In his latest long read Andy Mitten spends time behind the scenes with the Spanish side whose entertaining season is set to be rewarded with a return to European football
Real Betis: The Spanish club entertaining on the pitch and progressing off it
Real Madrid score, then they score again. And again - all within 15 minutes.
The Spanish, European and World champions are playing another of Spain’s royal clubs – Real Betis – away in the Estadio Benito Villamarin, one of Europe’s most dramatic venues with three sheer-sided tiers of 60,720 green and white seats in the clash in the middle of February.
Madrid looked invincible at the start of this season, less so when Betis became the first team to beat them, 1-0 at the Bernabeu in September.
That game was striking because Betis boss Quique Setien kept four of his best attackers on the bench, introducing three as the game wore on.
“My influence comes from the feeling I have inside me,” Betis’ manager tells The National. “When I grew up and started to play, it was the beginning of the Barca of Johann Cruyff and I played against them.
"You were chasing the ball for 80 minutes. We tried to steal the ball and couldn’t get to it. I’d watch this and think ‘wow, this is what I want’. I loved what they did. I studied the mechanism of Cruyff’s play, the positioning, how high the full backs played, how the centre backs split, the build up.”
Talk is one thing, but to be so bold at Real Madrid away, bringing on wide men Andres Guardado and Ryad Boudebouz, then, finally, Betis’ captain Joaquin.
The psychological boost was tangible. Then Betis’ Paraguayan forward Arnaldo Sanabria scored, stunning the home crowd in the 94th minute with a goal from a patient build- up involving nine of the visiting players. Betis had scored a similar goal at Villarreal in the previous away game.
The National is at the return fixture in February and 53,486 have come to Spain’s fourth biggest stadium to see this season’s fourth best supported Spanish club based in Spain’s fourth biggest city.
It proves to be a fantastic match. Betis led 2-1 at half-time, their fans singing merrily just as they had on the streets outside the venue in the wealthy Heliopolis district.
Then Madrid started scoring and the reaction from home fans is striking to this writer, used to watching tension-filled matches amid miserable men in northern England.
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While other fans would curse as their team concede, Betis fans high in the north stand behind the goal look on nonchalantly, the sound of pipas, roasted sunflower seeds, being chewed audible.
To them, a football match with goals pinging in at both ends seems like the most normal thing in the world. Which, at Betis this season it is.
Betis beat Madrid away but lost the return match 5-3. In many ways it sums up their season.
They have lost 5-1 at Eibar. They drew 4-4 with Real Sociedad and lost 6-3 at home to Valencia a week later. They beat their cross-city rivals Sevilla 5-3 away in a further example of high-scoring fun.
By the start of March, Betis had scored more goals than Atletico Madrid in second, but conceded more than bottom of the league Malaga – and they still have.
Since then, they have won five games on the bounce for the first time in 20 years – and kept a clean sheet in their last four.
Betis are bonkers, brilliantly so. This is the club which broke the world transfer record in 1998 to sign the Brazilian Denilson, the club where one fan brings an urn containing ashes to every game because his father told him "When I die, I want to go to Betis". The club with one league title in 1935 and two cup wins in 1977 and 2005.
Nobody supports Real Betis for the glory of trophies.
“It’s complicated to describe Betis,” explains former Betis player Rafael Gordillo, who played in two World Cups for Spain and won five leagues with Real Madrid.
“You have to be born a Betis fan to understand. It’s a huge passion with great feelings of pride," added Gordillo, who played for Betis between 1985 and 1992. "We have a history of suffering, we are a team of a barrio.
“I played for Real Madrid, for Spain, but my highlight of my life was my debut here, aged 19, wearing the colours of Betis. Playing for Betis is the greatest when you are born a Betico.”
Days after the Madrid game, The National is given access all areas to Betis, a club formed in 1907 after the merger of Sevilla Balompie (a Spanish word for football) and Betis (the Roman name for Seville’s River Guadalquivir) who had split from Sevilla much like Everton and Liverpool in England. The first derby match between the pair in 1909 ended in a serious brawl.
