Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui enjoyed sweet redemption after his side beat Inter Milan 3-2 in a thrilling Europa League final on Friday to hand the Spaniard a first major trophy.
A highly-rated coach in Spain’s youth set-up, Lopetegui landed a first job in elite club coaching when he took over at Portuguese giants Porto in 2014 but was sacked 18 months later after failing to win a trophy.
He was named Spain coach and led his nation to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in style but his stay in Russia ended in surreal circumstances when he was sacked a day before the tournament kicked off when news leaked out that he had negotiated a move to Real Madrid.
He then had a nightmare stay in the Spanish capital, losing the UEFA Super Cup to Atletico Madrid and then saw his side thrashed 5-1 by Barcelona. He was sacked the next day, only three months into the job.
Lopetegui had been reduced to tears following those abrupt departures but on Friday he shed tears of joy in Cologne after his Sevilla side beat Inter Milan 3-2 to win the Europa League — previously known as the UEFA Cup — for an incredible sixth time.
“You have to know how to cope with difficult moments and overcome them. This is a feeling of immense happiness,” Lopetegui told reporters.
“I’m so grateful to our players for how hard they worked. Our anthem says we never give up and tonight we proved that again.”
Lopetegui’s redemption was only part of the story on a truly special occasion for the Spaniards.
Homegrown hero Jesus Navas, who delivered the cross for Luuk de Jong’s equaliser, lifted the trophy for a third time after playing key roles in Sevilla’s first two UEFA Cup triumphs in 2006 and 2007 but missing their other three wins after leaving for Manchester City.
“Lopetegui works 24 hours a day, he has given everything for us and he has got the best out of us. He deserves everything,” said Navas.
“To lift this trophy as Sevilla captain is the best thing there is, although we lifted it together and we are all like captains here.”
Navas also dedicated the triumph to former Sevilla players Jose Antonio Reyes, killed in a car crash last year, and Antonio Puerta, who died of a heart attack on the pitch aged 22 in 2007.
Argentine midfielder Ever Banega, who had a disappointing season with Inter in 2016-17, also got an assist and won the trophy for the third time in his final match for the club before joining Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab.
The final was played behind closed doors due to continued coronavirus restrictions but two Sevilla season ticket holders got to watch the match in the stadium as the club included them in their list of 25 accredited individuals.
The gesture was another sign of the special bond between Sevilla and the Europa League, which was summed up by a banner displayed in the team’s dressing room in Cologne: “No-one loves it like we do.”
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