“I’m both the happiest and saddest man in the world at the moment,” José Antonio Reyes told reporters when he joined Arsenal from Sevilla in January 2004. “I’m leaving the best team in Spain to join the best team in England.”
Two months earlier, Reyes had starred as Sevilla stunned Real Madrid with a thumping 4-1 victory in La Liga. The match report in El País described the forward’s performance as ‘genius’ and spoke of how he ‘dismantled the Madrid defence with ease’. Born in the Andalusian town of Utrera – within a 25-minute drive of Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán stadium – the versatile attacker had debuted for the club aged just 16, and quickly blossomed into a fans favourite. “That game against Madrid was confirmation that Sevilla had a potential superstar on their hands,” Seville-based Estadio Deportivo’s Carlos Pérez told i. “It was not usual that result happened to a club like Madrid, but his speed and talent destroyed a very powerful team.”
Read more: Former Arsenal player Jose Antonio Reyes dies in a car crash
Sevilla president José María del Nido described the sale as “the saddest thing we have ever had to do,” and there were protests from supporters following the move. “At that time, Sevilla did not have money and Reyes was an idol for the fans,” Pérez explained. “Reyes did not want to go to cold London, but he realised it was necessary for the club of his life, who had a lot of debt. Even the agents did not take commission, it was insisted that it all went directly to Sevilla.”
Premier League honours
Six months after his virtuoso performance against Madrid, Reyes made history by becoming the first Spaniard to win the Premier League. He played a huge part in maintaining Arsenal’s historic ‘Invincible’ league season too – grabbing the winner in a 1-0 win at Fulham in the penultimate round of league action, a week after scoring the second half equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Portsmouth. There were other memorable moments too, including netting twice in five minutes to defeat Chelsea in an FA Cup clash.
Reyes appeared 110 times for the Gunners, netting 23 goals and featuring in both the FA Cup and Champions League finals. He joined Real Madrid on a season-long loan and played a role in helping Los Blancos land their first league title in four years – scoring twice in the final day 3-1 win over Real Mallorca, after replacing the injured David Beckham, to help Madrid pip Barcelona to the title.
He moved across the Spanish capital to Atlético de Madrid that summer but after a difficult debut season he joined Benfica on a year-long loan and helped the Lisbon giants to the 2009 Portuguese title. His return to Atléti proved more successful; helping them to the 2010 Europa League title and collecting his second competition medal two years later, despite having returned to Sevilla midway through that season.
Return to Sevilla
“Reyes has always been a talented free spirit who played with a sense of anarchism, anarchic but his return to Seville saw him meet a strategist boss,” explained Perez. Unai Emery, current Arsenal manager, was appointed at Sevilla a year after the return of Reyes. Under a relentless trainer, Perez explained how Reyes “ran like never before and learned to fit the system.”
He helped Sevilla to the 2014 Europa League title, defeating former side Benfica in the showpiece, before setting a competition record by winning his fourth individual medal in the competition the final year. The 2015 decider against Dnipro was supposed to be the club captain’s final game for Sevilla and he provided a perfectly weighted assist for Carlos Bacca as the Andalusian club won 3-2. Reyes once again set a new competition record with his fifth Europa League medal as Sevilla made it three in a row, defeating Liverpool in 2016.
Reyes career brought exactly 100 club goals but was never renowned for being prolific. El Mundo journalist Antonio Agredano described him as “a player who won without effort, who shone without looking for the spotlight, who scored goals without boasting.” After leaving Sevilla, he played for Espanyol and Córdoba, while a short stint in China preceded a move to second-tier Extremadura in January. He played just nine games for the club before his tragic death on Saturday in a car accident.
An obituary in Marca read: “He never lost that youthful qualities of inexhaustible humour and desire to have fun playing football.” Sevilla paid tribute to the “eternal legend” and added he was “one of the most valuable homegrown players in our history.” Reyes was the eldest of a quartet of stars who rose through the club’s youth ranks in the early 2000s. A year older than Antonio Puerta – who died 12 years ago after a series of cardia arrests during a league fixture – and two ahead of two ahead of Jesús Navas and three of Sergio Ramos: the current club captains of Sevilla and Real Madrid respectively.
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The city of Seville has been rocked by numerous football tragedies. Five years after Puerta’s death, Real Betis defender Miki Roqué passed away from cancer. In 1973, Sevilla’s Pedro Berruezo became the first player to die during a Spanish match. Eight years prior, Andrés Aranda died a week after his appointment as Betis boss. On Saturday night Spanish musician Alejandro Sanz led chants of ‘Reyes! Reyes! Reyes!’ at the Benito Villamarín stadium, home of Betis. This is a city once more united in grief, as is the world of football.