MADRID: Before a match against Barcelona at the Camp Nou more than a year ago, then-Real Betis coach Quique Setien asked Sergio Busquets for his game shirt.
He said he wanted it with a written dedication, so he could frame it. The Barca midfielder complied, later sending Setien an autographed jersey with the message: “For Quique, with love and admiration for your way of looking at football. All the best.”
Real Betis won that match 4-3 in November 2018, marking the last time a team defeated Barca at Camp Nou. Setien was back at the famous stadium on Tuesday, more than 14 months later, to be officially introduced as the coach of Barca, the club that for so long inspired his vision of football. He signed a contract until 2022.
The 61-year-old Spaniard often tried to get his teams to mimic Barca’s ball-possession and attacking-minded style, and now he will get to do it himself at the Catalan club.
“I have really enjoyed watching this team and these players on TV over the last few years,” Setien said. “They made me enjoy football, game after game. I still don’t think I realize what it means to be sitting on the bench coaching the best player in the world and his team-mates.”
Setien said he immediately accepted the job when it was offered to him. “I never thought Barcelona would hire me, he said. I don’t have a great curriculum. What I have is this philosophy that I love, but I didn’t know if that was going to be enough.”
Setien is replacing Ernesto Valverde, who was let go four days after a loss to Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the Spanish Super Cup. Barca had also drawn three of their last four La Liga games.
Barca’s next game is Sunday at home against Granada in La Liga. Setien led his first practice session in the morning before being officially introduced and giving his first news conference with the club.
“Not even in my greatest dreams I imagined being here. Today is a very special day for me,” Setien said. “Yesterday I was back in the ranch with my cows, today I was leading a practice session with the best players in the world.”
Setien, who Barcelona called one of the most experienced coaches in Spanish football, said most of his football knowledge comes from watching and playing against a Johan Cruyff-led Barcelona. He once said he would sacrifice his pinky to play for Cruyff at the Catalan club.
He also called Lionel Messi “a luxury and the best player in history”. “I can guarantee my team will play well,” he said. “We want to win every title possible, in addition to playing well.”
Setien inherits Valverde’s team in first place at the halfway point of the La Liga season, ahead of Real Madrid on goal difference. In a few weeks, Barca will take on Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League, a competition they haven’t won since 2015.
Setien had been with Betis since 2017 until deciding to take some time off at the end of last season. He led the Seville club to sixth place in the league in his first season, and to the Copa del Rey semi-finals in his second season.
He previously coached smaller Spanish clubs such as Racing Santander, Las Palmas, and Lugo, where he failed to win any significant titles but helped some of them gain promotion from lower divisions. He also had a very brief stint with Equatorial Guinea’s national team, which he coached in one game.
A former midfielder, Stein spent most of his playing career with Racing, though it was with Atletico that he won the 1985 Spanish Super Cup. Barcelona said he began playing in beach football, eventually making it to Spain’s national team in the sport.
He faced Barcelona 22 times as a player, scoring two goals in a stint of five wins, five draws, and 12 losses. As a coach, he lost six of the seven games against the Catalan club, with the lone win coming in the match in which he also got Busquet’s jersey.
In a letter published on Barcelona’s website, Valverde thanked the club’s players, workers, and officials. He wished the players and Setien all the luck in the world.
“It has been an intense two-and-a-half year right from the start,” he said. “In that time I have enjoyed some joyful moments celebrating victories and trophies but also others that have been tough and difficult.”
Barca president Josep Bartomeu said he wished things had been done differently regarding Valverde, saying the leak of talks with other coaches did not make the situation any better.
“We are in the middle of the season and we needed an extra push,” Bartomeu said about the decision to change coaches. “We want to win the titles that we are still playing for in the second half of the season.”
Valverde is the first coach to be sacked by Barca mid-season since Louis van Gaal in 2003 despite managing to sustain the domestic dominance enjoyed by Barca over the last decade.
He won two La Liga titles, as well as the Copa del Rey in 2018, but doubts were underpinned by two disastrous exits from the Champions League due to collapses against AS Roma and Liverpool.
Familiar frailties were exposed this season in a series of underwhelming performances and a 3-2 defeat by Atletico in the Spanish Super Cup last Thursday, in which Barca conceded two late goals, finally persuaded the board to act.