When Unai Emery became the manager of Sevilla in January 2013, they had just lost nine of their previous 13 league matches, and sat six points above the relegation zone in 12th place. The year prior, with Marcelino, and then Michel, at the helm, the Rojiblancos finished ninth.
This was unacceptable for a club of Sevilla’s standards, which was why Emery was then brought in. The Spaniard immediately pimped the ride, leading them back up to ninth by season’s end — then fifth, fifth, and seventh over the next three campaigns.
Those rather meek league results hardly mattered, however. More importantly, Emery led the Andalusians to three straight Europa League titles before getting that unrefusable offer from PSG last summer. Unlike at some clubs, Emery is living proof that being Sevilla’s manager isn’t a thankless job. But if he doesn’t win those three European trophies, his story — and theirs — drastically changes.
This exploration isn’t about Emery as much as it is the vulnerable position those who hold employment positions at Sevilla Futbol Club find themselves in these days. The new Emery, Jorge Sampaoli, now bears an even greater burden of success than his predecessor did. And there’s almost no chance he lives up that expectation, basically because it’s been built on a whole lot of weirdness that can’t really be duplicated. It’s not that Sevilla are going through managers like that one crappy Starbucks in your neighborhood, it’s just that, to stay in a job there — any job — you’re required to perform uncommon feats.
Firstly, to understand both Sevilla’s national and continental recognition, you need not go back very far. It was only in 2006, under manager Juande Ramos, that the Rojiblancos torched Middlesbrough 4-0 in the UEFA Cup final. The trophy was the club’s first ever European accolade, although it’d be a competition they’d ultimately prove to be ruthless codebreakers of.
In addition to thumping Barcelona 3-0 in the UEFA Super Cup at the beginning of the following season, Sevilla once again captured the UEFA Cup by beating Espanyol on penalties in 2008. The final shootout converter for Sevilla on the night was the late Antonio Puerta, whose bronze statue now towers at the Jose Ramon Cisneros Palacios Sports Centre in Seville. The inscription below the figure reads, “Your left gifted us with a dream that changed our lives, as it then began one of the most glorious stages of our club.” Emblazoned below that message is a silhouette of the five trophies Puerta helped Sevilla win in the years leading to his untimely death.
If there’s a period of excellence to associate Sevilla with, it begins there, with Ramos, Puerta, and many other key contributors. Apart from a La Liga title in 1946, a few Copa del Rey titles speckled throughout the pre-Fifties, and a handful of Segunda titles, Sevilla haven’t spent much of the last century winning much of anything. (Feel free to count their 18 Copa Aduluscias from 1916-1940.)
Although there was a minor lull between Ramos’s departure in 2007 and Emery’s arrival in 2013 (there was a single Copa del Rey triumph in 2010), the years that followed took the club to unforeseen mountain peaks, ones that they’re still scaling as we speak. It all culminated just over four months ago in Basel. In an age where major European honors are exceedingly more difficult to win year-after-year, Emery’s Sevilla somehow took home a third consecutive Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup) title.
So here’s the weird part. With all of the different qualification processes a single contender ends up flushing through before finding their spot in a major European competition, it’s becoming increasingly less likely for a football team to repeatedly win a competition like the Europa League.
For starters, Sevilla have, in a few recent seasons, qualified for the Champions League through either their league place or a cup triumph the prior season. Although these kinds of stipulations can vary due to either UEFA coefficient shifts or simple rule changes, Sevilla have often been among the continent’s elite clubs in the continent’s elite tournament. That hasn’t *exactly* ended in success though; well, not in the traditional sense anyways. Take last season for example.
Sevilla were eliminated at the group stage of the Champions League, but because they finished third, they were allowed to enter the Europa League in the knockout rounds. Therefore, because of a, frankly, strange rule, Sevilla were able to win a third-straight European title despite not even starting the season in the tourney field. Amid this permutation-soaked landscape of major competition, it’s a wonder that anyone ever wins back-to-back trophies. Maybe that’s why nobody does. Except for Sevilla.
With these swelling demands, the scope now turns toward Emery’s replacement, Jorge Sampaoli. The obsessive Argentine of the touchline, Sampaoli came into his new post with a lengthy To-Do List.
First, he needed to replace any and all outbound players with new, compelling ones; a detail he’s vastly exceeded in by adding talents like Luciano Vietto, Franco Vazquez, and Samir Nasri where prior mainstays Kevin Gameiro, Grzegorz Krychowiak, and Ever Banega left voids. He also needed to inject a stylistic charge into all of his players, one that would recall his effective, enthralling tenure with the Chilean national side. He needed to have his team ready-to-go from the first whistle on Matchday 1, which he also did. So far, all is well for Sampaoli. His supercharged Rojiblancos entered last weekend undefeated and in 2nd Place before collapsing late at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
But Sevilla supporters have their own to-do list in regards to Sampaoli. And theirs is one that comes with a growing footballing brand that has turned title-winning into old hat. A trophy in six of the last 10 years is the kind of haul typically saved for those tiki-taka heads in Catalunya, or those wealthy blancos in the Capital. This shadow hanging over the Sanchez Pizjuan surely shouldn’t be this enormous, right? Well, it doesn’t matter, because that egg has hatched. Sevilla are a main player now.
This introduces a conundrum for the avid Rojiblancos supporter, and even the executives running the club. Going forward, what exactly does success look like for Sevilla? Because of Emery’s unthinkable Europa League treble, is that now the standard? Do trophy-less domestic and European campaigns now automatically equate to disasters? What if, under Sampaoli, Sevilla never win a single trophy but finish in the top-three of La Liga every year? Think about it. What can the Argentine possibly do, within reason, that will be deemed good enough? Maybe everything. But maybe nothing.
This is a weight that carries throughout the entire organization, too, not just atop Jorge’s shoulders. The most underappreciated and overworked piece of Sevilla’s new millennium bumrush has been director of football, Monchi. Responsible for re-upping a squad of players that is always being raided at year’s-end by the sport’s richer colossi, the ex-Sevilla youth product has managed to not just stay relevant in the cutthroat world of European top-flight soccer, but also grow a team that most thought had maxed-out a decade ago. But, of course, with that expanding profile comes expanding pressure.
This past summer, after sixteen years in-charge, Monchi asked to be released from his contract at Sevilla. The club swiftly rejected the request. Rumors abounded that the Spaniard was interested in following Emery to Paris. But why? Perhaps Monchi wanted a new challenge. Perhaps he simply wanted to work abroad. Or maybe, just maybe, the stress of (re)building yet another winning team from scratch was a task too far, even for a professional standard-bearer like Monchi.
We won’t really know until he writes his autobiography. Or until he’s watching Jorge’s Rojiblancos lift another one of those damned Europa League trophies come May.