July 19, 2024

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Sevilla, Real Betis is LaLiga’s best rivalry, and in a city that lives for the sport

19 min read
Sevilla, Real Betis is LaLiga’s best rivalry, and in a city that lives for the sport

“The year I arrived in Seville, we won the first derby 3-1 away at Betis,” begins former Sevilla captain Pablo Alfaro. “I am driving down Avenida Kansas City after. I get to a red light and stop. A taxi pulls up alongside me in the right lane. ‘Pablo! You’re the best!’ Another taxi pulls up alongside me on the left. ‘Pablo! Son of a b—-!’ I’m thinking: ‘I hope this goes green soon.’ When it does, I pull away. I look back and the two taxis are still there, stopped, ignoring the green light and arguing with each other, a traffic jam building up behind them, people beeping.”

“Only in Seville.”

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This is a city divided. Properly divided. Half of the city is for Real Betis Balompié, half of it is for Sevilla Fútbol Club. There are around 700,000 people in Seville, and this isn’t the kind of place (which is most places in Spain) where there are Real Madrid and FC Barcelona supporters’ clubs everywhere; it is just them, and they are everything. There’s a reason they call it “El Gran Derbi.” The rivalry is the most passionate in the country, and it is there from the start, the two teams intertwined, forever face to face.

“You have to live it,” Alfaro says. “When I came, Sevilla and Betis had had both been relegated to the second division, and we came up together. In the dressing room after every game, someone would always say ‘And what did Betis do?’ You think: ‘what does it matter?’ But with time, you would be the one that asked. When I got here my daughter said: ‘dad, they’re crazy.’ In the playground, they play Betis against Sevilla. And always Betis-Sevilla, Sevilla-Betis. If some kids are off school, they don’t change the teams or mix: it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 against 15, it’s Sevilla against Betis.”

It’s always Sevilla against Betis, even when it’s not.

Dmitry Cheryshev has never played for Real Betis. He has never played for Sevilla either. But he knows all about the rivalry in Seville; the story he tells of his weirdest experience as a footballer paints a portrait of what it means to the city, why this may well be the best derby in Spain. It is 25 years ago now, but he starts laughing as soon as it is mentioned. That day in May 1997, Cheryshev scored the only goal for Sporting Gijón in a 1-0 win over Betis, the entire ground going wild as his shot ball hit the net, the fans erupting.

The Betis fans.

Betis were losing and they couldn’t be happier; this was what they wanted, for one simple reason. If they lost to Sporting, Betis could ensure Sevilla were relegated to the second division. And so they did lose, 1-0. But the supporters didn’t just take satisfaction from the outcome; they didn’t even just celebrate it. They did all they could to make it happen in the first place. They supported their opponents, and made it abundantly clear to their own players that they had better be beaten.

“When we got to the ground on the bus, Betis fans were waiting for us, cheering,” Cheryshev recalls. “You go out to warm up and they’re applauding. You miss a chance, and they go ‘huy!’. They encourage you to keep attacking. You score and they cheer. You look for your fans in the corner, but it’s the whole stadium.”

“You’re thinking: ‘what’s going on?!’,” Cheryshev’s Sporting team-mate David Cano admits. “We got to the city, the airport, and there are Betis fans cheering you. At the hotel, they’re there. It was as if we were playing at home. On the way to the ground, they had lined the route, chanting ‘Sporting! Sporting!’ I was on the bench to start with and sitting there you could hear the fans behind you: we had to win, and they wanted us to win. Every time we got the ball, they were urging us forward.”

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Every time Betis got the ball and dared take a step forward, they were whistled. When Sporting scored, Betis’s fans went wild, celebrating defeat. Sevilla were relegated.

“I have heard 1000 times that Betis let themselves get beaten, but it wasn’t that,” Cheryshev insists. “It wasn’t the players; it was the fans. And it wasn’t easy for us, either: we only won 1-0 and they had a chance late on. The fans are on your side but you play worse. You feel yourself starting to laugh, it’s hard to concentrate.”

