By Rory Smith
Monchi has a spare half-hour, just after 8 p.m., after one meeting has finished and another has not yet started. The original plan had been to go for dinner, but it is summer, and Monchi’s plans change a lot in the summer.
Even his spare 30 minutes, it turns out, are not really spare. This is the busiest time of year for Monchi, Sevilla’s sporting director, who oversees all of the club’s transfer business. The reason he cannot go for dinner is that, as we speak, he is closing a deal to sell the Colombian striker Luis Muriel to the Italian club Atalanta.
Monchi, whose full name is Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, has set his phone on the desk in front of him: an act of common courtesy, proof that it is not a distraction, though also one that just happens to make the screen easier to read. It vibrates constantly.
There is a steady stream of calls, but a torrent of messages, mainly on WhatsApp. Increasingly, this is how transfers are negotiated — the first sight of a contract or an offer for a player will be over WhatsApp — and it is Monchi’s preferred method of communication. But its demands are Sisyphean.
In June, July and August, when the transfer market is open, he cannot keep up with the volume of messages he receives. By the time he has typed one reply, a dozen other messages have landed. He replies in flurries, but only to the most pressing ones. The vast majority go unread, swamped by more urgent arrivals.
He feels guilty about it: not just on a professional level, but on a personal one. A few days before our meeting, he was talking to the chairman of a club. They were talking about the frenzy of it all, these months when the soccer world reshapes itself, how it never stops, how there is never time for anything else, how you have to ignore everyone else in your life.
Nobody thrives in that environment quite so well as Monchi. Over the last two decades, he has built a reputation as one of the quickest talent spotters and sharpest deal makers in soccer. And yet the club chairman said something that stayed with him: “The transfer window,” he had said, “is a good time to lose friends.”
No team in Europe has played the transfer market quite as well, or as long, as Sevilla. Over the last 20 years or so, the club has made its name — and transformed its fortunes — through its ability to know not just whom to buy, but when to sell.
At the end of the 20th century, Sevilla was drowning in debt, languishing in Spain’s second tier and facing the very real prospect of having to sell its stadium, the atmospheric Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, and move as a tenant to the city’s Olympic Stadium just to survive. The 21st century has been kinder. Sevilla has won the Copa del Rey, the European Super Cup and the Spanish Super Cup and has made the Europa League its own, winning it five times since 2007.
When José Castro — now the club’s president — first joined the board in the early 2000s, the club’s annual budget was 18 million euros, about $20 million. Sitting in his office, its back wall lined with huge, shimmering trophies, he reports that this year it stands at 212 million euros, or about $235 million. He makes sure to credit the revival to “good management, not just on the field, but in every department.”
There is one department, though, that has carried more weight than most, the one that has been run, since he was appointed sporting director 20 years ago, by Monchi. The modern Sevilla is a club built on recruitment.
There are dozens of success stories, claims to fame. Some players, like Ivan Rakitic, Júlio Baptista and Clément Lenglet, were bought cheap and sold high, with Sevilla a steppingstone on the way to one of Europe’s superpowers. Others, like Luís Fabiano, Carlos Bacca and Frédéric Kanouté, enjoyed their best days here as unheralded signings who helped Sevilla not only contend for trophies but win them, too.
There are three transactions, though, that those inside the club discuss with particular pride.
The first is the one that started it all: the sale of José Antonio Reyes, a homegrown prospect, to Arsenal in 2004. The departure of Reyes was greeted with fury by fans, but it was unavoidable to get the club on sound economic footing. “It did not cancel our debt completely, but it made a big difference,” José María Cruz, the club’s chief executive, said.
The second is the one that made Monchi’s name. In the summer of 2003, Sevilla dispatched a scout to watch the South American under-20 championship. It was the only European club in attendance, and its representative raved to Monchi about an 18-year-old right back playing for Brazil. Dani Alves would go on to play for Barcelona, Juventus and Paris St.-Germain, and win some 40 trophies.
It is the third deal, though, that is perhaps most significant, that had the greatest impact on how Sevilla works in the transfer market today.
On Aug. 31, 2005, at 10:30 p.m., Monchi’s phone rang. Real Madrid, he was told, had paid the release clause in the contract of Sevilla’s young, locally reared defender Sergio Ramos.
Monchi had thought it “impossible” that Ramos would leave, so he and his team had not been scouting for central defenders. “We used to only work on finding new players for the positions that we thought we had to strengthen,” he said. With only a few minutes left to find a replacement before the transfer window closed, he had “nothing on my list, so I threw it to fate.”
He called a few contacts. Someone in Belgium, someone he trusted, recommended a Serb named Ivica Dragutinovic. Monchi had never seen him play. “I knew he was white, that’s it,” he said. He had nothing to lose. Sevilla bought him.
Dragutinovic spent seven years in Seville, winning six trophies. “We could have decided that all we should do is call that same person every time and ask for his recommendations,” Monchi said. “Or we could learn that we have to work more, to look in all positions, so that it never happens again.”
