IN AN AGE where footballers drive the world’s most expensive cars, wear incredibly expensive clothes and eat at the most exclusive restauarants, it is hard for the regular fan to find much they can relate to. Right from their mid-teens, the elite footballers are living a very different life to you and I – one that can ultimately be incredibly rewarding.
When it was announced that Sevilla’s biggest star, Jesús Navas, would be making his long-awaited move to the Premier League, a side story emerged in the excitable English press that was relatable in some way to millions of people around the world. Navas, it emerged, had in fact suffered from chronic homesickness for many years, a condition so severe that he had previously been forced to withdraw from Spain international squads due to suffering from panic attacks while away from home. How, then, was the speedy winger able to overcome his fears and enjoy such a successful career on many fronts?
Born in Los Palacios, a small city in the province of Seville, Navas’ talents were apparent from an early age. Blessed with blistering pace, he excelled at most sports in school, and was finally signed by his local football team, Los Palacios, aged 13. Navas was head and shoulders above his teammates in terms of ability and two years later, Sevilla came calling. It was a step up in quality but the 15-year-old thrived. Although smaller than most of his peers, Navas was coming through at just the right time. It was to be a halcyon period for Spain and club and international level.
Navas continued to excel and found himself a key player for the B team, Sevilla Atlético, at the age of just 17. In November 2003, two days after his 18th birthday, Navas made his debut for the first team. Although it was only a brief substitute appearance in a 1-0 defeat to Espanyol, it was clear that Navas’ form for the B team had impressed manager Joaquín Caparrós. Sevillistas could expect to see more from their academy product at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.
That 12 minute substitute appearance in Catalonia proved to be one of only a few glimpses Sevilla fans got of Jesús Navas that season. It was during the 2004/05 season that Navas really made his breakthrough. Promoted to the senior squad permanently, he established himself as a starter and earned himself a pay rise in the process – extending his contract to 2010. He was playing in Europe too, and heads were beginning to turn.
For Sevilla, however, the season had been a disappointment. Caparrós, so influential in trusting Navas and fellow B team graduate Sergio Ramos, was fired in the summer of 2005 and replaced by the ex-Betis and Málaga manager Juande Ramos. The new manager set about changing the style of the team, and made it clear from the outset that his young winger was a key element in his plans.
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The 2005/06 season was special for Sevilla and for a young Navas. Los Rojiblancos had a new lease of life under Ramos and looked vastly improved right from the outset, finishing just two points off second-placed Real Madrid in the league. But it was in the UEFA Cup that Navas and co really thrived.
Having topped a group that included Beşiktaş, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Bolton, Sevilla overcame a last-16 first-leg deficit to sneak past Ligue 1 side Lille and set up a quarter-final tie against an impressive Zenit side. A 4-1 first-leg victory for the Andalusian side made the second leg a formality. Navas was supreme. Teams in Europe were simply unable to cope with his pace, coupled with the Brazilian Dani Alves flying down the same flank. It was a left-back’s nightmare. An incredibly tense semi-final tie saw Sevilla eventually scrape past Bundesliga side Schalke 1-0 on aggregate. In just his second full season as a pro, Navas was going to be playing in a European final.
The UEFA Cup final, on 10 May 2006 against Premier League side Middlesborough, was the making of Navas, and the beginning of a golden era for Sevilla. The Spaniards tore their English counterparts to shreds in a comprehensive 4-0 victory, and although Navas didn’t get on the scoresheet, few players on the pitch had a greater impact. He gave Boro’s French left-back Frank Queudrue a torrid time, consistently pulling him out of position and beating him for pace. Sevilla were deserved UEFA Cup champions, and Navas was now on the radar of every top club in Europe.
Sevilla anticipated it would be hard to keep their star man and, sure enough, a bid emerged that summer from Premier League champions Chelsea. With Sevilla already resigned to losing Alves as well, a fee was agreed. Everything was in place – all that was required was for Navas to sign. That was when the chronic homesickness flared up. Faced with the daunting prospect of a move abroad to a country that spoke a different language and had a different culture, Navas decided this was a prospect he could not deal with. He would stay with Sevilla.