Spain’s King Alfonso XIII became honorary president, hence the Real title. Directed by an Englishman ‘Papa’ Jones, they moved to their Heliopolis home in 1929 and won their only league title in 1935 under Irishman Patrick O’Connell, who had also played for Manchester United and managed Barcelona.
He did that when Spain was on the brink of social and political meltdown before the civil war.
When war came, Betis’ stadium was bombed and most of the team fled the country. By 1947 they were in the third division, a year later the ground was flooded and fans rowed in boats to the stadium to check if the game was on. It was not.
Betis returned to the top-flight in 1958 under a Galician club president, Benito Villamarin. The current stadium takes his name and has twice been almost completely rebuilt in the last 40 years, firstly for the 1982 World Cup in Spain and then again 15 years ago.
Betis was long considered the club of the working class of Sevilla, but demographics have blurred and they draw their support from across the population, but – and even the mention of from where Betis draw their support causes an argument (much of what goes on in Europe’s hottest city happens outside) close to the stadium.
“We’re the better supported team in the city!” claims one fan. “No, it’s 50/50 in the city, but we are stronger in the villages around,” says another.
Cesar Nacho, Ismael Jose Maria, Juan, Jose and Pedro have gone to games for decades. They talk about their greatest moments as fans, but pickings are slim.
They are just happy to be Betis to sustain their friendships by seeing each other at games. One says he is from a family of Sevilla fans, but, from a young age, ‘I just saw the green light’. He has no regrets.
Sevilla are undoubtedly more successful, with six European trophies since 2006 alone, but Betis are better supported, with an average crowd this season of 46,000, 13,000 higher than Sevilla.
They want to push it above 50,000 next season and they are now looking good for a first foray into the Champions League since 2005. Back then they beat Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea (at the age of 20, club legend Joaquin turned Mourinho down) and drawing at Anfield against Liverpool, before losing at home to Anderlecht, the bottom team in the group. They have been relegated twice since then – this is Betis after all.
There is a buzz about Betis which is evident in Seville, the club’s offices, the stadium and the training ground.
Coach Setien, a man who said he would lose a finger to have played under Cruyff, is talkative.
“I’ve new here and it’s not a long time to get to know a club of this dimension,” explains the man who excelled at Las Palmas last season.
“There are a lot of things that for me as a northern (Spanish) person are difficult to understand.
“I understand the passion for the club, the patience of the fans and the rivalry in this city with the other team but it’s difficult to explain that to newcomers because it’s irrational.”
The demands are constant.
“There are people who think we have to win always without analysing the context,” adds Setien who has overseen a great improvement this season. It’s a big challenge, an attractive one.
“For the last ten years this club hasn’t been a protagonist. They had glory days when they played in the Champions League and everyone thinks we have to recover this position, even more when the other team from the city plays finals and important games.”
Setien is guarded on whether those goals are obtainable but is optimistic that they can be.
“The truth is that Betis is growing, there’s institutional calm that is allowing the club to have control of itself to face the future with more perspective,” he said. “But it’s not easy to climb up the league because there are several teams which have been doing things really well for many years, teams which want to be the same level as Betis: Athletic, Real Sociedad, Villarreal.
"They have been playing around Europe with serious options to win. That’s where we want to be and who we want to be with but it’s premature to be there. With calm, we can be there.”
Betis’ superb recent form means that Europe is looking probable rather than possible, yet they’d already become a second team for many.
“There are fans around Spain who like Betis because our style of play,” explains Setien, 59.
“We are the team that dares, that goes forward. That’s what all fans want for their team. It’s true that we’ve conceded a lot of goals, but it’s true not all the goals are because of our style of play.”
“But if we played in another style, like Manchester United, we would concede less goals, but we wouldn’t be so daring going forward. We have players who wouldn't like this style of play, players who are not made to play for Man United.”
Setien wants his team to entertain. “My way of being has always been to go forward,” he adds. “If you see me defending deep, it’s not because of me, it’s because the other team has dominated me. What I want to transmit to my players is to have fun, to create more than destroy.
