Such is the omnipotence of Barcelona and Real Madrid – and the frequency of their meeting across three competitions - that you could easily be lulled into thinking that they represent Spanish football in its entirety. But Sunday night’s derby between Sevilla and Real Betis was a clear reminder that is most certainly not the case.
The city of Sevilla is exactly how I imagined Spain would be when I was a kid who’d never left the UK; it’s hot, lurid and loud with the bustle of flamenco and animated conversation. Local boy José Antonio Reyes once laughed and proclaimed “there’s no such thing as a shy Andalucian” when asked how he was fitting in at Arsenal, and he has a point. We’ll come back to Reyes later.
The derby is all these characteristics made into football and more. Imagine if, say, Newcastle and Sunderland were competing in the same city. Around 50,000, almost a tenth of the city’s population, tend to pack out either the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan (Sevilla’s stadium) or the Benito Villamarín (that of Betis) when derby day comes around.
When locals talk about the derby, they claim the rivalry doesn’t have much of an edge. On a Canal+ documentary before Sunday’s game, one Sevilla fan summed this up, describing a “healthy rivalry”. In the past, it hasn’t always been like that, spilling over more than once into something rather less edifying. Former Sevilla goalkeeper Frode Olsen claimed that his side might have thrown a game to get their crosstown rivals relegated, and a fight broke out in the directors’ box amongst rival board members in February 2007 in incidents that came to typify the mutual enmity.
A few things have changed since. One is the departure from the scene of Manuel Ruíz de Lopera, who was Betis’ major shareholder up until 2010 and was a man with the modesty to name the club’s stadium after himself. Another – and perhaps the most significant – was the tragic death of Antonio Puerta in August 2007, after the 22-year-old suffered multiple heart attacks during and after Sevilla’s La Liga game against Getafe.
Out of sorrow eventually came unity. The penny seemed to drop that sporting rivalry, however intense, should remain just that within the city. Almost three years without a derby, after Betis were relegated, allowed space for this common sense to develop.
It’s still a big deal. When the pair met for the first time after that break back in January, the Spanish sports daily Marca bumped its habitually exhaustive coverage of Real Madrid back a few pages to dedicate a lengthy section to the match, under the headline: “1,079 days without a derby is too long.”
Sunday night saw a few empty seats in the Sánchez Pizjuan, a reflection of the tough economic times, but the noise and the passion were still present. When Reyes, a surprise starter after a poor 2012 so far, gave Sevilla the lead after 12 seconds, the metaphorical roof came off. By half-time it was 4-0 to the hosts, and the substitutes and staff celebrated on the touchline as if they’d won La Liga. This match means something to everyone in the city.
Both Sevilla and Betis are well short of their pomp of six or seven years ago, and are hardly flush with cash to improve their standing. But rather significantly, this was a still a welcome reminder that La Liga is so much more than el clásico and cashflow problems.
Click here to read more from European football expert Andy Brassell.
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