13 Oct Veteran Spain star Jesús Navas shows no signs of slowing down
Wednesday morning in Seville and the sun was out and Luis de la Fuente was laughing. Training was just about to start as the national team prepared for their vital qualifier against Scotland, a game they had to win, and out there on the grass at the Jesús Navas stadium was … well, Jesús Navas. Yes, the same one.
“It’s got your name on it, and you’re still alive,” the Spain coach said, giggling, as the players gathered.
Not just alive, still kicking.
Thursday evening in Seville and the sun had gone down and de la Fuente was celebrating. All around him, so were almost 50,000 others. There were 15 minutes left, and out there on the grass at La Cartuja was Navas.
“I knew he was going to deliver the perfect ball,” Spain captain Álvaro Morata said afterwards. “All I had to do was be ready when it happened.” Diving in, Morata headed home, Scotland’s resistance broken at last, another Euros for Spain a step closer now.
Navas, who won a Euros 11 years ago now, the only member of the squad who has, had provided another perfect curling ball from the wing. At 37 years and 325 days, he had just become the oldest player ever to give an assist for Spain. Still kicking, still going, almost 20 years since he made his professional debut.
The man who set off on the run that led to Spain becoming World champions in 2010 hasn’t stopped since. The shy kid who began his career in the youth system at Sevilla, 35km from his home town of Los Palacios, now has a stadium named after him there — and he didn’t even have to retire first, let alone pass away. The boy who had anxiety attacks and suffered chronic homesickness, who at one point couldn’t and wouldn’t leave home, went round the world and won it all: two cups, four Europa Leagues, one league, two League Cups, a European Championships and a World Cup.
Not long ago, Los Palacios paid tribute to three players from the town who had made it to the Spanish national team. Fabián Ruiz, Gavi and Navas were given their weight in local tomatoes. 82 kilos of fruit for Fabian, 70 kilos for Gavi, 65 for Navas. 65 kilos and 5ft 7in, he is the slight, skinny, almost fragile looking footballer who never bulked up, who has had injuries before and has a hip problem now, who still somehow looks like a little like a kid when he had kids of his own, ended up seeming almost indestructible. 925 games he has played and he isn’t about to leave it there, not yet, not even on the verge of his 38th birthday, not even with his contact at Sevilla expiring at the end of the season.
“They always say football leaves you; football will never leave Navas,” de la Fuente said.
As for Navas, he mostly doesn’t say anything at all. But there is something about him, something that makes this more than just player gets old, keeps playing. Maybe that quietness is part of that, in fact. Just silently getting on with playing, not demanding anything, not even your attention, the warmth towards him all the more genuine for that.
Former Sevilla player Antonio Álvarez this week said: “He’s not God, but for us he’s close,” which is the kind of line Navas would hate. “Navas? There’s no need for words,” de la Fuente said, which was probably a bit better.
Maybe it’s that feeling that he hasn’t really changed; he went from midfield to full-back, but still pretty much did the same things and still does, something seemingly simple in his style, no flash just football. There’s a comforting familiarity about it, always there. Maybe it’s in the way he just keeps on.
This week he talked — because he had to talk, news conference duties handed to him — about approaching football now as he had “the very first day,” with the same enthusiasm. It’s what he does and, it often seems, all he does. Morata pointed out that what he had done on the pitch was what they’d been doing for years.
👏🏻 He is a champion in everything and gives his 𝗔𝗟𝗟 every minute he plays.
— Spanish Football (@SpainIsFootball) October 13, 2023
“He’s a 38-year-old who trains and plays like an 18-year -old,” Morata said. “We’re going to have to clone him for future Spain.”
Before the European Super Cup final against Manchester City, Pep Guardiola joked about how he had messed up and badly: he had let Navas go too soon. He was 32 when he left, he was supposed to be finished. But now here he was, an opponent, a Europa League winner again, still going. He has won four of them, two since he returned home; 17 — seventeen — years passed between his first and his last, if it even is his last. There was as Guardiola talked a fondness that was inescapable, and that found echo this week with Spain playing in Seville and preparing at Sevilla’s training ground, his club honouring him while he’s still around in part perhaps because he wasn’t supposed to be; his country now doing the same.
“It moves me to be on a legendary footballer’s pitch, a player who is Spanish football history,” de la Fuente said. “And for him it’s so nice to have a ground named after you in your home, the club that has always been yours.”
Ansu Fati, who grew up in Seville, described Navas as his “childhood idol,” calling it an “honour” to train at his place. An idol and now a teammate. Gavi hadn’t been born when Navas made his senior debut. Navas is the only one left from the World Cup-winning team, and he too seemed to have gone.
It had been two and a half years since he was in the Spain team, but at almost 38 Jesús Navas returned in the week that they trained in a stadium that carries his name and played in one that chanted it, where he did what he always did: he delivered.