Getafe on a day that shook the club and the city to the core.
Manager Ramos departed for Tottenham and gradually that great side started to break up, but while it took a further seven years before the next trophy was delivered to Nervion, the success did not stop. For six consecutive seasons Los Rojiblancos finished in the league’s top five despite operating on a fraction of the budget of Barcelona and Real Madrid but also notably less than Atlético Madrid and Valencia.
In fact, since Monchi took up the position as Director of Football, Sevilla started by winning the Segunda and have finished in the top half of La Liga in all of the 15 seasons since. In the four years before his appointment, they finished bottom of La Liga twice and fourth and seventh in the Segunda standings.
Prior to 2006, Sevilla had only ever participated in five finals but have now qualified for a further 15 in the decade since. It’s true that this does have caveats – many of these are Super Cups and at times league form has been sacrificed to prioritise cup runs - but they do not diminish the achievement.
Six of those finals have come in the last 24 months and have been under the tutelage of Unai Emery, the intense workaholic who is often as fun to watch on the touchline as the game itself. He completed three full seasons in charge of Sevilla and in each one he guided his troops to Europa League glory, winning every single one of his 14 knockout ties to date. In 2014, a penalty shootout edged out Benfica, the following year a double from Carlos Bacca was enough to beat Dnipro, while 2016 saw them defeat Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The challenge for Emery was different from under Ramos. Replicating that side would have been tough in itself, but with so many rival clubs across the continent attempting (although often failing) to copy Monchi’s template for success makes squad-building tougher, as does the financial discrepancy between the club and any top-flight side in England.
Sevilla have capitalised on the increasingly wealthy important market in England. Gary Medel, Alberto Moreno, Navas, Reyes and Negredo have all been cast off there for a total surpassing €100 million. All stars in Andalucia, none of the five can lay true claim to making a lasting positive impact in the Premier League.
Another aspect of the Sevilla model is signing the right type of players, not just in terms of their ability but also their mentality – the emotional bond between the players and the club is evident in each match, particularly at fortress Sánchez Pizjuán. Real Madrid’s narrow victory there in April 2015 ended a 14-month unbeaten home run, while Sevilla chalked up a remarkable 17 consecutive victories at the stadium earlier this campaign, seeing off Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus in the process.
The club feeds the players and often their transformation is evident. Adil Rami and Éver Banega, like Emery, were labelled disruptive and unprofessional during their respective spells at Valencia. All three struggled not only at the Mestalla but also to build a positive reputation at other clubs. Sevilla changed all that.
Their model ensures continuity in terms of results, if not in individuals. When star striker Negredo left, he was replaced by Bacca, who in turn was succeeded by Gameiro. None of those three have had quite the impact elsewhere and Gameiro has found the same at Atlético Madrid.
Gameiro isn’t the only one who attracted interest from elsewhere. Éver Banega – the midfield orchestrator – joined Inter Milan, while tough-tackling Polish holding midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak moved to Paris.
There have been failures in terms of recruitment, but the examples of Arouna Koné (two goals in 41 appearances) and Gaël Kakuta (six appearances before moving to China) are few and far between. These are not to be unexpected either, as a typical summer in Nervion see’s the number of arrivals and departures hit double figures.
The biggest flaw with this model is the inconsistency in team selection and results for the first few months of a campaign, which has disrupted any challenge for a top four league finish and also progression from the group stages of the Champions League. But whenever footballer’s hang up their boots they remember the medals won, the finals they played in and the team spirit they shared, not their club’s income streams.
Many fall in love with Sevilla because they essentially make football fun. They play attractive football with a sharp counter-attack their most effective weapon. The Sánchez Pizjuán is amongst the most vibrant, passionate, colourful and deafening grounds on the continent; it may have been renovated last summer but it retains its unique feel and is shrouded in heritage – the stadium’s front has been maintained since its opening and is among the finest.
Sevilla is a club that cares about its roots and celebrates its history, not forgetting its British links (the anglicised FC is maintained in the club’s official name, rather than CF) nor its nomadic upbringings. Crucially, they seek to create their history, rather than live in it. They have learnt from previous mismanagement and have seen other clubs fall by the wayside.
Emery guided the Spaniards to become the first team in four decades to win three consecutive European titles (since Bayern Munich 1973-76). No club, not even Barcelona, have won as many major European crowns in the past decade. Only three sides have ever retained the UEFA Cup/Europa League title – the first was Real Madrid, and the other two have been Sevilla. The challenge now for Jorge Sampaoli is to build on that and take it to the next level.
Writing history is something that has always been done at Sevilla, and they will hope to complete another extraordinary chapter under the tutelage of the Argentine.
By Colin Millar @Millar_Colin