It was harder for the Betis players to have their own fans against them. Alfonso Pérez sighs. He played for Betis for eight years in two spells, an idol in his white boots. He was also a Spain international who played for Madrid and Barcelona, the man Getafe’s stadium is named after and who had a long and successful career. “I have only experienced anything like that once and I played for years,” he says. “We weren’t comfortable. You try to be professional. Our fans wanted us to lose, they’re encouraging you to, and with that guasa, that banter, they have in Seville. We lost.”

“And then three years later, there’s that ‘divine justice.'”

In 2000, incredibly, it happened again. Only the other way round. This time Sevilla, who had already been relegated, could ensure Betis went down to the second division with them if they lost to Sporting Gijón’s rivals Real Oviedo. Which they did.

Revenge had been served up cold, and very, very fast.

“Incredible, surreal, I have never experienced anything like it,” says the Oviedo goalkeeper Esteban Suárez. “It’s impossible to describe it.”

The newspaper El País tried to. “A pantomime,” they called it. “Tragic-comic,” “shameful,” an “insult” that “sullies the sport.”

Oviedo went 3-0 up, each of the goals celebrated by Sevilla’s supporters. At half time, the score still only 1-0 largely because Oviedo (who hadn’t won away from home in 14 months) kept missing chances, the Sevilla goalkeeper Frode Olsen asked to go off. He had been whistled when he made saves. Years later, he admitted telling a friend to bet on the result because he’d imagined his already relegated team, aware of the rarefied atmosphere around the match and the fans’ desire to lose, might get beaten. But he was still shocked. Other players too were furious — there were recriminations in the dressing room, players threatening to not go back out.

Some fans sang: “Oviedo, you owe us one,” happy to have helped out. Oviedo scored two more in the second half, in the 61st and 73rd minutes, at which point Sevilla immediately got two back in three minutes, as if their pride had been provoked or they sought to make a point. “And they were whistled for it,” Esteban recalls.

When Oviedo missed chances, the home fans chanted about how bad they were — even like this, even supported by their opponents’ fans, they were struggling.

“It was all so unnatural,” Esteban continues. They tried to be professional, and the coaches asked them to be, but it was very hard. They were already relegated and the atmosphere was tense, a whole year of criticism. It was as if the fans were laughing at their players. They booed their own players when they did something good. At the end, we went to applaud our own fans, and we ended up having to go and applaud the end where their hard core was too.”

“Coming into the game, we knew something might happen, but didn’t know what. I remember asking the manager, Luis Aragonés, who had seen it all in his career. And he said: ‘no idea: in Seville, they’re capable of anything.'”

Fifteen years later, in 2015-16, Cheryshev briefly joined Sevilla’s coaching staff. “One derby day, they saw me sitting there on the bench,” he recalls, “and they shouted at me: ‘how can you be there after what you did?!’ I was laughing. I didn’t know what to say.”

“In Seville, they’re quite calentitos (“warm”),” he says.



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Seville has a special colour, the song says. Think of all those images of Spain, the clichés and the picture book stuff, and it’s Seville. You remember “La Macarena,” right? Before that — a long time before that — the band Los del Río sang “Sevilla tiene un colour special”, a track that talks of the light and the life in the city, its sights and smells, its heart.

When the orange blossoms come out in the spring, the city of Carmen is genuinely a place that has an aroma of its own and “Sevilla tiene un colour special” eulogises about duende (“passion”) and gypsies and flamenco and toros, holy week and religious brotherhoods.

It doesn’t talk about football, but it should. That’s the environment in which the football is played, that shapes it, and that expresses who they are. The Seville derby is the way it is because Seville is the way it is. Noisy, loud, fun, the feeling held deep. Passionate. “The rivalry is carried by the city, it comes with it,” says Benjamín Zarandona, who played at Betis for eight years. “This might be the only city where you can still go by horse-drawn cart. It’s a city of tradition, of jokes, where people live out on the street.”

