Lauren Bisan-Etame Mayer is an Invincible. Winner of an Olympic football gold medal with Cameroon, twice an African Cup of Nations champion, and capable of going an entire season unbeaten with Arsenal as they lifted the Premier League title in 2003/4. A roll of honour to suggest that he has seen it all.
But he grew up in Sevilla. He began his career with Los Rojiblancos. He loves the club. His son is in the youth ranks and this is the city he calls home. And about a year ago he met with his friend Ramón ‘Monchi’ Rodríguez: the extraordinary brain who is in danger of being recognised for his work at Sevilla FC as one of the all-time greatest squad-builders that modern football has ever seen.
Chatting over coffee last August, sharing observations about the coming season, Monchi told Lauren: “We are building a team to win… everything!” Lauren left the chat both deeply impressed and convinced. I know this because he told me as much.
Twelve months on and the process has already yielded spectacular results. By the time Sevilla marched out to out-match the mighty Inter Milan and win the 2020 Europa League, the team that Monchi built had already qualified for the Champions League – finishing two positions, 11 points and, thus, many millions of Euros better than the season before.
Then they clinched their sixth UEFA Cup/Europa League in just 14 years, scoring their 15th goal in all these finals, to defeat Antonio Conte’s pre-match favourites 3-2. Already an amazing feat. But let’s consider the context, which raises the achievement to Olympian heights.
Sevilla brought more glory to Andalusia’s biggest city, extended their record-breaking status in this competition and closed the gap on Spain’s big three with a brand-new coach and no fewer than 15 players in their debut season for this expectation-defying club. It was a little football miracle. Maybe there are a couple of ways of helping to explain it.
Ivan Rakitić has just rejoined Sevilla, following his heart, his ambition, his wife’s love for her native city and his extremely firm friendship with Monchi. Back in the summer of 2014, Rakitić spoke to UEFA.com. The Croat explained, “I’ve just lifted the Europa League and I was Sevilla’s captain when we did it … I’ve joined Barcelona in order to win the Champions League.” Which he then, memorably, did – not only helping drive the Catalan club to the treble in his first season but providing the opening goal in the Berlin final against Juventus. Six years ago, Rakitić felt he might need to move in order to take the big step. Now let’s compare and contrast.
One of the revelation signings that Monchi made during that white-hot summer of transfer machination in 2019 was Jules Koundé. When the 20-year-old Parisian became a Rojiblanco he was a second-season wonder, having just broken onto the scene at Bordeaux and crammed in 70 appearances for a side that finished seven points above relegation. At Sevilla, with Diego Carlos, he’s formed one of the best defensive partnerships in the Liga. His financial value has probably trebled, at least, and he racked up 40 appearances including a terrific performance against Lautaro Martínez, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez in the final.
Having lifted that beautiful trophy, and despite still looking like he’s fresh out of school, Koundé’s post-victory words were very different from those of Rakitić six years ago. “Winning the Champions League is now all that Sevilla lacks to be considered an even more ‘top’ club – and I think we are extremely well equipped to achieve important things in that competition this season.”
Big words from a 21-year-old. And it’s significant that they are uttered when the project is hugely ambitious, the winning habit is instilled and Rakitić has returned with the goal of making his alma mater European champions. Plus, there is a coach at the helm who is not only talented but spurred on tremendously by the difficult couple of seasons that he suffered before his face crumpled with emotion in Cologne when referee Danny Makkelie blew the final whistle in August.
Don’t take my word for it: listen to Éver Banega. The Argentinian midfielder has been part of Sevilla’s playing DNA for years now. That is partly why he broke down in tears when finally announcing his goodbye to the “club of my life” as he departed for Saudi Arabian football in September after winning the third of his hat-trick of Europa Leagues.
“Sevilla is a product of know-how, terrific union between the staff and the squad and the ability to produce in key moments – even when we had to suffer. I’m in debt to Lopetegui, his staff and their work all last year. I admit I dropped my level a little and the coach took me aside, warned me that without real, hard work I was going to get nothing back from my last season at Sevilla and it was him, his words, which re-energised me.”
For Lopetegui, dismissed by Spain and then Real Madrid in short order in 2018/19, this first club trophy will spur the pursuit of winning the Liga – and, he and his employers hope, the Champions League. One of his greatest benefits is that he has a true maestro (and a good friend) as his line manager. And Monchi’s ambition isn’t close to being sated either. He recently told local media: “For years our business model has been to make transfer-market profits in order to build a squad that is powerful above what Sevilla could afford simply via ordinary income. This summer we’ve not earned much in sales but we’ve still been big investors [Rakitić, Bono, Óscar Rodriguez, Suso, Marcos Acuña]. The reason is that we have a really clear idea of the kind of squad we require to take another step forward in Europe – and we’re currently trying to create it.”
Trying to work out whether Monchi, Lopetegui, their daringly created group of players and wonderful, passionate fans actually can take that tantalising step upwards that winning Europe or Spain’s grand prize would constitute? Then you may wish to know that the city’s mayor recently phoned Monchi to tell him that he is to be awarded the highest honour Sevilla can bestow on any individual. Pre-season barely over and a medal already? The omens are good.