Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo — ‘Monchi’ to you and me — greets me in the press waiting room at Seville’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium. After a warm introduction, and a semi-sheepish request that we only speak Spanish, he leads me down a corridor plastered with images of Sevilla’s most recent cup triumphs, including this May’s 3-1 defeat of Liverpool in the Europa League. He takes my coat, pours me a glass of water, then dives right in with the air of someone who’s done this many times before.
Naturally. When Monchi took over as sporting director in 2000, he was charged with taking relegated Sevilla back into the Spanish Primera División, and building a team capable of winning trophies without spending large sums on transfers. Sixteen years later, Sevilla have added five Europa League titles, a UEFA Super Cup and two Spanish Cups to their collection, as well as a staggering £180 million profit from player sales.
So how does it work? Take summer 2014. Out went midfielder Ivan Rakitić — he joined Barcelona — for £15 million. In came Grzegorz Krychowiak, a relatively unknown Polish midfielder, for £4.5 million. Two years later, he was back out the door for £25 million. While the team has chopped and changed, the constant for Sevilla has been trophies: four in their history before Monchi arrived; 13 since.
“At Sevilla we try to work according to a set of key parameters,” he says, and it’s immediately clear that I’m not the first person to ask him how he’s done it. Cautious of giving too much away, Monchi has a way of saying a lot while telling you little. Of those parameters, “Coordinating with the manager is fundamental,” he explains. “And it’s very important to know the club, know what the city and the club have to offer players. And you have to align that with the kind of player the coach wants to manage.”
Monchi and his team of 16 scouts spend the first five months of every season looking for that player, watching as much football as they can cram into each day. When December rolls around, accumulated statistical data on some 700 players can be whittled down according to the manager’s recommendations, to identify a shortlist of ideal signings.
But Sevilla rarely buy without selling first. “The problem isn’t selling, though,” says Monchi. “The problem is buying afterwards. This business isn’t about selling players, it’s getting results on the field. We can sell any one of our players, the difficulty is reinvesting the money in new players and maintaining the same level you had before.”
Another difficulty is that when Sevilla sell, it’s often to other Spanish clubs. Striker Kevin Gameiro, who scored 25 goals for Sevilla last season, is now playing for Atlético de Madrid. Sevilla didn’t want to sell, he says, Atlético wanted to buy, and Gameiro’s head wasn’t turned by the offer of a pay-rise. “But that’s your job – trying to make sure we don’t lose competitiveness even though you’re selling important players. It’s about replacing players with other players who can perform just as well as the ones who’ve left.”
And on the whole, they manage it. When Gameiro went to Atlético for £27 million this summer, Argentine Luciano Vietto came the other way for a loan fee of just £2 million. Despite commanding vastly different price tags, both players have scored exactly the same amount of league goals this season. Sevilla, meanwhile, currently sit five points clear of the team who poached their star striker in July.
I can’t help but ask, though — are Sevilla’s brains really a match for other teams’ financial brawn? Monchi seems to think so, for as long as Sevilla can keep creating “surplus values”, as he puts it. “But the moment we get more signings wrong than we get right, the model we have stops making sense. We’re fundamentally limited by our ability to get key footballing decisions right.
“Every player we bring in is a gamble. Not because we haven’t been following him — we always do that — but because ultimately you’re dealing with people. Some people adapt, they perform, others don’t. We try to leave as little to luck as possible, and for that to happen we follow players very closely, we talk to them, we work as exhaustively as possible to make sure we have all bases covered in terms of what they can bring. But that’s not easy. And there are times we get it wrong. Plenty of them.”
Sevilla’s fifth European title thrust their sporting director further into the limelight. Amid reports that Monchi was about to leave the club in the summer, both Everton and PSG were reported to be interested in his services. Though a word of caution: “I don’t think the model here at Sevilla could be exported anywhere else. If I were at another club I’d try to use as many of the things I’ve done here and adapt them. But clubs like Everton, PSG, Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, they’ve all got their own idiosyncrasies.”
This includes geography. The vibrant Andalusian capital of Seville, famed for its flamenco, orange trees and palatial Moorish architecture is all part of the club’s branding strategy. “Obviously no player’s going to join Sevilla just to live here,” he admits, “But hombre, it helps. Sevilla Fútbol Club has become a hugely attractive brand now. And one of the key parts of that is the city.”
The trophies have probably helped too. 2016 brought a record fifth Europa League title thanks to a 3-1 victory over Liverpool. “I think that final, of all of the ones we’ve won, was the one that most pays tribute to what we’ve done here. In four previous finals we beat Middlesbrough, Espanyol, Benfica, Dnipro, but this time we beat Liverpool! They’re the most important team of all of them. That victory speaks for the model we have here. A model that means you don’t have to be inferior to someone just because they’ve got more financial power than you. It comes down to your willingness to work.”
By now his face has lit up. Monchi recalls how, with Sevilla one-nil down at half time in Basel, he headed down into the dressing room, the team shellshocked, himself unable to say a single word. He remembers manager Unai Emery’s rousing speech that lifted spirits enough for Sevilla to equalise within a minute of the restart. And most of all, he remembers staring entranced at the scoreboard, minutes before the final whistle, thinking “Christ, we’re going to win our third consecutive title, we’re about to make history. We’re about to become legends.”
There’s a reason I’ve asked about that game. Their opponents were taken over in 2010 by an American consortium pledging to “over-deliver” through the sort of shrewd scouting and canny spending that has been so successful for Monchi. Six profligate years hence, Liverpool have a single League Cup to show for it.
“English clubs need to learn to use their resources better,” he says. But a six-month sojourn in London impressed on him what English football does well. “It’s much superior to Spanish football in terms of organisation, exploitation of image rights, management of atypical revenue, I think they’re better at all of that. And they have really good scouting networks — these days you can hardly go to a tournament without ten, fifteen, twenty English clubs having sent scouts there.”
So what’s the problem? “Where I have doubts is how they manage the information they get,” he argues. “I mean they have the information, there’s just a short circuit in terms of the way they manage it. They have such good information databases, but they’re just not using them right.”
With Premier League domestic television income now coming out at £1.6 billion per season, I fear they might not need to. Yet I’m surprised by how unthreatened Monchi seems by English clubs’ new-found wealth. “In the end, football is a reflection of normal life, no?” he muses. “If you have money, you can choose not to work. If you don’t have money, you have to get to work, and Spanish clubs like us have to work to bridge the gap with English clubs.
“I think we’re starting to copy what English football is up to, and little by little we’re getting closer to them. They stole a march on us a few years ago, they’ve been really intelligent tapping into the Asian market the way they have. Spain is now trying to do the same thing. I think we’ll do it bit by bit, and bit by bit the divide will start narrowing.”
There’s one more thing on my mind. Sevilla don’t just have the financial might of European teams to contend with; Europe’s two most valuable clubs currently occupy first and second spot in La Liga. And despite five European titles in ten years, Sevilla have been champions of Spain only once: in 1946. How can a club run on profits break with the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, two juggernauts quite happy to keep racking up huge losses? Monchi pauses, staring into the middle distance.
“It’s really not easy,” he sighs. “It doesn’t just depend on you being at 100 per cent, it depends on those two not being at 100 per cent. I know it’s going to be difficult but one day I hope it does happen. If we’d had this interview twelve years ago and you’d told me to imagine Sevilla winning five Europa Leagues, I’d say you were dreaming. Now I’ll tell you the same, it’s a dream, a difficult dream. But we’ve already achieved things we never could have dreamed of.”
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