On Sunday afternoon Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo did something he had only done once before and hasn’t done for almost 20 years: he hid from Sevilla supporters at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Just before midnight on 10 September 1997, ‘Monchi’ watched a late lob fly over him into the net, allowing tiny Isla Cristina to knock them out of the cup, and fans were so furious that the kitman smuggled him out in the back of his van, the defeated keeper covering his face whenever he pulled up at the lights and his coach briefly even removing him from the bench because that was the line of fire. Two decades later, as his club faced Sporting Gijón, he shied away for very different reasons, quietly taking up a discreet seat away from his normal position. “I wanted them to get used to the idea that I’m not around any more,” he said.
It won’t be easy. The son of a joiner in the shipyards of San Fernando, Cádiz, Monchi had been at Sevilla for 26 years before he announced his departure last week. A team-mate of Diego Maradona, Diego Simeone and Davor Suker, Toni Polster too, he played in the B team and over 100 times for the first team, making his debut against Real Sociedad and refusing to go off after Dalian Atkinson’s shot broke his finger in the first minute, an injury still visible, but that’s not why there were tears in his eyes; it’s not why there were tears in theirs, too. Monchi briefly studied law and, considering how long he was there, only occasionally kept goal. It’s not what he did on the pitch that mattered, but off it. As a player, usually a sub, he describes himself as “the last monkey” at Sevilla but became the most important man there.
That “his club” is not misplaced; Sevilla Fútbol Club really are his club. Well, they were. Monchi will remain a season ticket holder, member No8,554, but he will only be there for another six days. There will be a send-off against Deportivo next weekend and then he will be gone, probably to Roma, with whom he has been talking since the summer and beyond.
Monchi was exhausted and needed to clear his mind; 7am trips to the gym only go so far. He had ended up doing everything, from tickets to travel arrangements, players’ contracts and their luggage too. He said he needed a release and wanted to go in the summer. Although Sevilla wouldn’t let him then – they should have – that decision was never going to last for ever. Keeping anyone against their will makes little sense; keeping someone who has given you so much, maybe more than anyone else ever, even less so. His desire to depart undisguised, forcing him to stay would have been counterproductive and damaging, however big a hole he leaves – and it is huge. So at last it was announced, with 10 weeks left of his 17th season as sporting director.
So it was, too, that come Sunday Monchi sat and watched Sevilla play hidden in the shade under the stand, away from the president and away from the directors’ box where he usually sits. “I want to distance myself bit by bit,” he explained.
Down below, things weren’t going the way he would have liked. He said the best leaving present the players who had asked him to reconsider could give him was to win the final 10 games, but they couldn’t even win the first. A Sevilla side that AS’s Juan Jiménez described as “exhausted, blocked, frustrated, anxious and depressed about Monchi’s departure”, couldn’t find a way through against a team from the relegation zone. Pichu Cuéllar made a series of saves, one low stop against Vitolo absolutely astonishing, and Fernando Amorebieta made one too, dislocating fingers in the process. Amorebieta is a centre-back but there was no penalty and there were no goals either. “It was a case of finishing off in the area what we generate out of it,” said Jorge Sampaoli.
Sampaoli was right: there were chances and plenty of them, an improved performance. Yet others saw a deeper depression, greater flaws. Some were even suggesting that this time there were problems in the preparation or at least the absence of a real, top-class striker, which may not be that surprising given that Monchi had been planning for a season with Unai Emery and Kevin Gameiro, both of whom left late, and without himself. While the shift in model has been as successful as it was brave, exciting everyone, enthusiasm overflowing, and while a few weeks ago Sampaoli was the manager people rated as La Liga’s great revelation, there has been something of a collapse. Momentary, it may have been; but it has been costly too.
This was the fifth game in a row that Sevilla have failed to win, including the Champions League. Four weeks ago, they were nine points ahead of Atlético, contenders for the title and on the verge of a first European Cup quarter-final in over 50 years, only a second ever; now they’re out of Europe for the first time in four years and trail Diego Simeone’s side, who they lost to, and no longer occupy an automatic Champions League place. “We’re in crisis,” Nico Pareja said.
It’s the kind of ‘crisis’ that was both put into perspective by Monchi’s announcement and simultaneously deepened by it. It is natural they fear a post-Monchi era, that the enthusiasm evaporates a little, the future a little less certain. There may well be no single man who has meant so much for a club over the last 15 years. Crisis? This is no crisis, not compared to what it was then, but without him there are concerns that it could be. When Monchi took over, Sevilla were in the second division and in trouble. He had been the club’s team delegate but knew nothing about being a sporting director, although he learnt a lot being a sub sitting close to men like Luis Aragonés and especially Carlos Bilardo, and he had to build a team from scratch with no money. Sevilla spent nothing, won the second division and the rest is history – a history that is known now.
When Maradona was at Sevilla, he could not go out in the middle of the day without getting mobbed, so he would take his stroll early in the morning. Monchi, who couldn’t sleep anyway, would get up early and go with him and they became close friends. “He was a 10 out of 10 as a person,” Monchi says, “… and a 20 out of 10 as a player.” One day, Maradona noticed Monchi’s watch, commenting on how smart it was. Monchi laughed; it was a fake, a ‘Rolex’ bought on the Ramblas. A few days later, Maradona presented him with a box; inside was a real one.
