The day Sergio Rico joined Sevilla they were in the second division, had not won a trophy for more than 60 years and had only ever won four; Manchester United, treble winners the year before, had just won the second of three successive Premier League titles and were the world’s biggest club. He was a kid then; now, aged 24, a lot has changed.
On Tuesday the goalkeeper walks out at Old Trafford, a place he calls “emblematic” in a country that “breathes football”, looking to help take Sevilla to a Champions League quarter-final for the first time since 1958. It is a journey he hopes to make with a young boy, a Sevilla-supporting child who had a brain tumour and whose bravery serves as his inspiration.
In 2000, Rico was seven and just starting out; so, it transpired, were Sevilla. “I wasn’t really conscious of it. I was very small but that was the beginning – and it makes you proud,” he says, taking a seat in a portable building at the club’s Ramón Cisneros Palacios training ground.
Rico could hardly be more “Sevilla”; he is even a “Hermano de la Redención,” a member of one of the many brotherhoods in the city that create and carry enormous floats through the streets during holy week parades. Raised in Montequinto barely five minutes from the training ground, Rico’s family were all Sevillistas. Sergio had posters of Andrés Palop on his wall. Twice a Uefa Cup winner, twice a Copa del Rey winner with Sevilla, Palop was the goalkeeper who scored an injury-time header against Shakhtar Donetsk in 2007. Eventually, Rico worked with him, and then emulated him. Not with the goal – “historic” he smiles, “and no one deserved it more” – but with the two European titles.
By the time Rico was formally registered, joining the under-nines, Sevilla won the second division. Something had started. In 2006 they won their first title since 1948, the first of nine in a decade – nine of the 13 in their history. They won the Uefa Cup/Europa League a record five times and were named the world’s best club by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics. Since 2014, the year Rico made his debut, Sevilla have won as many titles as United.
Unexpectedly given a chance, aged 20, in September 2014, by the end of the season Rico had won the Europa League. Now it is United that occupy his thoughts. At the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Sevilla dominated but did not find a way through. “Maybe I expected a more attacking Manchester United,” he says. “Maybe in their stadium, with their fans, they’ll attack more. The truth is, the Champions League is a big leap in quality.”
At the other end will be David de Gea, who denied Sevilla in the first leg. Rico is likely to join De Gea in Spain’s squad for Russia this summer. Rico watched him make two astonishing saves in the first half. He talks about “solidarity” among goalkeepers, supporting “colleagues” like Buffon did with him, about “looking after” goalkeepers who makes mistakes – he knows from experience it happens to them all – and celebrating their successes. “I wanted us to score,” he says, “but it is true you see David make a save like that and you’re impressed. He deserved that. He’s grown hugely at United and is one of the best in the world.”
The cliche talks of goalkeepers being crazy. Serious, quiet, Rico does not fit that picture. “Well, you have to have a touch of madness to put yourself in front of a guy who weighs 100 kilos and he is going to shoot at you from five metres,” he says. “I never had that problem, though: my older brother was a goalkeeper and I wanted to follow his path. I was always clear the ball wasn’t something to be scared of.
“But it’s not just: stand there and try to stop the ball. There is a lot of work behind it, you have to handle things people don’t think of, work with your own coaches, study everything. It’s not at all easy. People don’t see things, like the tactical work: understanding systems, adapting, knowing styles of play. That’s the goalkeeper’s job, too. He’s the one. If there’s a counterattack, sometimes it’s because the goalkeeper hasn’t seen the player free, hasn’t organised his defenders.”
“The solitude of the goalkeeper,” he says, quietly. “There are those moments when you’re inactive, when there’s a chance you’ll be distracted, your mind will go to the stands, to something beyond the game, and that’s the most dangerous moment. You can lose track of the game and in a thousandth of a second, it can happen. A goal can come.”
What, then, do you do? “Order the defence,” he says. “You watch them, telling them where to be. That’s the best way of making sure your mind doesn’t drift from the game. It’s good for you …” Even if, truth be told, it’s actually not so valuable to them sometimes? “Exactly.”
And then there’s Antonio. “He’s a Sevillista and I’m sure he’ll be looking forward to it against Manchester United,” Rico says. Antonio is the boy whom Rico met in the team hotel before a game earlier this season. Just a normal lad who had turned up to see his players and ask for an autograph.
Barely a fortnight later, two tumours were found on Antonio’s brain. He underwent a 15-hour operation to have the tumours removed. A video from Rico wishing him well was the last thing he saw as he went into the operating theatre and the goalkeeper visited him at home a few days later. When, after two mistakes in consecutive games, Rico played superbly against Girona recently, he dedicated the victory to Antonio – his inspiration.
“It had a massive impact on me. When we went to his house, we were there a long time and to see the strength that boy has, to see the strength he has after 15 hours in surgery, to see the bravery …” Rico says, his voice breaking a little.
“Operations make me panic, they terrify me, and for a boy of nine years to approach it in that way, to overcome it, to beat his illness, to carry on, is incredible.
“You can take that as a lesson, and I have. It has helped me. Often we worry about things we think are important and we’re not aware of what really is. A serious illness like that comes unexpectedly, and you have to confront it, take it on, the way Antonio did. It’s not just about sport, it’s life.”