“If you still don’t know what Sevilla is like, come,” Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic says. “It’s an amazing city with an unbelievable atmosphere. The people are very open, the culture is wonderful. Once you come, you stay. You will love it for sure. Oh, and the jamón is special.”



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The former Betis striker Alfonso Pérez says: “It has something special as a city: toros, the April fair, the food, the climate, the people. Lots of bars, lots of people. So much so that I remember when the derby fell during the April Fair one year, they took us off to Jérez to avoid all that. Which is no guarantee — in fact, you lose because you get bored for four days, it’s too much.”

Better to be at the heart of it, Pablo Alfaro says. Better to feel what it means to the people. “My coach was Joaquín Caparrós,” he recalls. “He’s from here, a Sevillista since he was a kid. He would say ‘you have to live it. Don’t hide from it. Go and buy the paper, go and get the bread, get in a taxi. Soak it all up, immerse yourself in it, listen to the people, see it.’ You only have one life; you have to enjoy it.”

“The rivalry has a humour: they love to wind each other up. It’s usually quite healthy… but it can get tense too,” Alfonso says.

At times, the line has been crossed, and there’s an edge to it, for sure. There was a time when there were even be confrontations in the presidential box. It is a long time ago now, but one former player recalls a team-mate taking a pistol “just in case” and a doll hanging from the ceiling of the dressing room, in the colours of the opposition – a motivational tool, there to be hit at. Although it is much, much better now and one idiot doesn’t represent them all, at the last derby, a flag pole thrown from the end hit Joan Jordan on the head.

Above all, though, Seville knows how to enjoy itself, a place proud of being funny, wind-up merchants — guasa is the word they use, always taking the mickey. Seville is a place that is just proud. The derby is passionate, and it is theirs, bigger than anything else. “When you win the derby, it’s like you have won the Champions League final,” Benjamín says.

“I married a sevillana, my kids are sevillano and I always say to them: it’s a good job God never gave you the sea too because you would be unbearable,” Alfaro jokes. “And when they do go the coast, they go down to Cádiz; everything is within a 150km radius, they don’t need to go anywhere else to be happy. You live well. Tradition is very present. Almost every family has a connection to some religious brotherhood or other — the Macarena, the Gran Poder, Redención — there’s a deep sense of identification.”

When it comes to the football teams especially.

“When my wife’s grandfather was dying, he was seriously ill in hospital and they undressed him, but when they got to his Sevilla watch he insisted: ‘No, no, the watch stays on,’ Rakitic says. “He died wearing it.”

When Francisco Antunez left Betis for Sevilla in 1945, fans tried to block his exit, going to the train station to stop him leaving for Madrid to sign all the paperwork. They collected money to make him stay, but he went anyway. The famous Communist orator La Pasionaria railed against the move on Radio Moscow, where she had been in exile since the civil war, decrying “another assault launched by the oligarchy against the working classes, an injustice committed by a capitalist team against a proletarian one.”

“There is this image of Betis as representing the humble, working people, the people from the small towns around the city. Sevilla are in Nervión, a part of the city with power and wealth. There’s this idea of the typical señorito with his suit and tie, his business,” Benjamín says, explaining the myth, the popular perception of these clubs. Some of that idea lingers and shapes the way this derby is seen — myths matter even when they are myths — but it doesn’t stand up now, a socio-economic divide difficult to define.

Betis won their only league in 1935, led to the title by their Irish manager, Patrick O’Connell. But after the civil war, they slipped into the second division and even the third. Sevilla grew, creating an identification with city institutions. Betis survived through popular support, an attempt made to bring the club closer to the people, reaching out to the rest of Andalucía, while being in a lower division also meant lower prices, shifting and even expanding the social base of the club.

