When Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, a former goalkeeper, was appointed Sevilla’s sporting director in 2000, the club had just been relegated into the Spanish second division for the second time in three years. His task, he remembers, was to develop the youth academy and implement a new scouting network outside of Spain.

Twenty-one years later, the man better known as Monchi is one of the best in his field and Sevilla, who returned to the top flight at the first time of asking in 2001, can be considered genuine contenders in what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive title races in Europe this season.

Sevilla, who won their only ever LaLiga title in 1946, came tantalisingly close last season. They were still in contention with four games to go when a 2-2 draw away at Real Madrid effectively ended their hopes. They eventually finished fourth with 77 points — their highest-ever tally — two points behind Barcelona.

The club has been continually growing since Monchi, who spent his whole career at Sevilla — who host Espanyol on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) — mainly as a backup goalkeeper, took on a backroom role. It was more something that happened than he had planned. He had studied to become a lawyer, but the sporting director role would change both his and Sevilla’s trajectories. Since he took that job in 2000, the club from Spain’s sweltering south have won a record six Europa Leagues and two — of five in total — Copas del Rey.

That, of course, has increased expectations. Barcelona and Real Madrid looked untouchable five years ago. Now they look vulnerable. Barca lost Lionel Messi in the summer and both Madrid’s centre-backs, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, also moved on. Atletico Madrid, the reigning champions, have remained strong, but they have not convinced yet this season, drawing with Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao and struggling to beat 10-man Getafe.

It feels like Sevilla may never get a better chance to win the league, or at least break up the big three — who have shared the past 17 titles between them, dating back to Valencia’s triumph in 2004 — and Monchi admits the demands are changing.

“When I started, in the second division, there was big expectation but not like today,” he tells ESPN. “The margin to grow was much bigger because we were in the second division. Now, in 2021, Sevilla are a team that has demands almost [as big as] Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico. [We’re a] team where there’s no room for mistakes; a defeat is a tragedy. We’ve become a team where losing is a synonym of crisis.”

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Luckily, Sevilla don’t lose much these days. They haven’t lost in six games in all competitions this season. Their Champions League campaign began with a 1-1 draw against FC Salzburg last week and on Wednesday they beat Valencia, a rival for a top-four spot, 3-1. New signing Rafa Mir scored the third goal.

The Spanish striker has arrived to take some of the weight off Youssef En-Nesyri’s shoulders, the Morocco international who scored 24 goals last season. They’re supplied by talented Argentines Lucas Ocampos and Papu Gomez, while captain Ivan Rakitic and Jesus Navas, both in their second spells at the club, bring experience. There are no real star names in coach Julen Lopetegui’s squad — although defender Jules Kounde has courted interest from Manchester City and Chelsea — but there is quality and depth in each position.

“Maybe this season is a big opportunity [not just for Sevilla] but for many teams,” Rakitic tells ESPN. “I don’t think you can say that this season there will be a champion 10, 15 points in front. I think it will be very close, maybe even down to fifth and sixth position.”

President Jose Castro has loftier ambitions than sixth.

“There’s a line in our hymn that says ‘Sevilla never give up,'” he explains in an interview with ESPN at the club’s training ground. “We never give up. We always try to achieve the maximum. That’s how we are. That’s the strength, the feeling of Sevilla, to never give up and to go for everything.”

Sevilla’s progress throughout the past decade poses the question: is winning LaLiga the target this season?

“LaLiga should be won by Atletico, Madrid or Barcelona because they’re the teams with the biggest budgets,” Monchi says. “What the rest of the teams have to do is try and be as high as possible. But Sevilla’s objective doesn’t have to be winning the league. We still don’t quite have that level of demand. If you put the bar too high in terms of objectives, it can generate frustration.

“Sevilla is an ambitious club. That’s why we’ve grown so much, but it’s also always been a club that keeps its feet on the ground.”

