It seems fitting that Éver Banega’s final bow in European competition involved him lifting the Europa League. Barring a surprise reversal in the future, the 2020 Europa League final was Banega’s last match ahead of a move to six-time champions Al-Shabab in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He departed Europe after playing for 3 different Spanish clubs, spending just over a year at Inter Milan, winning 2 Europa Leagues, and a Copa del Rey triumph. But it very nearly didn’t turn out that way…
A Wild Child’s Valencian welcome
Fresh off of Boca Juniors’ 2007 Libertadores triumph, where he started both legs of the final against Gremio, the 19-year-old, shaggy-haired Banega was Ronald Koeman’s first January signing at Valencia, making his debut as a half-time substitute at Atletico Madrid in a 0-1 defeat.
Valencia wasn’t an ideal scenario. Banega did manage to win a Copa del Rey, assisting Juan Mata in the quarterfinals against Atleti, but Koeman’s tenure was defined by his attempt to clear the veterans out of one of Spain’s biggest clubs. After the Dutchman was sacked for Voro, Banega didn’t make the substitute’s bench until the last two match weeks.
Banega was far from blameless, either. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the Argentina U-20 internationals who celebrated their World Cup win by trashing their hotel and intelligently deciding to video it. (other names in that squad, by the way: Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and Papu Gomez) He had his first encounter with Spanish police only a few weeks into his stint at Valencia, leaping a red light at 3:30 a.m. while over the limit, and his already under-pressure club had to deal with the small matter of a webcam and some indecent exposure from his time at Boca. A TV segment found a fridge full of beer and nothing else, and he managed to short-circuit his Ferrari 458 Toro, setting it on fire.
Valencia decided that their young midfielder would be best served in someone else’s care, and that someone else was Atletico Madrid, who picked up Banega on loan a day after they made it to the Champions League group stages. Banega’s contract contained 2 clauses: an option to buy, and a no-going-out clause.
Unfortunately, clauses had no effect on Banega, whom Atleti insiders would refer to as a cabra loca, a crazy goat. He hit the town five nights in a row, got sent off twice in 5 league games (becoming Atleti’s season leader in red cards), and despite getting more games than he had in Valencia, he became decidedly second-choice behind Paulo Assuncao and Raul Garcia in the Atleti midfield. His Champions League debut was nothing special either – only completing one full game, a goalless draw against Marseille, and not even being named in the squad for Atleti’s round-of-16 elimination at the hands of Porto.
The First Resurrection
Banega returned to the Valencia squad, still headed by Koeman’s replacement Unai Emery. Valencia had a series of stars they wanted to keep hold of, including David Silva, David Villa, and Juan Mata, but Banega was not among them. As Sid Lowe put it:
“Forget Madrid and Barcelona and Juventus, the teams that came for Banega were Napoli and Stuttgart and Marseille. And forget €40m, or €20m, or even the €10m buyout clause on his contract. The offers that came for Banega weren’t much higher than €8m. Yet when it came to the Argentinian, Valencia decided to say yes.”
But the midfielder refused to leave, and his intensity in training, and indeed his first few matches of the 2009-2010 La Liga season, caused Marca columnist Jose Luis Hurtado to declare that Valencia’s wild child “had a facelift – in his brain.” Banega’s return, against his future club Sevilla, saw him tee up Juan Mata’s first goal at the top of the area, before a bursting run through midfield and a slick pass set up Pablo Hernandez for the second. He grabbed his first goal for Valencia, 2 years after signing for them, in a Valencian derby against Villareal, set up by Villa and Silva.
In the space of a season, Banega made himself indispensable to the club that wanted him out only a few months before. He became Valencia’s top assist provider, the creative pivot at the base of Emery’s midfield next to Carlos Marchena, and the team finished 3rd with 71 points, something of an achievement when the top 2 were pushing 100.
So what changed? Some credit his girlfriend, whom Lowe described as a “sergeant major,” for getting him to knuckle down. And perhaps he really didn’t want to go to Everton, where Valencia had been trying to offload him on loan. But Banega had his own take:
“This year, I’m starting from scratch,” he said. “I arrived at 19 and made mistakes. I wasted two years and have thought about things. Now I hardly ever go out.”