A phrase emerged that defines them even now, a ubiquitous line that brings together earthy pride, identity and location, a declaration of loyalty and love, a message for everyone immediately associated with them. Always written phonetically (incorrectly) to reflect its supporters’ voice, the accent of the city: Viva er Betis manque pierda. “Long live Betis, even if they lose.” The ultimate declaration of love. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer.

Manque pierda holds the image of Betis as a popular club, a populist one. An idiosyncratic club, noisy and fun, silly sometimes and so much the better for it, and liked across the country. When they were last relegated to the second division, there were still 40,000 season ticket holders.

But the idea of right and left, rich and poor — former socialist Prime Minister Felipe González was a Betis fan, which played into it nicely — is hard to sustain. There are neighbourhoods that are more bético, others that are sevillista. Triana is bética, they’ll tell you. But these are clubs spread right across the city and all social classes, countless contradictions that belie simplistic claims. And when it comes to fun, few grounds deliver like Sevilla’s Sánchez Pizjuán.

Sevilla’s anthem may well be the best in the game, spine-tingling and impossibly catchy: written for the centenary, it is little over a decade old, but it feels like they have been singing it forever. Something akin to manque pierda, maybe. An ode to the city, the emblematic Giralda tower of the Cathedral “proud” of Sevilla, who “never give up.”

“You could study it sociologically,” Alfaro says. “How many kids have become Sevilla fans because of that song?” Ivan Rakitic admitted this week that Lionel Messi would sometimes sing it in the Barcelona dressing room.

“Across history, it may be true that there was a time when Sevilla were a bit more of the rich club, Betis a bit more the humble club, but that’s over now,” Alfonso says. “Nervión, where Sevilla’s ground is, is a good area. Betis’s ground was a patch of land out of the way, but now there are houses around it — and very nice ones. Now it’s fully in the city.”

The two grounds are just 4km (2.5 miles) apart. The fanbases are spread right across Seville and across families too, where béticos and sevillistas live together. They are everywhere and almost equal, which is a key part of the rivalry. This is a city divided, split down the middle.

Right down the middle.

There are lots of béticos, they get everywhere and you can always hear them coming. They’re the country’s sixth-most popular club according to government statistics and economic migration from Andalucía, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, has spread them all over Spain. But Sevilla are not so far behind — 1.1{cf07cd047201b183b19c0b335dbd7d35a498f84568531c8abe8643bd3ccfd494} of the fans nationally compared to 3.2{cf07cd047201b183b19c0b335dbd7d35a498f84568531c8abe8643bd3ccfd494}, statistics suggest — and if Betis have more supporters across the rest of Andalucía and the Spain, within Seville it is close to 50-50.

In sporting terms, the past 15 years have seen Sevilla be more successful, as they had been in the 1940s and 50s, but as institutions they are of similar sizes and there has been a certain competitive parity too, Europe aside — one league each, four cups to two — and success hasn’t seen the social balance tip decisively, hasn’t blunted the rivalry. There isn’t really a big club-small club dynamic. In Barcelona, Espanyol are eclipsed. In Valencia, Levante are. Even Atlético are smaller than Real Madrid. Here, it’s different, and that makes it better.

It is huge, anyway, and it may never have been better than this. On Sunday, they meet with Sevilla second and Betis third. These clubs are flying the stadiums full, their football among the best in Spain. They could both win something in the same season, which hasn’t happened since 1935 when Betis took the league and Sevilla the cup. They have met in the Copa del Rey and could still meet in the Europa League. The final of which is in the Pizjuán: imagine a Seville derby there.

“There’s still a rescoldo now,” Diego Rodríguez says. It still burns. Diego had been at Betis for six years and he was the club’s captain. In 1988, he left… for Sevilla.

“No one had done it before, and it was hard,” he says. “I was hated for years. It was never forgotten. I didn’t do it to hurt anyone, I was thinking of myself, my career, and my family. It was a good option for me. I was a professional and I wanted to stay in the city: I had got married here, I had kids. When I told the players what I was going to do they said ‘you’re mad.’ But I was sure.”