“Obviously you have to defend and work on that, but defending is not my motivation. When we scored that goal at the Bernabeu, I felt vindicated for the work I’d done. It gave me internal satisfaction above the result. You could say I’m a romantic, but it’s also a good and effective way to play.”
Only Barcelona and Villarreal have also won at the Bernabéu in the league this season.
“Watching my players –players of a certain level, let’s be honest – dominate one of the best teams in the world brought such joy,” he adds. "Watching how they ran behind the ball and scored two goals, created chances and defended well. But Madrid always create chances too and there are some things in which you cannot compete against Real Madrid.”
Setien spelled this out when he took over. “When I signed for this club, I wanted them to know my ideas crystal clear,” he explains.” I said “You know how I am. If you don’t want that, it’s better you sign another manager’”.
Betis signed the man whose ideas were formed by Cruyff, his greatest student Pep Guardiola and Luis Arragones, his boss when he was a player at Atletico Madrid.
They have barely looked back, with winger Joaquin, almost 37 and still a key component to the side.
“Joaquin has a fantastic character with a huge heart and a Sevillan sense of humour,” explains former player and current technical secretary Alexis Trujillo about the local boy who dances, jokes and, on occasion, drives the team coach for a laugh. “He’s loved here, the people love him as a person.”
Joaquin is in the form of his life. In Girona last week, he ran half the length of the pitch before setting up Loren, a 24-year-old striker who was with Betis’ B team, Betis Deportivo, in Spain’s regional third division until February, for the only goal of the game.
Loren’s won eight of the ten league games he’s played in since.
“You have to live to the full,” Joaquin explains when asked about his approach to life. “My personality is suited to this club with a special feeling that goes beyond football. It’s a family, it’s a passion.”
It has not always been smiles for Joaquin.
“We have been through difficult years here,” he admits. “This club has lived beautiful moments in the past but many people here have never lived that, they've never seen us lift a trophy.
"Or compete in Europe with a Betis shirt. We have to challenge again now to be at the same level as the fans. That’s what we all wish.”
Joaquin made his debut for Betis’ B team in 1999 and was in the first team a year later, where he stayed for six seasons.
“My best moment here was my first stage at the club,” he said. “We won the Copa del Rey, we played Champions League and I made my debut with the national team. My worst moment was the day I had to go away (to Valencia). I left behind a lot of things that meant a lot to me and it was very difficult.”
Joaquin returned in 2015 and is now one of 5,000 shareholders at Betis.
“A good opportunity to be part of a club that has been my life,” he explains of a new structure which aims to spread the shared risk to avoid the chaotic ownership of the past.
The club president Angel Haro is a youthful 43, the vice president Jose Miguel Lopez only 45 with a background in tech industries.
Outspoken former president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, 73, a man who built the stadium up, sold Betis for just €18 million (Dh81.7m) in 2010 after fan protests. The low price was in part because of their €85m debts, that and the fact he was facing jail himself for fraud.
The sale went through a week before he was charged. Betis was in trouble and Lopera was often outspoken against Sevilla, with the city’s derby the most intense in Spain.
“The rivalry is like a big derby in Argentina or England, it’s really strong,” explains Gordillo. “We’re two big teams from one city, a football city. It’s a city which produces footballers too, everyone still plays it in the street here.”
“I’d tried to do my best and fortunately, things went well in most of the derbies I played,” adds Alexis Trujillo, another hugely popular former player working at the club.
“I scored the only goal in one of my first derbies at Sevilla. We used to change at the stadium and walk to the training ground here. So many fans turned up to congratulate us that it took us two hours to walk 200 metres. It meant I arrived when training had finished.”
Fans are still invited to watch training sessions at a ground in the city, not on the outskirts which are hard to reach.
The last derby saw a 5-3 win for Betis in Sevilla’s Sanchez Pizjuan.
“A special night,” smiles Joaquin. “It has been a long time without a result like that and everyone wished for a victory there. Imagine what it was like? Five goals. Extraordinary.”