Aside from being debilitating and disruptive to his personal life, chronic homesickness had now negatively impacted his professional life, causing him to turn down the opportunity to play for the best team in England. Offers from abroad would become a recurring theme for Navas over the next few years, and so would the homesickness-induced refusals. Eventually, Navas and his people would decide that counselling was necessary. But for now, he stayed with Sevilla.
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Sevilla was not a bad club to call home, though. Fresh from their resounding UEFA Cup success, many were tipping the Andalusian club to challenge in the upper reaches of the league at the start of the 2006/07 – despite having lost some key players. Sevilla rose to meet their promise and then some, retaining the UEFA Cup by defeating fellow LaLiga club Espanyol in the final and winning the Copa del Rey to boot. They also finished third in the league, looking the most consistent yet simultaneously free-flowing the club had ever been in its history. Sevilla were flying, and Navas’ stock was continuing to rise.
Seasons came and went, while Navas didn’t let up with his form. Although not a prolific goalscorer, he was a fantastic provider for others, regularly threatening the top ends of LaLiga’s assist charts. Sevilla continued to challenge at the top end of LaLiga and 2010 saw perhaps the greatest year of Navas’ career. In May, in front of 93,000 spectators at the Camp Nou, he scored an injury-time goal that saw Sevilla assured of victory in the Copa del Rey final against Atlético Madrid.
Two months later, he was told to warm-up by Spain manager Vicente del Bosque early in the second half of La Roja’s first ever World Cup final. Coming on at the hour mark for Barcelona’s Pedro, Navas still had plenty of time to make an impression on the biggest stage of all. Spain won through Andrés Iniesta’s extra-time winner, and few can doubt Navas’ contribution to the match and the competition on a whole.
At Euro 2012, Navas was to have an even bigger impact. Now a more mature player, Navas could be utilised in different systems by Del Bosque. Having thrashed Ireland and drawn with Italy in the group stages, Spain needed victory in their final game against Croatia to ensure they’d finish top of the group. On a cagey night in Gdansk, it was Jesús Navas who would step up at the vital moment to score the only goal of the game. With Navas known for keeping a cool head under pressure in games, Vicente del Bosque once again had his super sub to thank. Spain went on to win the tournament and Navas had yet another medal to add to his growing collection.
Off the pitch, the counselling Navas was receiving for the chronic homesickness and other issues was working. He had proved when travelling with the national team and on European trips with Sevilla that he was capable of being away. The next step was moving abroad, and when, in June 2013, Sevilla accepted a bid from Premier League outfit Manchester City, Navas felt ready to say yes. The time had come to see if he really had conquered his homesickness.
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The four successful seasons that Navas spent with City suggest he did. Under new manager Manuel Pellegrini, who knew all about Navas’ ability from managing against him with Málaga and Real Madrid, Navas initially flourished, with his pace a major attribute. Although Navas has since admitted that he struggled to adapt to a new culture at first, the crippling chronic homesickness which had been so debilitating to Navas as a young man never surfaced.
In the 2013//14 League Cup final against Sunderland, it was Navas who scored City’s decisive third goal at Wembley. Not content with just one trophy that season, the man from Andalusia continued to do his bit on the pitch to ensure that Manchester City edged over the line to win the Premier League title. It was arguably the greatest season in the club’s history, and Navas played a major part.
In 2016, the City board moved manager Manuel Pellegrini aside to make room for incoming superstar Pep Guardiola. Although he was rarely the first name on the teamsheet, Navas had enjoyed an excellent relationship with the outgoing Chilean manager. With Guardiola bringing in Schalke wide man Leroy Sané as one of his first signings at the club, it was clear that Navas was going to play an increasingly reduced role at the club. The majority of his appearances in the 2016/17 season under Guardiola turned out to be as a wing-back, a position Navas was not used to but performed admirably in.
It was time for Jesús Navas to return home. He had proved to himself and everyone else that he had conquered his illness. In addition, he had shown himself capable of playing a key part in a title-winning side, under two different managers with different styles. When Sevilla came calling in the summer of 2017, Navas could return home with his head held high. After all, few epitomise Sevilla quite like Jesús Navas.