“I had problems: I don’t really want to go into those. Times when you’re with your family. They were angry, I understood that. I was the captain of Betis. But they had dismantled a good team, we had almost gone down. Maybe they need to look more at the management of the club than at me, but no one said anything to the president.”

Within two months, he was back for his first derby in a Sevilla shirt, which was quite something.

That was just one of 23 derbies he played. Only Joaquín and Jesús Navas, the present club captains of Betis and Sevilla respectively, have ever played more derbies. “I gave my soul for both clubs,” he says. “And I liked going there, like you’re going into the Roman Coliseum. That atmosphere, the battle. The derbies were much tougher then: more edge, more aggressiveness. There were a lot of local players; now you look at the teams and there are hardly any. We won 3-1 away in that first derby on the other side, then 1-0 at home.” Diego scored.

Two years ago, 32 years after he crossed the divide, Diego did an interview about his career with Spanish television. “We recorded one part at the Pizjuán but I was told I couldn’t record at the Benito Villamarín,” he says.

“I’m Sevillista now and my wife is bética, my in-laws are béticos, my kids are sevillistas. My grandchildren: one is Sevilla, the other Betis.”

Alfonso played for Madrid and Barcelona and still, this is special, he says. “It’s lived with an intensity in the city that’s different.” he says. “Everyone supports Betis or Sevilla; it takes over everything in the week before the game, everyone is talking about it. Debates, reports, interviews, all the media. There’s a passion that’s unique.”

“We’re Sevilla, and playing Betis is different,” Caparrós said before a derby a few years ago. It is, he knows, different to anything, anywhere — and this is a man who has had a gun pulled on him in the dressing room.

“When you come out of the hotel, you can feel it’s different: that’s when you see what this means,” Benjamín says. And when you win, it’s unbelievable: the best thing there is. When I signed for Betis, everyone said ‘you have to beat Sevilla.’ I hadn’t even been presented yet, didn’t even have a shirt, and they were already saying that. Those are the games when I have been most nervous. I didn’t think it would be so big but, bloody hell, it’s the most important event of the year in the city. It is rivalry, feeling, passion.”

At the end of the derby in January 2018, when Betis had scored five at the Pizjuán, club captain Joaquín warned that anyone who didn’t stay out until at least 5 a.m. would be fined.

Esteban joined Sevilla in 2003, three years after he had faced them with Oviedo, an early glimpse of what he was getting himself onto that was soon driven home. “My second game was a derby, and I was out walking my son, who must have been three or four months old at the time. An old lady comes up to me and says: ‘you don’t want to mess this up’. It wasn’t a threat; it was more a piece of advice. And there you see it, from the start.”

“You can make a mistake any day, just not that day. And when you’re in goal, you hear everything. The result lasts all the way to the next derby. If you lose, you don’t leave home: send someone else out for the bread. Fortunately, we drew 2-2 at the Benito Villamarín.”

After Sevilla won one derby during easter a few years ago, the coach Joaquín Caparrós declared: “This is Seville, this is Sevilla, and you come here to the Ramón Sanchez Pizjuán to s— it. We have great fans, great players, and I feel privileged to be here. Holy Week starts in our city now and you’ll be able to see this result in the capirotes (the conical headwear that repenters wear) whether they’re pointing up or down: ‘That one’s a Seville fan, that one’s a Seville fan… and that one there is not.'”

“You leave the hotel, there are 4,000 in the street seeing you off with fireworks and flares,” Alfaro says. “You go in with the lions. I used to love that. It’s like the Roman circus there: thumb up or thumbs down. And then when you get back to the Pizjuán afterwards, they’re waiting for again, greeting you like returning heroes.”

What if you lose?

Alfaro laughs. “I was lucky,” he says, “I never did.”

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