Sevilla can't match LaLiga giants' spending power, but the club's heart and Monchi's genius have them closer to the title than ever

In 2000, Sevilla was relegated to the Spanish second division after Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo (a former goalkeeper) was appointed as the club's sporting director. He recalls that his task was to create a youth academy and establish a new scouting network in Spain.
21 years later, Monchi, better known as Monchi, is still a top-notch professional in his field. Sevilla, who was first asked to return to the top flight in 2001, is now a genuine contender in this highly competitive title race in Europe.

Last season, Sevilla, which won their first ever LaLiga title back in 1946, was a tantalizingly close second. With four games remaining, they were still in contention but a draw at Real Madrid ended their hopes. They finished fourth with 77 points, their highest ever total -- two points behind Barcelona.

Since Monchi's time at Sevilla, the club has grown steadily. Espanyol hosts Monchi on Saturday (12:30 p.m.). ET, stream live via ESPN+) -- Monchi, who spent his entire career at Sevilla, was primarily a backup goalkeeper and took over a backroom position. He was surprised at how unexpected it turned out to be. Although he had intended to be a lawyer, he would not have been able to take on the role of sporting director. The club from Spain's hot south has won six Europa Leagues since he was appointed in 2000. They also won two Copas del Reys, which is a record.

This has led to increased expectations. Five years ago, Real Madrid and Barcelona were untouchable. They now look weak. Barca lost Lionel Messi this summer, and both Madrid's centre backs, Sergio Ramos (and Raphael Varane) have also left. Atletico Madrid, reigning champions, remain strong but have struggled to win this season. They draw with Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao, and get beaten by 10-man Getafe.

Sevilla has a chance of winning the league or breaking up the big three, but Monchi acknowledges that the demands are changing.

He tells ESPN that when he started in the second division, there were high expectations, but not today. Because we were in the second league, there was a greater margin for growth. Sevilla is a team with demands that are almost as high as Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico in 2021. We are a team that doesn't allow for mistakes. A loss is a tragedy. We have become a team in which losing is a common occurrence.

- ESPN+ viewers' guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more

Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. Only)

- Do you not have ESPN? Get instant access

Sevilla doesn't seem to lose too much these days. This season, they have not lost in six of their competitions. They started their Champions League campaign with a 1-1 draw against FC Salzburg. On Wednesday, they defeated Valencia, a rival, 3-1. Rafa Mir, a new signing, scored the third goal.

Spanish striker, Juan Carlos Alvarez, has joined to help Youssefen-Nesyri. En-Nesyri was a Morocco international who scored 24 goals last year. The club's talented Argentines Lucas Ocampos, Papu Gomez and captain Ivan Rakitic, both in their second stints, provide the necessary support. Julen Lopetegui has no star players, although Jules Kounde, the defender, has been a target for Chelsea and Manchester City. However there are quality and depth at each position.

Rakitic told ESPN that this season could be a great opportunity for many teams, not just Sevilla. "I don’t believe you can say this season that there will be a champion 10, 15 ahead. It will be close, possibly even to the fifth or sixth positions.

Jose Castro is a president with loftier goals than the sixth.

He explained that there is a line in the club's hymn that says "Sevilla never give in," in an interview with ESPN at their training ground. "We never give up. We strive to do the best. We are that way. This is the strength, that feeling of Sevilla to never give in and to strive for all things.

Sevilla's achievements over the last decade raise the question: Is winning LaLiga the goal this season?

Monchi states that Atletico Madrid, Madrid and Barcelona should win La Liga because they have the largest budgets. The rest of the teams must do the same and try to be as high as they can. Sevilla's goal doesn't necessarily have to be winning league. That level of demand is still not quite there. It can lead to frustration if you set too high a bar in terms of goals.

"Sevilla has ambitions. This is why we have grown so much but it has always been a club that stays on the ground.

Sevilla has been home to some of the most important players in the game, such as Diego Maradona. Diego Simeone, Atletico's coach, was also a member of the club's team and a friend of Monchi. Simeone has shown Atletico the way to break the Spanish duopoly. Simeone, nicknamed "Cholo", still believes that LaLiga is actually two leagues. Madrid and Barca are in one league; the rest in another.

Monchi smiles and says, "Maybe there are two leagues." But Cholo would tell me that Atletico is also in the other league. Cholo, smart and intelligent as he is. He just wants to relieve some of the pressure.

President Castro is more open-minded. President Castro is less squeamish.

He says, "We all know how difficult it is to win a highly competitive league with powerful side like Barca Madrid, Atletico and Madrid, which dwarfs our budget." It's true, however, that we had a chance last season when we reached the final four games.

"Sevilla has always dreamed of achieving the greatest sporting success, with a budget that is lower than other teams. Let's take, for instance, our Europa League trophy. In the final, we beat Inter, Manchester United, and Roma. These were all teams with a larger budget. We won the title. We can do more with less. That's what I believe. We don't have the financial resources to build a better team, but what about our dream? All. You can win it all. Each year, we learn more and are able to achieve greater things. We are ambitious, humble, but ambitious.

"We will always win everything because of that."

Is Sevilla the secret to their success? Can they compete with Spain's largest clubs for LaLiga glory in 2021-22?? DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Castro and Monchi both point out that staying in the top four each year is the only way for Spain to close the gap to the top three. Although the club's Europa League success is well-recognized, it doesn't have the same financial impact as being in Champions League. When Sevilla won the Europa League in 2019-20, they generated 34.5m. Valencia, Spain's fourth team in the Champions League, was awarded 60.8m that same year for reaching the 16th round of Europe's elite club competition.