Maybe there’s a metaphor there somewhere, somehow, for the sporting director who bought cheap but somehow ended up with the real thing, the very best – although he would never, ever sell that gift from Maradona – for the man who signed Dani Alves for €1.3m and ultimately made €40m on his sale, who got Julio Baptista for €3m and sold him for €25m, who got Seydou Keita for €4m and sold him for €17m; the man who sold Sergio Ramos, José Antonio Reyes and Jesús Navas, youth teamers all, for almost €75m; the man who has made over €300m in sales, at a profit of more than €200m. Oh, and the man who has done it all without losing.
Monchi created an environment conducive to success and identified the men that would help them grow as they grew themselves, the man who made all that money and still oversaw Sevilla’s golden age, the greatest decade in their history, winning nine trophies. “Sevilla is a SAD: a Sociedad Anónima Deportiva [a Sports PLC] and it’s the D that really counts; that weighs far more heavily than the S and the A,” he says. “No one takes a ‘what great economic results’ banner to the stadium.” Sevilla have sold their best player season after season and season after season they have still competed and won. Nine titles, nine. No, they won’t win the league now – and it was a huge pity that they didn’t in 2006-07, when they were genuinely close to doing so – but just the fact that anyone ever thought they could in this environment is astonishing, really. As Vitolo, in all probability the next to go, admitted earlier this season, Sevilla have done something no other club has done: they have normalised departures, succeeding in spite of sales. Now, they must try to normalise the hardest of all.
So much has happened since that loss against Isla Cristina and so much has changed. This weekend, like he did back then, Monchi hid away, but it was not the same. Next weekend he will say goodbye, leaving the Pizjuán for the last time, no longer part of the club, and if Sevilla’s fans see him on the way out, car sitting there at the traffic lights, they will not have a go, but they may have a word: thanks.
Let the games begin! Spanish football returned from the international break – you know, that period when every day brings another transfer story and pretty much nothing about the national team, even though Spain are turning out to be pretty good – and it’s not about to stop now. Friday night was Espanyol-Betis, the beginning of a run of 31 consecutive days in which there will be a football match involving a Spanish teams, all the way to 1 May. And, quite possibly, beyond – if Champions League and Europa League involvement continues. Two rounds of midweek fixtures and the month starting at just the ‘right’ time means that every team plays seven games in April alone – more than a sixth of the season.
Oh, and speaking of Spain and the international break: “You lot really like the national team; so much that you always ask me about Madrid.” Gerard Piqué said that to journalists after Spain’s win in Paris. That and a whole lot more besides.
So, on to this weekend, where there was another one of those games at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid getting two late goals to beat Alavés 3-0 and make it sound much better than it really was. Pretty good in the first 45 minutes, one Alavés player admitting that he had not enjoyed it all, for much of the second half Madrid had struggled, not taking a shot on target until the 82nd minute. Bale still isn’t really back from that injury and Ronaldo was largely absent, but Benzema and especially Isco impressed in a game that mostly didn’t. “Kings of nothingness,” Marca called them. Alavés, without Llorente because of one of those crapping-yourself-clauses, dominated possession but only rarely made the right decision with the final pass or shot. And then Isco scored a lovely second. “The game had become dangerous for us,” he admitted. “3-0 doesn’t reflect the game,” Kiko Casilla said.
Luis Suárez, blimey. He scored a superb first, made an impressive second and stood out a mile as Barcelona beat Granada 4-1. “Stupendous”, AS called him. The man who topped the goals and assist chart in Spain last season became first player in Europe to reach double figures for goals and assists this season too.
Diego Alves gonna Diego Alves. “I knew he would save the penalty,” Garay said after Valencia’s 3-0 win over Deportivo. Everyone did. He has now saved 24 of the 50 he has faced in Spain … and only three of the eight he has faced this season have gone in.
Before the game, short striker Orellana lined up behind a kid, whispering in his ear with a giggle: “Duck a little bit, they can’t see me!”
Yes, Madrid and Barcelona really did compete to see who could reach 100 million Facebook likes this weekend and yes the Maid and Barcelona media really did argue about it, each accusing the other club or aggressively seeking the target, ‘unlike us’. Of course. Aye. Right. Madrid got their first. Speaking of media and so on, it has been revealed as part of the ‘Púnica’ case that Florentino Pérez paid a company to set up a website that would be favourable to him [insert your own joke here], taking a keen interest in content, including attacks on referees … and his own manager, Carlo Ancelotti.
Time to beg forgiveness from Juande Ramos? Málaga before he decided to walk away in a huff, irritated at it all: five wins, six draws, five defeats. Málaga after he decided to walk away in a huff, irritated at it all: one win, three draws, nine defeats. They’re five points above the relegation zone and next up are Sporting and Barcelona. Gulp!
And one from the second division for you, where the referee who gave a baffling penalty against Real Oviedo in Tenerife reportedly told Jon Erice: “It wasn’t you who gave it away … it was Jon Erice.”
Results: Espanyol 2–0 Betis, Villarreal 2–3 Eibar, Osasuna 1–2 Athletic, Real Sociedad 1–1 Leganés, Málaga 0-2 Atlético, Sevilla 0–0 Sporting, Real Madrid 3–0 Alavés, Valencia 3–0 Deportivo, Granada 1-4 Barcelona. Monday: Celta-Las Palmas (which may well be a belter)