Jose Antonio Reyes' death looms over Spanish football as new season begins

At the end of training on June 1, José Antonio Reyes got behind the wheel of his car while his Extremadura teammates boarded the bus bound for Cádiz. Left out of the squad, Reyes headed instead for home. Around 11 miles (18km) from Utrera, where he was born, he lost control of the car, which came off the A376, hit a concrete block and spun, bursting into flames a couple of hundred metres from where it left the road. The photograph of the car being lifted onto a tow truck that afternoon was hard to look at: there was almost nothing left of the Mercedes Brabus S550, barely even a blackened shell anymore, charred and disintegrating.

Reyes died inside. So did his cousin Jonathan, who was 21. Another cousin, Juan Manuel Calderón, escaped the flames and is in critical condition, having suffered burns to 65% of his body. Initial reports suggested that Reyes was travelling at well over 120 miles per hour (200km/h); the limit in Spain is 75 mph (120km/h). New analyses conducted over the summer suggested that the car's tire pressure was to blame for Reyes losing control of the vehicle, rather than excessive speed. An official report has yet to be produced. Reyes was 35. He would have turned 36 on Sept. 1.

Only a couple of months have passed since Reyes' death and the new season has begun in Spain and across Europe, a first football campaign without him in almost two decades. In the Spanish second division, it's a new beginning for Extremadura and so too for the other significant clubs in his career -- Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Espanyol and Arsenal. But they will never forget that painful afternoon. No one will.

His teammates had almost reached Cádiz the day of the accident when they found out, sitting there in silence, stunned. Messages came in from everywhere. Sadness, incomprehension.

The night of his accident was the Champions League final in Madrid, which began with a minute's silence. For one man, it was especially meaningful.

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Ahead of that showpiece match, Liverpool defender Alberto Moreno broke down in tears. That night, he wore a T-shirt with Reyes's face on it, his "brother." A European champion, he wore a smile after Liverpool beat Tottenham but he'd been crying all day. Later, Moreno stopped under the stand at the Metropolitano, his voice breaking, unable to take it in, too young for these to be memories, never to be added to, but that is what they had become.

"Enano, dwarf, Reyes used to call him. Together every day," Moreno said. "Laughs. Good times. Pfff... Bad, bad... I dedicate this trophy to him and wherever he is, tell him I love him and that I'll carry him in my heart."

The next day at the chapel of rest set up at Sevilla's Sánchez Pizjuán stadium, representatives from the game came to pay their respects. Cristobal Soria, Sevilla's match day delegate for many years, later said that Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez promised to look after Reyes's son, who is in the club's youth system. Extremadura's players came. The club retired his shirt; he'd played in it only nine times. It was still hard to take in. Jonathan and José Antonio had gone. A crowd gathered outside, many in tears.

Sergio Ramos was among those who attended the services. "This is one of the hardest days we have had to face," he said, "not just for the Sevilla family but on a personal level too. It's a terrible blow, he was a great friend.

"He will always be remembered. We grew up together, we've lived so much together," Ramos continued. "[Reyes] always had that smile, that humour, that touch of mischief. There are a thousand things I remember: we always played jokes on the new guys and it was always him who started it.

"I'd like him to be remembered always with that smile, from ear to ear; he deserves that because he was a great person. He deserves respect and eternal affection."

Those same fans had gathered there in Seville before, roughly 15 years earlier, the day Reyes left for Arsenal, at age 20, for €24 million. As he departed in the back of the car that day, supporters hammering on the side of it, he cried. He didn't want to go and they didn't want him to: some fans protested against the president who sold him. He was one of them: very, very andaluz. The youngest footballer to play for Sevilla, Reyes was the greatest talent of his generation -- quick, daring, skillful, fun, all of it so natural -- and for six months at Arsenal he looked it, too. But there was always a sense that he could have done more.

He did a lot. And his stellar moments were superb and extraordinary even if they were sometimes reminders, little glimpses of what might have been rather than what regularly was. He won a league title for Madrid and for Arsenal. He won an FA Cup. A league cup in Portugal. He won the Europa League five times: more than anyone else, ever. He played in a Champions League final, although he later said that the fact that it was only nine minutes was part of the reason he left London.

If so, it was only part. There was more (less?) to it: "Bloody hell, it's cold," he'd said when the plane doors opened upon touchdown in London, and he never really settled. "Things did work for me," he insisted. On the pitch, that was truer than many recognised. Off it, it wasn't.

Reyes' first house was in Cockfosters, a little corner of Andalucía on the northern edge of London. An image of the Christ of the Great Power adorned the wall, looking at you as you walked in. In the living room, a giant TV tuned to Canal Sur. The jamón in the kitchen. His dad wore a Betis (yes, Betis) medallion; they had all come with him to England, the whole family. It was home but never really home, even with all the modifications. And for all of them.

It was cold outside, and dark too. Reyes complained that he was bored, that it was night by 4 p.m. One time, a Spanish radio station tricked his mum, Mari, the family matriarch, into thinking she was talking to Emilio Butragueno. She said she would happily live in a "shack" if it meant getting back to Spain. "Me and my family were unhappy in London; they were not settled there," he later admitted. Yet nor was it only London. There was a sense that he didn't settle anywhere, not really. That feeling that there could have been more lingered. It always will now.

Even his return to Sevilla did not immediately work. He wasn't the player that had left. They would no longer lament his leaving, if it happened, but then-manager Unai Emery found a way through to him.

"Reyes is intelligent. He can see that this [work] improves him," Emery recalled. "When I came here, they said 'please, don't play Reyes.' I said to him 'José, do you know what they're saying?' We worked on it. And now every time he goes out at the Sánchez Pizjuán, 'Reyes! Reyes!' Maybe he doesn't know why. So I get him and say: 'José, do you know why? It's because of you, because of us, because of the work we do...' the daily work, the controls, controlling his weight, effort. He is committed now and he sees that it works; he has responded."

With Emery, Reyes won three Europa Leagues. There were two more with Atletico, where Quique Sánchez Flores got through to him. It wasn't always easy. Reyes was funny and laid-back, often wearing a smile, giggling, a little daft but likeable. Too laid-back, some felt. Football came naturally to him, something to be enjoyed, not endured. He wore his commitment lightly. There was no malice, and he could be almost childish in his innocence: If you could get through the accent, he said things in interviews in part because he didn't seem to have the cynicism not to, whether to protect himself, lie out of self-interest or political expedience.

He could be difficult to tie down, unreliable, forgetful. He really couldn't be bothered with the things he couldn't be bothered with. He went a su bola, as they say in Spain: he liked life, his way, did his things. He loved playing football -- there was a reason he went to Córdoba and Extremadura, clubs many of his peers wouldn't bother with -- and "playing" was the word. He also liked nice cars and had many of them.

Tragically, that Saturday morning he set out in the Mercedes and never came back.