In January 2004, Sevilla fans gathered outside the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán stadium to voice their displeasure at the sale of the club’s star player. The club’s president José María del Nido described the sale of José Antonio Reyes to Arsenal as “the saddest thing we have ever had to do” and fans were concerned what the future would hold.
The jeers would soon turn to cheers with the club recording successive top six finishes in the immediate aftermath of the transfer, followed by their greatest season of the modern era – winning both the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup (retaining the trophy), and only missing out on their first La Liga title in six decades in the final two minutes.
The man at the heart of those successes was the best friend of Reyes – Jesús Navas. The wafer-thin winger debuted for the club two days after his 18th birthday in November 2003, two months before Reyes was sold. Fleet of foot, Navas became known for his fearsome speed, directness and an ability to beat his opponent with ease.
Almost 15 years later, Navas broke the club’s appearance record; Juan Arza’s 59-year record of 414 appearances for the club going to the experienced winger, who had even spent four years of his career at Manchester City. The club named their main pitch at their Ciudad Deportiva training ground in his honour: Estadio Jesús Navas. One year on, and Navas is closing in on his 500th appearance for the club and is still going strong. He has appeared in every La Liga match this season for Sevilla and is a regular for the Spanish national team – in his adapted position of right-back. His career has been a truly remarkable one.
Navas was born in Los Palacios – a half-hour drive south of the Andalusian capital, Navas was one of many Andalusians descended from Gitano population – Spain’s Romani people. One of five children, he was even temporarily replaced in Sevilla’s first-team squad by elder brother Marco, who later explained: “Jesús was very skinny and struggling to adapt, so I was chosen ahead of him.” The only concern over Jesús was his slight frame, so the club’s dieticians decided that he should be afforded more liberty with his calorie intake to bulk up. This was a player who was clocked at running 100 metres in 10.8 seconds and who was so fast that, when tested on one of the club’s treadmills at their training facilities, broke the machine.
Navas has never been a typical footballer and indeed his personality is a world away from that of Joaquín Sánchez across the city at Real Betis – Joaquín is a flamboyant character who loves the spotlight, while Navas has always been an introvert and notoriously shy. A year after making his first-team debut, Navas suffered what the club described as a ‘panic attack’ which emerged was due to chronic homesickness. It was reported he was uncomfortable being away from his ‘closed environment’ and so severe were the symptoms they led to depression and seizures.
A proposed 2006 transfer to Chelsea broke down over his unwillingness to leave Seville and he even rejected international call-ups based on the distance from his home city. It was only after special arrangements were made, including assurances that Navas would always be close to former Sevilla teammate and close friend Sergio Ramos, that he agreed to go on duty with Spain. After assistance from therapy, Navas convinced himself to join Sevilla on a pre-season tour of the United States but had it not been for his early misgivings, his career would undoubtedly have gone down a different path. His eventual move to Manchester – a city whose weather system sharply contrasts with that of Seville – was helped in part by brother Marco joining nearby lower league club Bury and bringing his young family to the North-West of England.
The boy may have been taken out of Seville but it was unquestionable that Jesús Navas – who predictably returned to Los Rojiblancos four years later on a free transfer – never forgot his roots. He ensured new houses were built in his Los Palacios hometown and that the project employed as many unemployed labourers as possible.
By the time of the winger’s transfer to England, he had already achieved cult hero status at his boyhood club. He starred in Sevilla’s run to the 2006 UEFA Cup title, playing in all 12 matches. It was the start of a run of eight campaigns when Navas averaged 45 matches per season and while he rarely stood out as a star performer – he netted just 46 goals in his first 650 official club appearances – he was vital to the success of his club and country. Navas was a reliable performer; a team player with an admirable work ethic with tactical understanding and flexibility, illustrated by a later switch from out-and-out winger to wing-back or full-back.
Navas produced big moments too, including netting the decisive second goal in stoppage time of the 2010 Copa del Rey final victory over Atlético de Madrid at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. Sevilla led 1-0 as the bad-tempered encounter ticked into injury time. Atlético had won the Europa League trophy the previous week but had suffered a disappointing league campaign, finishing 16 points and five places off Sevilla in fourth. The game was littered with narratives including Navas being pitted against his best friend, with José Antonio Reyes then starring in Atléti’s attack.
It was Navas who had the last laugh. With Atlético desperate for an equaliser, the winger opportunistically pounced on a tired, misplaced pass in the opposition defence on the halfway line. He evaded two desperate, lunging challenges to find himself one-on-one with goalkeeper David De Gea, whom he rounded before producing a composed finish to settle the tie. It was the club’s fifth Copa title and second in four seasons, with the Spanish FA later deciding that the club could keep the title due to Spain’s World Cup success later that summer.
Eight years later, Sevilla honoured their captain by naming their training pitch after him. Sevilla president José Castro stated upon the name unveiling: “We believe that for your values, your work, your way of being, your Sevillismo and for everything you have given us in these years, that it is only right we give this stadium your name and immortalise it.”
Sevilla’s official club media brand him a ‘living legend’ and during an interview with The Guardian, while Alberto Moreno – another future Spain international who had graduated through Sevilla’s markedly improved youth academy – described Navas as his idol and possesses a photo of himself, aged 11, alongside Navas. He spent a decade at the club before joining Manchester City in 2013, but by that stage he had played in more cup finals and won more trophies than any other player in the Andalusian club’s history. He won two UEFA Cups, two Copa del Rey titles, a European Super Cup and a Spanish Supercopa. Navas has also earned 41 international caps for Spain – more than any other Sevillista – and lifted both the World Cup (where he began the sequence of events leading to Andrés Iniesta’s winning strike) in 2010 and the European Championships two years later. After four seasons in England, he rejected the offer of a contract extension at City to return to Sevilla. By any definition, this is a club legend.