Sevilla is not the only one trying to climb LaLiga. Atletico are a new competitor for Madrid and Barca under Simeone. The battle to be a major four in Spain is ongoing. Valencia has had 11 top-four finishes since 2000. Six top-four finishes are held by Sevilla, one more than Deportivo La Coruna. However, three of those came in the last five years. Monchi refers to Villarreal and Valencia as their competitors, while Sevilla is the side that's knocking at the door.

Castro said, "Every year we get better." "We have had two consecutive seasons of finishing in the top four, and we need to have four or five consecutive years to increase our chances [LaLiga] winning.

Monchi is more responsible when there's more money. Monchi, 53 years old, is known as a transfer expert. Smart and streetwise, he has contributed to numerous Europa League victories. He has a gift for finding players that bigger teams might not be willing to take a chance on. In many cases, they help Sevilla before being moved on to other teams for large fees. Monchi receives the cash to buy another diamond.

Monchi's current recruitment team has 15 members, or 35 if you add the club's data department. They work round the clock. His phone never stops buzzing during his interview with ESPN. Although he acknowledges that it is time-consuming, he says he is obsessed with the game as well as his job. His best signings include Dani Alves, who rose to stardom at Barca, and Ever Banega, a talented but struggling midfielder from Argentina that never fulfilled his potential before moving to Sevilla in 2014.

He says it is easier to convince players to sign up. Potential signings are sold on the city's charm, its colourful, noisy, and charming atmosphere. It is the fourth largest city in Spain, and also hosts LaLiga side Betis. The climate and lifestyle attract players. The food and architecture are also attractive, with the Giralda bell Tower rising above the cathedral, Royal Alcazar palace, and gardens. These are the locations featured in Game of Thrones. He also sells the club. It helps to win trophies and get word of mouth from current and former players.

He says, "It's not hard because Sevilla is well-known now, it's a football map across the globe." He also reminds players that they can make the "jump to a top, high club" if they have the right money and time. This has been true with Rakitic and Alves, who joined Barcelona together with Navas, who went to Manchester City, and Ramos who signed for Real Madrid.

Sevilla refused to let go of their stars this summer, however. They rejected a bid for Kounde from Chelsea, a player Monchi names as one of his most treasured finds. Castro and Monchi both dispute that the rejection is a change of policy.

Castro states that there is a clear process and when a player cannot be sold for more money than we believe fair, they have to be sold because we can use the money to invest in improving their game. We have Monchi and his staff and they can bring in young players who will give sporting performances. Later, they may sell. Kounde was offered a huge amount, but he is a fantastic player with great potential. We feel he could be worth more. He will be part of our team this season and a key part in achieving our sporting goals. Next season? God will decide."

Monchi says, "It wasn't a strategy in terms 'we are not going to sell any player and we're going win the league. We didn't sell Jules as the offer and amount received didn't appeal to us. Sevilla has always grown through the sale of players, and I don’t think we will abandon this philosophy.

"Kounde is a 22-year-old kid. He still has a lot of room for growth. He is an outstanding player and a great person. While I don't know his value, the market will determine the price, but I'm here not to put up a "Kounde for Sale" sign. If Kounde is forced to leave, another player will be available. But, if that happens, we will continue to enjoy him here.

Sevilla, as well as Kounde, have been strengthened. To add youth and experience to the squad, Mir, Gonzalo Montiel and Thomas Delaney joined. Lopetegui, an ex-coach in Madrid and Spain, is now in his third season. He brings continuity to the club and Rakitic, who has won everything with Barca, knows exactly what it takes to get there.

Rakitic responds, "I think sometimes you don’t have to think too hard. Just try to work a lot then try to enjoy." Rakitic was asked if Sevilla could crack the top three. We don't need to put pressure on ourselves, it comes with it. It's enough. We will do our best to get there.

Sevilla chose to keep Jules Kounde at Sanchez Pizjuan despite a Chelsea transfer offer late in the season. David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

"But we know it will take a long time and nobody will buy you presents. You have to do 100% of your work. We can hopefully be stronger in those critical moments, even though it was the most successful season in club history. You can see that it is not enough to have the best season. It takes more.

"You already know what it is. It's very similar to Barcelona. After my first season at Barca, when we won all the titles [at Barca], I can recall that they wanted it back the next season. It's the same here. They expect that this season will be even more successful than the previous. We know this because it's the way it is.

Fans of Sevilla missed last season's record-breaking points total; stadiums were empty because of the pandemic. They are back and this year they bring with them one of Spanish football’s greatest sights, the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, named after their former president. It plays the club's famous anthem. Castro frequently referenced the song in his interview with ESPN, as he tried to explain why Sevilla is special.

Castro says, "The club's true identity is written in its anthem. I think it is the best in this world." Castro says that the lyrics and music were written by a Sevilla fan who was able to feel it. "Never lose heart, Sevilla is special, maximum The people are the driving force behind the club, and only good things can happen with them."

To have this sentimiento, you don't need to live in the same area. Rakitic, a Croatian international, returned to Barcelona after six years. He is now an adopted Sevillista. Castro and Monchi were born and raised on the club. Right-back Navas was also a Sevillista, but he returned to Croatia after a period of time.

Castro actually believes Monchi is better because he works at the club he loves. This argument is bolstered by the fact that he was lured back to Roma after a short spell in 2019, rejecting Arsenal.

Monchi smiles and says, "He's probably correct." "To me, working for Sevilla is more that a job. Sevilla is my life. Sevilla is the reason I'm so successful at all levels. First and foremost, I was a big Sevilla fan. Because I am a huge Sevilla fan, it is easy for me to give more when I'm at my club. It also comes from my heart.