Mark SochonComment

UNDERSTANDING SEVILLA'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE EUROPA LEAGUE

Mark SochonComment
UNDERSTANDING SEVILLA'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE EUROPA LEAGUE

For some clubs, certain competitions have come almost to determine their identity. For Real Madrid, the European Cup will always be number one, the competition that matters above else and that is why if they beat Atléti in Milan later this month, their disappointing overall season will suddenly be held in high esteem. For Juventus it’s the Scudetto, while historically at least the FA Cup has always been a competition of special significance for Tottenham.

For Sevilla, it is Europe’s secondary competition that has grown to have an incredibly special place in hearts of Sevillistas. Like most of the other stories, their fondness for the Europa League was initially brought about by winning it, which they did for the first time in 2006. However when captain Javi Navarro lifted, what was then the UEFA Cup in Eindhoven, not even the most fanatical of Sevilla fans could have dreamt that only a decade on they’d be back in the final aiming to win the competition for the fifth time.

In the grand scheme of a club that is 126 years old, Sevilla’s romance with this competition is still very much in its infancy yet they’ve already won it more times than any other club. They’ll become the first team since the great Real Madrid side of the late 1950s to have won a European competition five times in the space of just ten years if they can see of Liverpool in Basel on Wednesday. It’d also be the first time a club has won the same European competition in three successive seasons since Bayern Munich won the European Cup three years running between 1974 and 1976.

It would be a phenomenal achievement and Sevilla’s success in the competition might finally start to get the recognition it deserves in an era when public attention is dominated by the big stage and big money of the Champions League while Europe’s secondary competition has had to deal with its fair share of detractors. You won’t find any in Seville though. They are one of the best modern examples of a club that realises its limitations, sets realistic targets and more often than not achieves them.

To understand how Sevilla came to reign supreme in the Europa League you need to understand Spanish football’s rigid pecking order. Unlike the Premier League, TV money is not split evenly in Spain and the majority is gulped up by the two superpowers in Madrid and Barcelona so it’s no surprise that between them, they’ve won 11 of the last 12 trophies and only twice during that period have the top two positions not consisted of both Barcelona and Real Madrid.

In the current era, Atlético have performed something close to a miracle by pushing the big two for such a prolonged period but it remains almost impossible for even the other big clubs such as Athletic, Valencia or Sevilla, who have only ever won the league once, to compete.

There is only one cup competition, which although obviously easier to win than the league, is still seeded to favour the big clubs early on and its two-legged nature in every round up until the final reduces the chances of shock results.

The point being that at some time in the mid 2000s, at a time when the gap between the big two and the rest in Spain was really starting to grow following the end of a brief era where the likes of Deportivo and Valencia won La Liga, Sevilla made the decision that the UEFA Cup was their best shot at silverware.

Under Juande Ramos they found the winning formula in a competition with a recently extended format that meant stamina and the ability to juggle the demands of league and European football would be key. Over the years, Sevilla have done that better than anyone, frequently rotating in the group stages but invariably doing just enough to get through and then really targeting the competition in the knock-out phase often at the expense of their league form.

Ramos broke Sevilla’s European duck in his first season at the club with a 4-0 final win over Middlesbrough with a side based around a very solid defence but one that also boasted plenty of flare with the likes of youngsters Dani Alves and Jesus Navas providing a real threat from out wide while Javier Saviola and Luis Fabiano formed a formidable strike partnership.

That Sevilla side was arguably the best of their four to have lifted the UEFA Cup or Europa League but they found themselves in it again the next year having missed out on Champions League qualification by a single point in La Liga, in no small part down to their exertions on the continent.

If there was any disappointment about that, it was quickly banished when Sevilla successfully defended their UEFA Cup crown the following season with a penalty shoot-out win over Espanyol at Hampden Park. However the by the end of the summer, Sevilla had been struck by a tragedy that has added a sombre element to the club’s relationship with the competition.

Antonio Puerta, Sevilla’s hometown hero who’d converted the winning spot-kick in Glasgow just three months earlier, suffered a series of cardiac arrests during an early season league game with Getafe. He died three days later at the age of just 22.

The tragedy has unquestionably played a big part in Sevilla’s determination to continue doing themselves justice in the competition and Puerta, who had also featured in the 2006 final was the subject of many tributes when Sevilla won the trophy for the third time in 2014 with another penalty shoot-out win against Benfica in Turin and again last year in Warsaw when they got the better of Dnipro in Warsaw.

The promising defender, whose finest hour came in the final of this competition will clearly be on the minds of everyone connected with the club again when they take on Liverpool in what is likely to be the toughest final Sevilla have faced during their golden era in the competition.

The Reds, while also hungry for silverware, may see the match as primarily an opportunity to secure Champions League football next season. While clearly, Unai Emery’s Sevilla wouldn’t sniff at another crack at Europe’s premier club competition, the game is about much more than that for the Spaniards.

The club’s success in the competition has become a real source of pride to fans of the Andalusian club. During a decade of incredible strife in a region, which only last year was ranked as having the highest unemployment percentage in all of the European Union with around 35% of the population out of work, Sevilla Fútbol Club has been a beacon of hope.

They have defied the odds to topple clubs across Europe with bigger budgets with remarkable consistency, despite regularly losing their best players. This time last year, fans poured into the city’s old streets and historic plazas to celebrate a victory over a relatively unknown side from Ukraine before celebrating long into the night by the city’s Puerta de Jerez.

To put it bluntly it wasn’t six matches in the Champions League group stage and a bit more cash for the club’s coffers they were rejoicing at. It was that once again Sevilla had reigned supreme and clinched a European trophy and that yet another glorious chapter in the club’s golden era had been written.

If they beat Liverpool on Wednesday, that will be nine trophies in the space of a decade for a club that had only won four major pieces of silverware in over 100 years prior to that. Anyone who doubts that the Europa League means anything might want to spend Wednesday evening in Seville and witness what will be one hell of a party should they clinch a historic 5th title.

Mark is a Spanish football writer based in Barcelona. You can find him on twitter @tikitakagol.

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