Scouting, and Rescouting
Sevilla’s scouts sit in an office on the second floor of the office building at the club’s training facility. In the summer, it tends to be quiet. Only a half-dozen desks are occupied. It is not exactly downtime, said Jesus Olivera, who coordinates the work of the team’s 10 full-time scouts, but the frenzy that envelops Monchi’s phone at this time of year does not really extend into this room. The scouts’ work already is done.
It started almost a year ago. At the start of the season, each scout is given his assignments: one major league (France, Italy, Brazil, Germany and so on) to cover forensically; two leagues from the second tier (countries like Poland and Colombia) to monitor more cursorily; and a handful of minor nations (Peru, Bolivia) where, as Olivera said, “most of the best players will be in the youth national teams or playing in continental competition, so we just watch those.”
The system works like this: The scouts watch the first few match days from their assigned countries on television. Only when they have a shortlist of players who have caught their eye will they travel to see them in person. Each scouted player is given a grade, ranging from A (sign him now) to D (a gentle but firm pass). Anyone ranking A or B is subject to more detailed analysis on video.
In October, the scouts are called together for a meeting. There, they must present a full team of players from the leagues they are following, organized by position, with every slot filled — the lesson of Ramos’s exit. From those fictional squads, the club will build an ideal team of replacements, drawn from every league it monitors.
This is not, Olivera said, fantasy soccer. It is adjusted for financial reality. For example, Sevilla’s Portuguese scout had spotted João Félix, that country’s latest transcendental teenage star, playing for Benfica last season. It became clear, fairly quickly, that bigger, richer clubs would want him, so he was omitted from Sevilla’s ideal team of recruits.
Once that team has been assembled, the scouts are scrambled, each given new jurisdictions. “That way, it is a universal opinion, not just the view of one scout,” Olivera said. The ideal teams, tracked on the club’s customized internal server, change continually as reports and grades keep flowing in, and players drift in and out of form. All the information is kept, though: Sevilla cannot afford to sign players at the peak of their value; often, it will wait for a dip in an otherwise impressive track record to pounce.
By March, the scouts have assembled a list of around 200 names. Over the next month or so, Monchi and his staff will filter them, eliminating those who might prove too expensive or too hard to extricate or who reports suggest might be troublesome characters, until, in April or May, there is a list of eight or nine players for each position. Only then is it time for Monchi to pick up his phone.
Monchi at Work
Even by Monchi’s standards, it has been a busy summer. He returned to Sevilla in March, after two years at Roma. Fairly quickly, he realized a major overhaul was needed.
First was a new manager: Starting with a list of 25 names, he slowly whittled down his candidates until he identified the former Spain and Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui. That had to be the starting point: Lopetegui does not sign the players, but he is asked for input at every stage. “If he says he wants a defender who is tough, then I go to the list and say of these 10, six have this characteristic,” Monchi said.
Only after Lopetegui was in place could the rebuild begin. By mid-July, the scale of Monchi’s changes had become clear. Sevilla had signed 12 players, committing nearly 100 million euros in fees (about $111 million).
The acquisitions carried all of his hallmarks: three signed from France, a league Monchi likes because of its competitive balance. Another, Óliver Torres, a Spaniard once considered a shining talent at Atlético Madrid, had drifted to Portugal in the last couple of years. Joan Jordán joined from the tiny Spanish club Eibar, while Sergio Reguilón arrived on loan from Real Madrid. Monchi likes players with the hunger to step up, or those prepared to step down to prove a point.
Several had pushed their previous clubs to agree to a sale. That is one advantage Sevilla has found it has in negotiations, an edge gleaned through its reputation: Its interest is a seal of approval. “The word ‘Sevilla’ opens doors with agents and with families,” said Emilio de Dios, the club’s technical secretary, adding, “When you can show them our internal system with 25 reports on them, each of them Grade A, they know that we are serious.”
There had to be sales, of course, to balance things out, including that of the winger, Pablo Sarabia, for Paris St.-Germain, but there was little unrest among the fans, no existential anxiety inside the club.
“There are clubs that think a sale will jeopardize their performance on the field,” said Cruz, the chief executive. “We are calm. If an offer arrives, it is natural. We don’t cry. We are conscious of our position relative to richer clubs. And the fans have seen in the past few years that the replacements will be just as good.”
They trust the quality of the work the scouts do. Monchi has proved, time and again, that Sevilla can sell and buy and emerge stronger at the end of it. Nobody knows the market better than he does; nobody works it better than Sevilla.
And yet when Monchi is asked his secret, his answer has nothing to do with transfers, with scouting, with deals. What has transformed the club built on transfers is not what happens during the summer, but what happens afterward.
It is the club the players find, the environment they come into — one that “obliges them to give their all” — and the way they are nurtured and encouraged and allowed to flourish.
Monchi has seen almost all of the players he has signed over the years leave Sevilla, too. It is the way they have left that tells him why he has been so successful. “How many have left criticizing the club?” he said. “None. Ask Rakitic and Dragutinovic and Daniel and all the others if they are still Sevillistas. They’ll say yes.”