It should be noted that this indiscipline never quite left; Banega was reprimanded for showing up drunk to a Valencia training session later on, and only a few months ago was photographed breaking lockdown with a few of his Sevilla teammates to hold a pool party.
Banega’s 2010-2011 season was a little less lustrous; though in fairness, Valencia themselves were a little less lustrous after the departures of Villa and Silva. The club managed to end up with the exact same points total and position as the season before, though following the departures it became Juan Mata’s turn as chief creator, with Banega now partnering Hedwiges Maduro, club legend David Albelda, and new signing Mehmet Topal in midfield. The Argentine missed the start of the season, including Valencia’s opening Champions League matches, with an ankle injury, and his overall contributions were also on the downward from the season before.
Banega would probably like to forget his 2011-2012 season, but unfortunately, the cause of his many absences is the unforgettable stuff of legend among self-inflicted injuries up there with Enrique Romero playing snake charmer and Cani drinking piss. To make a long story short – Banega got run over. By his own car. With no one at the wheel!
In fairness, it looked quite painful, a season-ending tibia-fibula break and ankle fracture, and Valencia duly only told the minimum to the press. But they found out anyways: Banega had forgotten to set the handbrake at the gas station, and when his car ended up rolling, he reacted the only way a young man in the street would when he sees something rolling at him: by attempting to stop it with his foot. At least, unlike Cañizares, Banega wouldn’t miss a World Cup for miscontrolling this pass.
No, he would miss it for other reasons. Emery departed, with the ire of Valencia fans at his back, to be replaced by Mauricio Pellegrino, who barely utilized him until matchday 11. It wasn’t until Pellegrino’s replacement, Ernesto Valverde, that Banega was able to perform to levels approaching his 2011 form, and a side featuring Roberto Soldado, Jonas, Sofiane Feghouli, and a young talent named Aly Cissokho managed to claw their way back to 5th place.
But off-field issues began to set in at Los Che. Valverde would not return for the 2013/2014 season, due mostly to issues with the club’s unstable finances, which in turn triggered the resignation of longtime president Manuel Llorente. Successor Miroslav Dukic’s reign sent the club plummeting towards the relegation places. His replacement Pizzi was able to restore some dignity to Valencia’s season, bringing them to 8th place and the Europa League semifinals, where they fell to eventual champions Sevilla. But Banega would not be there, having returned to his native Rosario to play for Newell’s Old Boys on loan. Banega would miss out on another World Cup, watching from the sidelines as Argentina finished 2nd.
Resurging in Seville and European success
Shortly after that international heartbreak, Banega returned to Europe, and more importantly to Unai Emery, whom he credited as the driving factor to move to Seville. The 26-year-old was usually installed in the attacking role his old Valencia teammates Silva and Mata occupied, surrounded by speedy attackers Carlos Bacca, Gerard Deulofeu, and Vitolo and braced by sturdy defensive midfielders Gregorz Krychowiak and Stephane Mbia. With the newfound freedom that this role provided, Banega was able to demonstrate some of his now-trademark plays, such as dropping deep almost to the defensive line to pick up and distribute the ball, and running the midfield as its engine.
Sevilla’s sturdy home record and inconsistent away record led the club to 5th place, while they captured their second consecutive Europa League – and Banega’s first – against Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. In the following season, he was not able to impact the Andalucian’s hopes in the Champions League, although he did grab his first goals in the competition, 7 years after his debut, against Gladbach en route to a 3rd placing in the group and a return to the Europa League.
Life in Lombardy
Despite claiming his second European title, Banega would not remain at Sevilla beyond the season. President Jose Castro Carmona wanted more progress in Europe, and his choice of manager, Jorge Sampaoli, sanctioned Banega’s departure to Internazionale on a free transfer.
Banega arrived once more to a club in turmoil. Roberto Mancini, who had authorized his arrival, had departed before the season began. Frank de Boer, his replacement, would lead Inter through a torrid Europa League campaign before his early departure and replacement by Stefano Pioli.
