Sevilla talisman Banega leaves with Europa League trophy, legacy intact

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At the end of the longest season there has ever been, with 2019-20 still going on when others were starting 2020-21, Sevilla FC manager Julen Lopetegui broke down and the tears flowed. And don’t think for a moment that he was the only one. Sevilla, somehow, had gone and done it again — just as they always do. The UEFA Cup, the Europa League, call it what you like, it’s theirs. A dramatic 3-2 win over Internazionale means Sevilla have never lost a final; they have never even reached the quarters and not won it. The Sevilla Cup — that’s better — came home. “No one wants it like we do,” the message said in the dressing room, and so it was.

For the sixth time — almost a third of all those played this century — Sevilla won it. They won it in 2006, 2007, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2020. Six adorned the T-shirts they had made. On them were the late Antonio Puerta, winner in 2006 and 2007, scorer of the late, late goal that saw them through in his second season. And the late Jose Antonio Reyes, the man who has won this competition more times than anyone else, the kid who cried when he first left Sevilla and who came back again years later. Just in case anyone doubted what this meant.

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At the end of a long, dramatic night, a final that was absurdly good fun, where the 40 people in the stands tried to be 40,000 and fill a void it is impossible to fill, the club’s anthem ringing around an otherwise empty area, Jesus Navas lifted the UEFA Cup trophy — and what a beautiful trophy it is. It is his third, 13 years after his second. And still he goes. He went away for a long time. When he came back, everything had changed but this. Something about Sevilla remains, their relationship with the competition that has been the making of them. The competition they have helped make in turn.

Navas is but one. Forty-nine players have won six Europa League titles for Sevilla, and that’s just the starters in each of those finals. There’s something almost mystical about this club in this competition. And so there, as if by magic, they were celebrating again. Another victory against another club much bigger than them when it comes to objective measures. But then who cares about that? Sevilla do more with less.

Along the way, there have been three coaches, two presidents, and only one sporting director — of course. A long way away Ivan Rakitic, a winner in 2014, threw himself into a swimming pool to celebrate. Sevilla does that to you. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

In Cologne, Germany, they all celebrated. Diego Carlos, scorer of the overhead kick that won it and responsible, he remembered, for the goals that almost didn’t win it, was crying. His partner, too often overlooked, had cleared one off the line. Now Jules Kounde, with his New York ’80s aesthetic, bounced about beaming. Sergio Reguilon sat on the pitch, phone in his hand, a lump in his throat. Luuk de Jong, the scorer of “almost goals” all season, had scored two actual goals when it really mattered. Three, in fact, if you count the semifinal, which you really should.

Lopetegui, a substitute goalkeeper for so much of his playing career — a man who knows, in other words — sat and spoke to Tomas Vacik, the man who had lost his place to Bono.

“I was always in the boat even when I didn’t play,” Bono said. Now, he had saved them, cheered by the man he has usurped. In the stands, directors embraced. The press officer, a club member going back 45 years, heading to the ground on his moped weekly, roared. So did season the member number 2020 — the year — and Aug. 21 — the date: Sevilla had been allowed to invite 25 fans, which was impossible so they invited those two in representation of the rest.

There is an old photo of Julen Lopetegui. In it, his dad, a champion Basque stone lifter, raises his siblings into the air. At his side stands little Julen. This time, many, many years later, his players lifted him, throwing him toward the sky. If a picture paints a thousand words, a thousand pictures paint … well, a lot, but still not enough. There’s one, simpler shot, that says something a little special. Navas and Ever Banega sit together with their backs to the camera while Escudero stands above them with the Reyes and Puerta shirt. Between them, the trophy that they have won three times each: in 2006, 2006, 2015, 2016, and 2020.

Navas can come back for more — although Sevilla are in the Champions League next season, having outgrown their own competition — but Banega can’t. This was his last night and it was the way that he would have wanted it. The way, in fact, that he said it would be. At the start of the 2020, he announced that he was going to Saudi Arabia. After a decade taking it seriously, under all that pressure, it was time to go, he said. But he would not stop until he stopped, he said. He would not down tools early. “I trust him,” Lopetegui said. And he was absolutely right to do so.

One day when he was at the petrol station many years ago, Banega left the handbrake off on his car. As he headed into the shop, he saw it roll away. A footballer, always about the touch, the control, he tried to stop it with his foot. For the first — and probably the last — time, he did not succeed, breaking his ankle. Another day he turned up at training by foot. A few hundred yards up the road, his car was on fire. There was the internet chat room where he revealed a little more than he should have. Accusations about how he looked after himself, what he did with his spare time.

But, boy, could he play. Better than others. And at Sevilla, he found a place to do that. There was something about him that they liked: redemption, that central arc of all great narratives in sport, was his specialty. They seemed to like the fact that he could be seen as flawed; they liked the fact that he was a footballer — and what a footballer — even more. It was good, but not perfect, which was better.

He went to Italy and back: it wasn’t right there, but it was right here. Atletico Madrid, Valencia, they were fine (well, sort of), but they were not the same. With time, he felt that he belonged in Seville, the club that doesn’t just sign players better than anyone else but settles them better than anyone else too.

The vision, the passing, the quality never left him. That sense that he belongs to another age, that he, unlike many, was playing when he played. If anything, those qualities were enhanced with age, the decision-making improving. The maturity too, but with a hint of rebellion still. They will have enjoyed the way his final game ended with the trophy — and also the way he confronted Inter boss Antonio Conte, gesturing to say: Let’s see if that hair is real. That’s the way it should be too. A touch of something else, earthier.

Banega’s football was real, always. He played and made them play too. “Sevilla play well when Banega plays well,” Lopetegui rightly said. He was man of the match in the final in 2015 and again in 2016. He led. Not shouting, not shaking his fist, but with football. There was something about him that drove the group, too. It was a controversy when a barbecue he was at the heart of showed that Sevilla’s players might not have observed all he lockdown rules — and inevitably some presented it as another chapter of many for Banega — but there was also a different reading: a togetherness, a collective, that he promoted.

When he went, it might have broken. He agreed to go to Saudi Arabia. After a decade at the top in Europe, it was time to step back. The offer was too good to refuse. But not so good as to let everything go while he waited. No way. Some doubted him. Some doubted Sevilla. Why play a man more out than in? The answer was simple: because he was still in, and precisely because he was going to be gone soon he was even more “in” than others, even more “in” than he had ever been. He would do everything to depart the right way. He insisted, they insisted. So he did.

Easy to say, but he proved it. After lockdown he played every game but one. While some players walked out on their clubs post COVID-19, he didn’t: he signed a short-term deal to see out his final season, which shouldn’t have been his final season at all. And he played, and he led, and he was as good as his word. Oh, and he will be missed. And how. No one really plays like Ever Banega. “I have told him he can’t go,” Fernando said. But on Friday night he did; he departed Sevilla with the Sevilla cup in hand.

“I am saying goodbye the way I deserve,” he said. The rest of us wish he wasn’t, but what a way to go.