Betis’ support is spread far and wide, the result of Andalusia’s vast diaspora. Spain’s biggest region is also one of its poorest. After the 2008 economic crisis, you will still find nurses from Sevilla working in Birmingham or university educated Andalusians working in bars in Berlin.
The immigration used to be internal and hundreds of thousands of Andalusian moved to Catalonia or the Basque Country in search of work in the 1950s and 60s.
“They went with their luggage to places like Terrassa, Sabadell or Santa Coloma near Barcelona,” explains Julio Jimenez Heras from the club, “they went with their luggage and they went with Real Betis.”
Betis boast 30 supporters’ clubs in Catalonia.
“We told one hotel that there would be fans at our team hotel and they should be prepared,” explains Heras. “The hotel had two security guys for 4,000 fans. We have open training sessions when we play in Catalonia.”
“When Betis play in Catalonia it’s incredible,” adds Alexis. “We have fans all around Spain, especially in Catalonia. We have played in the mini stadium of Barca B and it was full of Beticos – 12,000 of them. Wonderful.”
Betis’ sporting vice president and former manager is Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, a 65-year-old Mallorquin who took over as Barca boss from Louis van Gaal.
“The philosophy here has always been to try and win,” explains the architect of the new Betis. “We have changed our style a little bit. “In the past we had difficulties attracting players because of the shareholders.
"Now we have tried to give the club stability and to sign players who know the Spanish League. They must know what Betis means in the league and in the city – that makes them adapt quickly.”
How do they enforce that with new players?
“They must know the language, the culture of the club and our style of play,” explains Ferrer. “If you don’t understand that then you have a problem.”
“The players have to understand because Betis is a way of living here. Everything in life involves Betis. People here live with a lot of passion about the club and they pass down that passion through the generations.”
One player who fitted the bill was Marc Bartra, a central defender formerly with Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.
“There are similarities to Dortmund here,” explains Bartra. “Humble working class people who live their life through the club – and that makes it different. You can feel that as a player.
“I was at Barca and it’s true that they have a lot of fans around world, but the people here live for Betis. They know everything about the club. Everything.”
“Betis is a club which is a reflection of the city,” agrees Joel Campbell, a Costa Rican forward on loan from Arsenal. “It’s a lifestyle identifying with the club.
"They suffer they laugh, they smile, they cry, they have fun. Often within a few moments during a game. That’s the same as life.
“The club have had relegations and promotions – but there’s always 40,000 or 50,000 people who are loyal to this lifestyle. They don’t just go to games when we win, they go to games because, win or lose, it’s what they do. It’s wonderful being part of that family.”
Sevilla is not a bad place to live either.
“It’s fantastic,” Campbell nods. “You can wear a t-shirt in February.”
Ferrer was manager when Betis won the cup in 2005.
“When I was trainer the club were the at the top, they wanted to fight against the biggest teams,” he explains. “We were in Europe, fighting for cups. Now I’m here to help them get the self esteem back. It was a bit low, but we’re going to get it back. I want to live the moments I had as a manager now as a sporting director.”
Despite the talk and the optimism, Betis have massively underachieved given their size. Internationally, they have made so little impact that many don’t even know they’re from Seville.
“We’re fighting for titles which are smaller than our social importance,” admits Ferrer. “I’ve never like that, it doesn’t fit. We have to get them on the same level.
“We’re now in that second group of teams in Spain. There are four or five fighting for the league and then the second group. People think it’s difficult for us to be there, but we have to be there, to fight for the European places in a very tough league.”
Betis are currently at the head of that second group. They’re also four points clear of Sevilla, who they have only finished ahead of once in 12 years.
The club is growing off the field and trying to raise their profile. Only Spain’s three biggest clubs have more social media engagements, that measurement which clubs now use when trying to attract sponsors.
“I’m so optimistic about the future,” explains Alexis Trujillo. “This club is growing in terms of infrastructure. Everyone is full of hope and ambition. We will go step by step. We’d like to be in the European competitions and I think we will.”