Some of the game’s biggest characters, including the late Diego Maradona, have passed through Sevilla. Atletico coach Diego Simeone also spent time playing for the club and was a teammate of Monchi. Under Simeone, Atletico have shown the blueprint for breaking the duopoly in Spain. Although even after winning two league titles, Simeone — nicknamed “Cholo” — still says LaLiga is effectively two leagues: Madrid and Barca in one; everyone else in another.

“Possibly there are two leagues,” Monchi smiles, “but I would say to my friend Cholo that Atletico are also in the other league to the rest. Cholo, intelligent and smart as he is, just wants to remove some of the pressure.”

President Castro is less cagey. The club’s LaLiga spending limit of €183 million was the fourth biggest in the league last season, behind Madrid (€473m), Barcelona (€347m) and Atletico (€217m), but he points out they’re a team that has always been capable of punching above their weight.

“We all know how complicated it is to win a very competitive league with powerful sides like Barca, Madrid and Atletico, who dwarf our budget,” he says. “But it’s also true that last season, going into the final four games, we had a chance.

“Sevilla’s dream is always the same: to achieve the maximum sporting success with a budget that is much less than many other teams. Take our last Europa League trophy for example. We beat Roma, Manchester United and then Inter in the final, all teams with a much bigger budget. But we won the title. I always say we’re capable of doing more with less. Of course, we still lack that financial power to have an even better team but our dream, what is it? Everything. Try to win everything. Every year we grow, we’re capable of achieving bigger things. We’re hugely ambitious, humble but ambitious.

“For that reason, we will always try to win everything.”

Both Castro and Monchi point out that finishing in the top four every year is the only way to bridge the gap to Spain’s top three in the long term. The club’s Europa League success has been celebrated, but financially it doesn’t compare to being in the Champions League. Sevilla generated €34.5m from the Europa League when they won it in 2019-20. That same season, Valencia, Spain’s fourth side in the Champions League that year, received €60.8m for reaching the last 16 of Europe’s elite club competition.

It’s worth pointing out that Sevilla aren’t alone in trying to summit LaLiga. Atletico have only recently emerged as competition for Barca and Madrid under Simeone, and the battle to make a big four in Spain continues. Since 2000, Valencia have 11 top-four finishes. Sevilla have six, one more than Deportivo La Coruna, but importantly three of those have come in the past five years. Monchi references Villarreal, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Athletic and local rivals Real Betis as their competition, but Sevilla are the side knocking on the door now.

“Every year, we get better,” Castro says. “We’ve had two consecutive seasons finishing in the top four now and we have to have four or five in a row to improve our chances of winning [LaLiga].”

With more money comes more responsibility for Monchi. The 53-year-old has earned himself a reputation as a transfer guru. He’s contributed to multiple Europa League wins by being smart and streetwise in the market. He’s got a knack for finding players who bigger teams perhaps wouldn’t take a chance on. They help Sevilla and then, in several cases, are moved on for big fees. That cash is then given back to Monchi to replace them with another raw diamond.

Monchi’s recruitment team is now 15 strong — 35 if you include the club’s in-house data department and the academy scouts — and they work around the clock. During his interview with ESPN, his phone doesn’t stop buzzing. He acknowledges it takes time away from being with his family, but says he’s obsessed with the game and his job. He cites Dani Alves (who went on to stardom at Barca) and Ever Banega (a talented but troubled midfielder from Argentina who never quite delivered on his potential until moving to Sevilla in 2014) as some of his best signings.

He also says that convincing players to come has become much easier. He sells the city, colourful, noisy and charming, to potential signings. It’s the fourth biggest city in Spain and is also home to LaLiga side Betis. Players are attracted by the climate and the lifestyle. There’s the food and the architecture, too, the Giralda bell tower rising up alongside the cathedral and the Royal Alcazar palace and gardens, home to scenes in Game of Thrones. More importantly, he sells the club. Winning trophies and word of mouth from former and current players also helps.

“It’s not difficult because Sevilla’s well known now, it’s on the football map across the world,” he says. However, he also tells players that, if the money and moment are right, they can “take the leap to a top, top club.” That’s been the case in the past with Alves and Rakitic, who both joined Barcelona, with Navas, who headed to Manchester City and with Ramos, who signed for Real Madrid.

