There were no fans inside the ground alongside the Rhine but still the noise was constant and as the semi-final entered the final minutes, the familiar sound of the Sevilla anthem rang round. At first it was sung by what they have started to call The Suplentes Supporters’ Club: subs, coaching staff, doctors, physios and a handful of directors, the president Pepe Castro included. But then, when the final whistle went, securing victory over Manchester United and a place in Friday’s Europa League final against Internazionale in Cologne, the players on the pitch joined them, everyone singing together.
The first time Castro or anyone heard the song was in his car 18 years ago. Then the vice-president, someone was waiting for him as he left work; long hair held in a wide bandana, T-shirt ripped, jeans torn. He introduced himself as El Arrebato and said he had written an anthem for Sevilla’s centenary. Send it to the club, Castro said, keen to shake off this unknown. But El Arrebato, real name Javier Labandón, insisted and that evening he was at the Sánchez Pizjuán, holding a CD.
“We got in the car, put it on and the hairs on my arms stood up. I could have died,” Castro says. He locked the CD in the stadium safe – the centenary was still three years away – and when it came out again there were no doubts. “There were other entries, lovely songs, but it won the vote 14-1,” Castro adds. “And, no, I won’t tell you who the one was.”
Released in 2005 and belted out before every game, and belted out on the bus to every game, Castro says it was a huge hit. No 1 in 2005 and still No 2 in 2006, it was the soundtrack to Sevilla’s success, their identity, quickly feeling like it had always been there. Sung on television by Wissam Ben Yedder the last time they beat United, it was carried across Europe. That was the Champions League, but it is the Europa League that made them. “In this competition the club is transformed,” Castro says.
Sevilla had not won anything in 50 years until the Uefa Cup in 2006. In 2007 they won it again. And again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Now, four years on, they are seeking their sixth. No team has reached more European finals this century. It is “their” cup.
They have scored last-minute goals, none more poignant now than by the late Antonio Puerta in the 2006 semi-final; won shootouts; survived sieges; staged comebacks – even against their city rivals – and somehow always found a way through. In the semi against United, the goalkeeper Yassine Bounou gave them the edge; in the semi against Shaktar 13 years earlier it was the goalkeeper Andrés Palop – with a header. There is something almost mystic about it.
There may also be something basic: they win it because they want to. Castro talks about passion, humility and ambition, but realism too. Sevilla built an identity through this competition and gave it meaning in turn, not just a gateway but glory. “No one,” Castro says, “has ‘bet on’ the Europa League like us. Our budget is not even €200m when others have €500m, €600m, €700m. The reality is this competition is made to measure, more our size, and we want to win.”
Unai Emery recalled how he was told that Champions League qualification is all well and good but nothing compares to competing for trophies. That is the point, not targets.
“It’s fundamental to be in the Champions League but you may go many times and never touch silver; with the clubs there, it’s virtually impossible,” Castro admits. “And touching that metal, holding the cup, is unique. You can’t explain it in words or write it on a piece of paper. Every single player who comes here, the president shows him the Europa Leagues [replica trophies] and says we need more. Together we grow, filling that cabinet with history.”
Players changed: 39 men have started their five finals. Managers, too, from Juande Ramos and Emery to Julen Lopetegui. Even the president. But Sevilla kept coming back. There were different goalkeepers in 2014, 2015 and 2106 – Beto, Sergio Rico, David Soria – and only two starters from 2014 were still there two years later: Carrico and Vitolo
This time Jesús Navas will play – he was there in 2006 and 2007 – but Éver Banega is the only man left from 2016. Of the starting XI against United, only two were there last season, the sporting director Monchi building an entirely new team – 15 players departing, 14 arriving. There was a new manager too, Lopetegui handed the task of making it work. After the experience of Spain and Real Madrid, he needed to succeed, Monchi said.
He has. They all have, a team built in record time., perhaps, the captain Navas has suggested, aided by the pandemic: third in La Liga and another Europa league final. “There was unfounded criticism,” Castro says. “But Monchi proposed Julen and in five minutes you could see. He fits our idiosyncrasies perfectly. He saw the trophies and said: ‘We have to add to those.’ We must be doing something right to knock out Roma, Wolves and United – whose budget is four times ours. We’re the only Spanish team left. The rest are starting a new season; we haven’t finished this one.”
“At full-time I thought of the fans who weren’t there,” Castro continues. “Sevilla is owned and run by sevillistas, who live and die for it. You give your ability, your work, but above all your love. The president had a season ticket behind the north goal for 14 years. Almost all the staff are fans; there’s never a ‘no’. There’s a photo of our director of communications, member No 378 [of more than 40,000], fists in the air. We’re all singing, shouting. We’re a bit ‘mad’.
“If the subs, staff and directors have to fill the void, 30 of us for 50,000, we’ll try. We’ll sing the Arrebato. There can’t be more than 25, 30 people but in the silence of the stadium, believe me, the players hear it. They feel it. In the end what matters is making people happy, especially at this time. That’s priceless.”