For his part, Banega’s adaptation to Italian football wasn’t the worst. Despite a silly second yellow against Juventus, he was able to set up Mauro Icardi’s equalizer before Ivan Perisic grabbed the winner, and he got his own first goal in a defeat to Roma. Both de Boer and Pioli maintained him in the #10 role, again surrounding him with runners in Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, and Antonio Candreva. Still, his place in the starting XI became less consistent due to the presence of Brozovic and Joao Mario as the season went on, barring a short period where he grabbed 4 goals and 3 assists in 2 thrashings of Cagliari and Atalanta.
The Third Resurrection in Seville
The homecoming hero was Sevilla’s first signing of the 17/18 season, with compatriot Eduardo Berizzo securing his services for 9 million euros. He made his return to Spain in the best possible way, receiving a second booking after telling the referee exactly what he thought of his first:
As with Emery, Berizzo opted to use Banega either as an attacking midfielder or as one of the two advanced midfielders in his 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 systems. However, when Vincenzo Montella took over in December, Banega was moved into a role similar to his old role at Valencia, where he set the tempo next to Steven N’Zonzi, while Franco Vazquez and Pablo Sarabia took his place as advanced creators. Consequently, Banega was not able to register as many goals or assists as he contributed for Emery’s Sevilla, but was able to steady a team that was dealing with the upheavals of a new squad and coach.
Banega did have perhaps his finest hour in the Champions League yet, as Sevilla made it all the way to the quarterfinals. In the round-of-16 match against Manchester United, Banega and N’Zonzi effectively overran Jose Mourinho’s midfield, and the Argentine was involved in the buildup to Wissam Ben Yedder’s first goal at Old Trafford.
The Portuguese took some time to deliver some praise in classic indirect style:
“I cannot name them. If I name them their agents will jump with happiness and they will say: ‘Tag, tag, price’, this and that. In Sevilla, there are many players who would play in my team.”
Unfortunately for Banega and Sevilla, they could not deliver on this promise in the following season. Pablo Machin took the reigns at Sevilla but proved unsuited to do so. Despite Banega putting up career-best numbers, with 8 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, Sevilla fell early in the Copa del Rey and Europa League, and were only able to limp to 5th place under Joaquin Caparros. Banega also had his worst season in terms of on-field discipline, picking up 2 yellow-card-accumulations, and 2 sendings-off, the latter of which saw him miss the final 3 games of the season.
The Lopetegui era
Julen Lopetegui, eager to rebuild some of his reputation following his sacking from both the Spain and Madrid jobs in a calendar year, signed on at Sevilla in the summer of 2020. The club would sell on Wissam Ben Yedder to Monaco and Sarabia to Paris Saint-Germain, but as is life under sporting director Monchi, new blood arrived to partner Banega in midfield, attack, and defense, such as Lucas Ocampos, Joan Jordan, Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde. After an inconsistent beginning, Lopetegui quickly figured out his best team, and the Andalucians became one of the toughest teams to beat in La Liga, returning to the Champions League via the league for the first time since 2017, though Banega will not return for that campaign.
Banega is not the kind of midfielder to astonish you with a dribble or a long range goal, or to lead the goalscoring charts, but watching him run Sevilla’s midfield shows all the talent that led Boca Juniors to declare him the heir to Fernando Gago, that has Unai Emery desperately trying to sign him everywhere he goes, and why both Guardiola and Mourinho have marked him as the opposition man to beat. In Lopetegui’s system, he has license to roam from just in front of the back line to the edge of the opponent’s penalty area, though he tends to favor the left side, where he can combine with Ocampos and Sergio Reguilon, as demonstrated in the match against Roma. A set-piece specialist, he will also be Sevilla’s main threat when they win fouls or corners.
Ever Banega’s 2019-2020 heat map
Banega could not imagine a sweeter send-off than a third Europa League. A player whose European career nearly ended before it started by his own doing was able to reform and return to the game’s biggest stages. He might not have reached the heights his Boca midfield predecessors did when they came to Europe, but he has certainly written his name into Spanish football history.