Seville’s Real Betis, one of Spain’s biggest and best-loved clubs, stand on the brink of promotion after two years in the second tier. But events on the pitch are only half the story of a remarkable year in the Andalucían capital.
Plaza Nueva is not high on the list of Seville’s tourist sites. Lacking any special architectural, historical or religious significance, it’s an unremarkable city square about the size of a football pitch, bordered by the backside of the town hall at one end and a Nespresso shop at the other.
At some stage in the next fortnight, however, Plaza Nueva will become the centre of the universe for followers of Real Betis Balompié.
Betis fans – or Béticos, as they are known – have long celebrated their team’s triumphs there, under the equestrian statue of San Fernando, the Spanish king who reconquered Seville on behalf of Christianity in 1248 and has been adopted as the club’s patron saint. But this year, when promotion from Spain’s Segunda division is finally confirmed, the thousands dressed in green and white flocking to Plaza Nueva will be singing and dancing about more than just a return to Primera after two years away; this time they’ll be revelling in nothing less than the rebirth of their football club.
But let’s rewind 100 years or so ago, when, legend has it, a mere worker was declined a spot in the middle-class Sevilla Futbol Club line-up and helped set up the side that would become Real Betis Balompié. (“Real” meaning “royal”, after winning the king’s patronage early in the club’s history; “Betis” from the Roman name for the region; and “Balompié” being the archaic Spanish word for football.) The two clubs – Sevilla and Betis – have had an uneasy co-existence ever since, dividing Spain’s fourth-biggest city right down the middle.
What’s the difference between them? Well, it’s much too simplistic to say that Sevilla are still the bourgeois club as some do. For a start, too many families are divided for this to make much sense. Also, Betis have had more than their fair share of aristocrats in their corner – including the current king’s late mother. But the clubs do have a different flavour, which is hard to describe in a single paragraph. Put simply, Sevilla FC represent metropolitan Seville, with a hint of sophistication and correctness about them. Betis are more provincial, better supported in the countryside around Seville and big with flamenco singers and bullfighters. Or as a Spanish friend once put it most graphically for me, Sevilla are tapas served on a square of slate (something delicately fried in tempura, perhaps), while Betis are defiantly round-plate (maybe a big gloopy bowl of spinach with chickpeas).
Another big difference between the clubs is that Sevillistas are known for being particularly demanding of their team, while Béticos traditionally don’t just put up with defeat, they positively embrace it. The club’s semi-official motto is “Viva el Betis manque pierda” – “Long live Betis, even if they lose” in a kind of mangled Andalucían dialect – and any Bético will tell you that sufrimiento (suffering) is very much part of the deal.
Which is just as well given what’s happened in the last six years.
Back in 2005, Real Betis were one of the best teams in Europe. They won the Copa del Rey, qualified for the Champions League and beat Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in Seville. But behind the scenes, the club was beginning to unravel. The management style of local businessman Manuel Ruíz de Lopera, Betis’s maverick owner since 1992, was growing increasingly autocratic and, not content with allowing the club’s stadium and training ground to be named after himself, he fell out with much-loved coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, who left. Under a succession of different managers – and with Lopera’s behaviour becoming ever more bizarre - Betis spent four years fighting relegation until finally slipping through the trapdoor (by a single goal) in May 2009.
Meanwhile, a group of small shareholders had asked a Seville judge to look into their suspicions that Lopera was cooking the Betis books. On June 15th, 2009, they invited Béticos to join them in a small demonstration in Plaza Nueva – where else? – to call for Don Manuel to sell up and leave the club. An estimated 65,000 came. (Typing “Betis manifestación” into YouTube or Flickr will be enough to give you a flavour of that extraordinary event.)
Season 2009/10 was a particularly depressing season for Betis. Lopera, who by now couldn’t even set foot in the stadium that bore his name, gambled on keeping on a core of highly paid superstars for the first season in Segunda, but they clearly didn’t fancy chilly Saturday afternoons in northern towns like Soria and Irún and promotion was deservedly missed out on (albeit by a single point). 55,000 watched the last game of the season in near silence as elsewhere Hércules clinched the third and final spot. For the second year in a row, Bético tears made the national TV news.
But then along came Judge Mercedes Alaya. Half headmistress, half Amodóvar heroine, she decided in the summer of 2010 that there was enough evidence of financial mismanagement to bring fraud charges against Lopera and froze his assets, installing a panel of three experts to administer his shares in Betis (including, much to Lopera’s anger, ex-playing legend Rafael Gordillo, who had led the 2009 march against the Betis owner).
Just before this happened, however, Lopera tried to “park” his 51 per cent shareholding with a dodgy businessman from up north named Luis Oliver, who ran the club as he liked until December 13th last year, when the legal machinery finally spat him and his cronies out and formally installed Judge Alaya’s panel of three as the club’s management team, with Rafael Gordillo as the new president.
All the while, though, something really bizarre was happening: Real Betis were winning football matches. Somehow last summer, the first in almost 20 years not to be managed at first-hand by Lopera, a series of brilliant decisions were made. Former Betis striker Pepe Mel, just unfairly sacked by Rayo Vallecano, was appointed coach. The failed “superstars” were sold or sent out on loan and replaced by the previous season’s best Segunda players – hungry pros like strikers Rubén Castro and Jorge Molina, elegant midfielder Salva Sevilla and clever central defender Chechu Dorado – and several talented youngsters were promoted (belatedly) from the reserves.
The new team started well and got better. They were top of the league by Christmas, knocked Primera sides Zaragoza and Getafe out of the Copa del Rey and beat Barcelona fair and square in the home leg of their quarter-final. Not even a bizarre, inexplicable five-game losing run in February could derail their promotion run. Right now, they are 11 points clear of the all-important third spot with six games left. It’s not a question of if, just when. Every game – home and a away – is a big verdiblanco party.
And equally important for most Béticos, the transformation off the pitch as been just as extraordinary. The new board of directors have made super-human efforts to restore the club’s reputation as friendly, open and in touch with the fans after years during which Betis was run like a grim Eastern European dictatorship. Old players declared personae non grata by Lopera have been invited to games as guests of honour; tickets have been given away to thousands of school children; a free matchday programme has been launched; Gordillo has personally attended hundreds of functions across Andalucía, lending his support to local charities and meeting members of supporters’ clubs; new sponsors are flocking to get involved. Even the stadium has reverted to its much-loved old name, the Benito Villamarín.
It’s more than likely that Pepe Mel’s team will clinch promotion in the next fortnight, comfortably before the end of the season. When they do, it will be reported around the world that Betis are up – but the thousands singing all night in Seville’s Plaza Nueva will be celebrating more than that. Ha vuelto el Betis. Betis are back.
Adam Boyle lives in Seville and blogs daily about Real Betis at Ooh Betis.