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As the Europa League final takes place in Budapest on Wednesday evening, few will be thinking of the mountains of the Basque Country in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. But José Luis Mendilibar will.
The 62-year-old coach was the unexpected hero that Sevilla turned to as a last resort. Neither former Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui nor ex-Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli were able to revitalize a team that had been decimated by summer transfer exits. When Mendilibar arrived, domestic survival was the priority, and the Europa League a mere distraction.
Despite that, a draw salvaged in the dying moments at Old Trafford gave Sevilla hope, and they stunned Manchester United back in Spain. The Europa League is Sevilla’s competition, nobody has won it more, but not even the most optimistic of Sevillistas expected them to compete for the title.
In LaLiga, nobody has picked up more points than Sevilla since his appointment, and that confidence boost made semi-final victory over Juventus possible. Having dominated the first leg, it wasn’t until extra-time of the return fixture, at the cauldron of the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, that Sevilla found the edge to send them to Budapest.
That has put José Luis Mendilibar in the spotlight. Almost unheard of outside of Spain, the tributes put his way and the adoration received from Sevilla fans has left him not only looking uncomfortable in press conferences, but even stunned.
This wily Basque character has never been one for the headlines, sticking to an old school approach which has kept him in the background, rather than front and center.
Asked how he felt receiving so much praise, Mendilibar was brutally honest. “I feel like an a******,” he said in an interview with Relevo. “I’ve been in the Primera División for 20 years and it seems like nobody knew me and now, to be at Sevilla and doing what we’re doing? What I did at Eibar is as much as what I’m doing at Sevilla.”
It is his time at Eibar that many in Spain know him for. His first stint came in 2004, but he returned in 2015 after spells with Osasuna and Valladolid in the top flight of Spanish football.
There, he established the Basque minnows among Spain’s elite. Over six years, he took charge of 248 games, leading the club during their golden era and recording historic results.
There, he also gave a platform to many players who today play at a much higher level. Marc Cucurella of Chelsea and Joan Jordán, who now plays under him again at Sevilla, are just some of those to excel under his leadership.
It was not until their relegation in 2021 that Mendilibar departed. “I know we’re in a UEFA
Antonio Karmona, who played for him at Eibar in 2004, remembered his time there. “There are no half measures,” he recalled, speaking to MARCA. “He doesn’t mess around. He tells you what he wants from you. If you give it to him, he’ll fight to the death with you.”
That is exactly what he has brought to Sevilla. “Mendilibar has turned things around completely,” midfielder Ivan Rakitić told The Athletic. “He arrived with lots of energy, very strong, he knew very clearly from the first moment what he wanted from each player and from his team. He has succeeded in transmitting this positive attitude to the environment around the team.”
Despite that, his future remains unclear and neither he nor the club will be drawn on what their plans are beyond the end of his existing contract which expires this summer.
Until then, Mendilibar is focused on the task at hand and that means taking on Jose Mourinho in the dugout in this Europa League final. Before this season’s Europa League campaign, Mendilibar had only overseen two continental fixtures, both in the second round of the Intertoto Cup against CFR Cluj in 2005 with Athletic Club. His team went out on penalties after a 1-0 defeat away and a 1-0 win in Bilbao.
In 2007, when Mourinho was leaving Chelsea after winning the double, Mendilibar won his last trophy: the Segunda División title with Valladolid. While Mourinho has won all five of the European finals he has faced in his career, Mendilibar is facing his first-ever career final.
Just as Sevilla have upset the odds of the unstoppable forces of Manchester United and Juventus under Mendilibar in the last two rounds, nobody can rule out Mendilibar doing it again. And if he does, it will be a real fairy tale.