Jose Antonio Reyes signed a two-year deal with Espanyol today. He rejoins Quique Sanchez Flores for the third time in his career. We’ve known that Reyes was leaving Sevilla for almost a month now, after the club decided not to offer an extension to the one year contract that he signed last summer. But this feels weird. Legends, even ones that take a circuitous route to that title like Reyes did, don’t end their careers like this. They either quietly take on a lesser role within the team until retirement or they chase one last payday in China, MLS, or the Middle East.
Footballers generally reach legendary status in one of two ways. There are the one club men, like Francesco Totti, who turn down more money and bigger clubs to stay at the club that developed them. Then there are players who move to a club during their prime, like Fredi Kanoute, establishing a legacy by delivering trophies and breaking records before moving on once their prime has ended.
But Reyes took a different route to that illustrious status. He spent almost 8 years playing for Sevilla’s first team, but not all at once. After debuting at age 16, he scored 21 goals and had 2 assists over 86 appearances, all before his 21st birthday. The Reyes of that time was a speedy and direct dribbler whose left foot delivered shots with both power and finesse. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see him receive the ball at midfield and dribble 40 yards straight into the opponents box, leaving defenders in his wake. He was explosive and fearless, but not the cultured player he would later become.
He became Monchi’s first big sale in January 2004, when he went to Arsenal for €20m. It was the move that started the develop-and-sell model that has lifted this club to the successes of the last decade. Reyes has said that he made the move as much for Sevilla (that money was vital toward developing the squad that would win the Europa League two years later) as for his own personal ambition.
The next eight years, encompassing almost all his prime, were spent at four of the biggest clubs in Europe. But his reputation among fans of those clubs couldn’t be more different from how Sevilla fans view him. To Arsenal fans, he’s regarded as a disappointment despite several significant contributions to their Invincibles squad. Real Madrid fans remember him primarily as a substitute who scored two title-clinching goals in 2007. His stints with Atletico and Benfica were characterized by the inconsistency that defined his career after his initial Sevilla departure.
But in January 2012 he returned to Sevilla for €3.5m as a completely different player. Where once he relied on his incredible pace and unique goal-scoring ability for a winger, he was now a cerebral and dynamic passer who seemed to always be playing the game at his own pace. Ivan Rakitic and Ever Banega served as the principal creative forces of those Sevilla teams, but it was Reyes who had the supernatural vision, the audacity to try the backbreaking pass, and the ability to make a play that would leave the spectators speechless.
Over the course of Reyes’ second stint at Sevilla, he scored 16 goals and had 33 assists in 157 appearances. He won three Europa League titles, wearing the captain’s armband in 2015 and lifting the trophy as captain in 2016.
But perhaps what pushes Reyes into legendary status despite his prolonged time away from the club are his performances against Real Betis. He loved playing in the Derbi Sevillano more than any player I can remember. In 17 derbies, Reyes lost only two times. He scored five goals and had five assists, none more important than the goal in the 2015 Europa League second leg in the Estadio Benito Villamarin.
He’ll always be one of my favorite players to wear the rojiblanco. Watching him, seemingly always wearing long sleeves no matter the weather, moving at a snail’s pace before suddenly playing a pass through 3 defenders to put Gameiro or Bacca or Negredo through on goal will never get old. There’s no greater example of his brilliance than his assist to Bacca in the 2015 Europa League final, in which he received the ball with his back to goal and turned without looking up before hitting a perfectly weighted 30 yard pass through a window the size of a doggy door.
His class on the ball, even after his pace left him, was a joy to watch. Against Standard Liege in the 2014 Europa League group stage, he started and finished the best team goal I’ve seen in my time watching Sevilla (Reyes goal against Standard Liege). While those moments of magic faded over the last year or so, he was still capable of making a pass that left defenders befuddled or dancing through three defenders before drawing a dangerous free kick. Every time he touched the ball, you knew you might see something extraordinary.
Gracias por todos, José. Usted siempre será una leyenda.