Julen Lopetegui has bounced back at Sevilla after losing Spain's two biggest jobs

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When Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui says: ‘What happens in football usually goes a long way beyond anything you had imagined,’ he knows what he is talking about.

‘I could give you a thousand examples of that,’ he says ahead of tonight’s visit from West Ham in a competition his club has won six times.

Here are just a few: He was about to take over at Wolves in 2016 but he had to turn them down because Spain had offered him the national team job.

Julien Lopetegui will lead his Sevilla side against West Ham in the last-16 of the Europa League

Julien Lopetegui will lead his Sevilla side against West Ham in the last-16 of the Europa League

He went 20 games unbeaten in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup but they sacked him the day before the tournament because he had agreed to join Real Madrid.

Real Madrid then fired him 138 days later, meaning he’d lost the two biggest jobs in Spain inside half a year.

He bounced back winning the Europa League with Sevilla in 2020, and has turned them into the second best team in La Liga so far this season. Taking on the bigger clubs in Spain can be a Herculean task but feats of great strength run in the family for Lopetegui.

‘My father was an outstanding stone lifter,’ he says proudly of his dad Jose Antonio who competed at a high level in a sport still popular in the Basque country, Scotland, Wales and Scandinavia.

‘He was a great athlete in various sports. And he always instilled the values and culture of sport in us in every sense.’

Lopetegui recovered from his Real Madrid disappointment to win the Europa League at Sevilla

Lopetegui recovered from his Real Madrid disappointment to win the Europa League at Sevilla

There is a famous photo of Lopetegui as a young boy stood next to his father as he lifts up his two daughters, Julen’s sisters, one in each hand.

‘He certainly didn’t play football! he adds. ‘In fact, I’m the black sheep of the family because my brother was a Basque “pelota” player for many years at a high professional level. I was very good too. I had a real chance to turn pro but I was hooked on football from an early age.’

Growing up in a sporting environment can only have helped him deal with the blows of missing out on the World Cup and then been giving so little time at Madrid.

‘That culture – the effort, the sacrifice, and the not looking for excuses – I have experienced all that at home and of course it has helped forge my character,’ he says.

His Sevilla team are now eight points adrift of leaders Real Madrid. They are still comfortably best of the rest but the sweet revenge of nicking the title from his previous employers looks a plot twist too far.

And Lopetegui wouldn’t have seen it as vengeance anyway.

Lopetegui went 20 games unbeaten with Spain before he was axed ahead of World Cup 2018

Lopetegui went 20 games unbeaten with Spain before he was axed ahead of World Cup 2018

He’s driven, an intense whirl of motivational energy in the technical area but he says it doesn’t come from any desire to get even. Not with the Spanish football federation who could have let him take the side into the World Cup.

Nor with Madrid who showed zero patience as he took over at the start of their first post-Cristiano Ronaldo season.

‘I would be a very mediocre man if I had to look for my motivation in just wanting to prove people wrong,’ he says.

‘You get up in the morning and you don’t face the day thinking: ‘two years ago…!’

‘It’s your energy and your passion that drives you on. That’s the good energy and that’s the sort you want. The other kind, quite honestly, I really don’t like it.’

There is a famous photo of Lopetegui as a young boy stood next to his father as he lifts up his two daughters

There is a famous photo of Lopetegui as a young boy stood next to his father as he lifts up his two daughters

It’s a philosophy that has helped him put his reputation back where it was at the start of 2018.

There were tears of joy as he led Sevilla to that Europa League triumph, having knocked out Manchester United en-route.

United are one of the clubs considering him as a future coach – the road to England, almost taken once before, may still lay ahead.

‘It’s true that I was very close to coaching Wolves,’ he says. ‘They had a very ambitious project which we have since seen them put into place.

‘But then the offer of the Spain job came along.’

He had already won the Euros with Spain at both under-19 and under-21 level nurturing players such as Thiago Alcantara and David de Gea.

As Spain’s senior coach he worked with most of the same players in an unbeaten two-year stint.

‘I think we played against all the best teams in the world with the exception of Brazil,’ he says. ‘We were unbeaten, we won a lot of games, and we created a very clear identity.’

In Spain’s penultimate friendly on home soil before the 2018 World Cup they thrashed Argentina 6-1.

It was nicely set-up for them to go a long way, all the more reason for it to hurt when the plug was pulled two days before their first game.

‘We were well prepared to achieve very big things and it hurt because they took us out right at the most exciting moment.

Under Lopetegui, Sevilla are riding high in Spain and sit second behind leaders Real Madrid

Under Lopetegui, Sevilla are riding high in Spain and sit second behind leaders Real Madrid

‘It’s happened many times before that, after a World Cup or Euros, a coach takes over a club side. It could have been dealt with in far more natural way.

‘But that chapter is closed now. You asked me about the journey, and they were two very good years.’

Lopetegui thrives on the speed at which football moves. ‘If you have lost a game or won a game the time for being up or down about it, lasts for about as long as the post-match meal,’ he says. ‘Then it’s on to the next match.’

And he is as averse to looking too far ahead as he is to looking back. That’s served him well during a season when Sevilla’s chances of winning the league have been talked up more than at any time since they last did it 76 years ago.

‘Just because you are looking further ahead that doesn’t mean you take a bigger step. We have to focus on the next curve in the road. When you look beyond the next curve that is when you a mistake.’

West Ham are ‘the next curve’ for a team built by the club’s director of football, Monchi. He calls Lopetegui mid-interview and its clear the two former goalkeepers work well together.

Lopetegui admits it hurt when he was sacked by Spain, and his time at Real did not work out

Lopetegui admits it hurt when he was sacked by Spain, and his time at Real did not work out 

In January Monchi made sure the club kept Diego Carlos, despite bids from Newcastle, and brought in Anthony Martial from Manchester United.

‘We are excited about him,’ Lopetegui says of Martial. ‘He can give us that touch of quality at the end of a move. And he will give us what all the players have to give us – because it’s the DNA of the team – hard work, and being tactically aggressive.’

Martial’s loan signing would not have generated as much enthusiasm had it come at the expense of Carlos but the defender stayed, and as with Jules Kounde during previous windows there is no sulking because the chance to treble wages didn’t come off.

‘They are intelligent lads and they understand that their best guarantee of continuing to advance is to keep performing well for the club that invested in them at a time when they were not as well-known.’

La Liga is a hard slog and it’s to Sevilla’s credit that they have eclipsed Barcelona and Atletico Madrid this season.

‘You have to be able to compete at 12 midday and then at 10pm and at minus five and then at 40 degrees,’ says Lopetegui of Spain’s domestic competition.

With the league so grueling has Europe been a distraction? No chance! The six-times Europa League winners were disappointed to exit the Champions League and they want a seventh UEFA trophy.

Lopetegui says Sevilla are excited by Anthony Martial, who is on loan from Manchester United

Lopetegui says Sevilla are excited by Anthony Martial, who is on loan from Manchester United

‘We have great memories of winning it (in 2020),’ he says. ‘The context was different because the games were played over just one-leg which made it far more exciting. It was just a shame that it wasn’t played in front of fans.’

If they go all the way this time their own fans will be with them because the May final is played in their stadium.

Another trophy this season would certainly open that path to England back up.

‘If there is one thing that I have learned it is that you cannot say with any certainty: this is going to happen, or, this is not going to happen,’ he says. ‘The future has very twisted horns.’

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