Interestingly, though, Sevilla resisted the urge to part with their stars this summer. They turned down a late bid in the region of €50m from Chelsea for Kounde, another player Monchi name-checks among his best finds. But both Monchi and Castro dispute the rejection marks a change in policy.

“We have a clear way of proceeding and when a player can be sold for more than the price we feel is fair, we have the obligation to sell because with that money we can invest to improve,” Castro says. “We have Monchi and his team and, with that money, they are capable of bringing in new young players that give sporting performances and, later, a possible sale. It’s true that there was a very big offer for Kounde, but he’s a great player, very young, with huge potential, and someone we feel could be worth much more and, above all, is going to be in our team this year and an important part of achieving sporting targets. Next season? God will decide.”

Monchi adds: “It was not a strategy in terms of ‘we’re not going to sell a player and we’re going to win the league.’ We didn’t sell Jules because the offer at that moment and the amount that arrived didn’t convince us. Sevilla historically has grown from the sale of players and I don’t think we’re going to abandon that philosophy.

“Kounde’s a kid aged 22. He has huge room to grow. He is a magnificent player and a great person. I don’t know what he’s worth, the price will be marked by the market, but I’m not here holding up a ‘Kounde for sale’ sign, no. If the circumstances fall into place for Kounde [to leave], another player will come through and, if not, we will keep on enjoying him here.”

As well as keeping Kounde, Sevilla have strengthened. Mir, Gonzalo Montiel, Thomas Delaney, Ludwig Augustinsson and Erik Lamela all arrived in the summer to add strength to a squad with a good blend of experience and youth. Former Spain and Madrid coach Lopetegui is in his third season at the club, bringing continuity, and Rakitic knows what is needed to take the next step, having won everything with Barca.

“I think that maybe sometimes you don’t have to think too much, just try to work a lot and then try to enjoy,” Rakitic says when asked if Sevilla can crack the top three. “To put more pressure on us, we don’t need it, because it comes alone. It’s enough. Of course, we will try to be there, hopefully like last season to be in the last three, four games fighting with them.

“But we know to get there it’s a long way, nobody will give you presents. You must do your work 100%. And hopefully, in those key moments, maybe we can be stronger, even though last season was the best in the club’s history. But, yeah, you can see it’s not enough to do the best season, you have to do a bit more.

“You know how it is. It’s similar to Barcelona. I remember after my first season [at Barca] when we won all the titles, the next season they want it again. It’s similar here. We had the best season in the history of the club and now they expect this season will be even better. It’s how it is, we know that this is the situation.”

Sevilla fans missed last season’s record-breaking points tally; stadiums were left empty due to the pandemic. They’re back this year, and with them comes one of Spanish football’s great sights: the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, named after their former president, belting out the club’s iconic anthem. Castro referenced the song regularly in his interview with ESPN as he attempted to explain what makes Sevilla special.

“The genuine identity of the club is written in the club’s anthem, which I think is the best in the world,” Castro explains. “The lyrics and the music are written by a huge Sevilla fan, someone who felt it. ‘Never give up, Sevilla is special, the maximum…’ The people and that sentimiento (feeling) are what drives the club and, with that, only good things can happen.”

You don’t have to be local to have that sentimiento. Rakitic, the Croatia international who returned after six years in Barcelona, is an adopted Sevillista. Castro and Monchi, though, are born and bred on the club, as is right-back Navas, who, like Rakitic, returned after time away.

In fact, Castro believes Monchi is even better in his profession because he works for the club he loves. The fact he was lured back after a brief spell at Roma between 2017 and 2019, turning down Arsenal in the process, adds weight to that argument.

“He’s probably right,” Monchi laughs. “For me, to work for Sevilla is more than a job. Sevilla is my life. Much of what I am today, at all levels, is thanks to Sevilla. I am firstly a huge Sevilla fan. For that reason, being at my club, I can give more because I know it perfectly and because it comes from the heart.”