BY DAN DAVISON
Real Betis are turning heads this season. Whilst fierce city rivals Sevilla have regressed from where they were last season, Betis are playing an ultra-attacking style of football that has every avid La Liga fan enthralled. Few teams across the continent are scoring more goals on a weekly basis than Betis, and few are conceding more. This, however, is no circus band of entertainers, here solely to capture the nation’s attention with a carefree, cavalier brand of football. This is a club steeped in rich history, a club with tens of thousands of passionate fans, and a club with big plans for the future.
Founded in 1907 originally as Sevilla Balompié (a secondary club to Sevilla FC who had been founded two years previously), Real Betis Balompie played their first game with that name in 1914 following an internal split from Sevilla. Betis finished 6th in their first Segunda season in 1929 but were promoted to La Liga three years later. The 1934-35 season, just their third season in the top flight, saw Betis crowned champions of Spain. Led by the Irish manager Patrick O’Connell, Betis pipped Real Madrid to the title, and have worn green and white colours ever since in honour of their legendary manager. Few teams in Spain, or indeed Europe, could match what Real Betis were providing their fans as one of European football’s first great entertaining sides.
A consistent feature in the history of Real Betis, however, is that around the corner from every high, there is an even greater low. There aren’t many clubs in Spain whose supporters have experienced quite the same levels of peaks and troughs that Real Betis supporters have. Sure enough, just two seasons after winning the league, Betis were relegated back down to the second tier. The 1940’s and ’50’s were dark times for the club – Betis were relegated to the third tier in 1947 and stayed there for seven seasons. Without the inspirational O’Connell at the helm, Betis lacked direction and at the most serious point – their mere existence was cast in doubt.
The saviour was a certain Benito Villamarin, a man so key to Real Betis’ resurgence that they named their stadium after him. When Betis were toiling both off the pitch financially and on the pitch, it was Villamarin who stepped in to take over the club, changing its direction. Results on the pitch improved almost immediately with more stability off the pitch and Betis were promoted back to the top flight in 1958. In 1965, having stabilised the club to the extent that Betis finished third in the 1962-63 season, Villamarin stepped down as president. No single person has had a greater impact on the club since.
Real Betis stayed in the top flight for the vast majority of the remainder of the 20th century, and even finished as high as third in the 1963-64 and 1994-95 season. The club have also won three Copa del Rey titles (in 1935, 1977 and 2005), but it is not trophies that define this club. Real Betis is ingrained into the very soul of Seville and the surrounding areas, it means much more to its fans than any trophy ever could. The fans are what makes Real Betis great and always have been. And as a result of their enduring support, the players who represent the club tend to have a real affinity with their fans. The love is genuinely reciprocal.
There are few better examples of this than one of Betis’ all-time greats, Rafael Gordillo. Having grown up in Seville supporting the club, Gordillo made his debut for the club in 1977. A player of supreme quality, Gordillo would go on to make 343 appearances for Los Verdiblancos over two spells with the club – despite spending seven years with Real Madrid in between. A tough, yet skilful player, Gordillo came to epitomise what remains so great about Real Betis to this day. As a fan himself, Gordillo knew what the club meant to its supporters and played every game as if his life depended on it.
These same values are important to Betis fans today. Betis are used to losing, they are used to spells in the second tier even. But Betis fans want to be entertained, and most of all they want to see that their team is giving 100% on the pitch. The twenty first century has certainly been interesting for Real Betis so far. They have been relegated three times since the turn of the millennium, the first of which came six months into the new century in 2000. With off-the-field problems and confusion over the structure of the club, Betis found themselves back in the dreaded Segunda. But they bounced back at the first attempt and just a few years later, something incredible happened.
In the 2004-05 season, Betis not only finished fourth in the league but won the Copa del Rey to boot. In an era where Real Madrid had their Galacticos, Barcelona were a year away from winning the Champions League and Sevilla and Valencia respectively had possibly their greatest teams in recent history – the magnitude of this achievement for Betis should not be underappreciated. Seen by the fans as confirmations of the belief they had always held that Betis were one of the country’s top clubs, there were few who watched Betis that season who could argue. Having defeated Basque giants Athletic in the semi-finals on penalties, it was fellow overachievers Osasuna who Betis found themselves up against in the final. In another extremely tightly-fought contest, it was boyhood Betico, Dani, who scored the winning goal for Los Verdiblancos. In one of many romantic stories in the history of the club, it was extremely fitting that the goal that won Betis their second ever Copa del Rey was scored by somebody so fiercely passionate about the club.
As Betis have to come expect though, with that silver lining followed a large cloud. Los Verdiblancos would not achieve a top half finish in the Primera for another eight years and in 2009 – they were relegated. Although promoted two years later, they suffered another relegation in 2014 – finishing bottom of La Liga on this occasion. Despite the passionate and large fanbase, and some of the great players to have represented the club, the one thing they have lacked for decades now is stability. And without that, it is impossible to have sustained periods of success. Stability is the foundation from which every great club has been built on.
It remains something that the club strives for to this day. If you were to visit Estadio Benito Villamarin, you are almost guaranteed an extraordinary experience. The passionate fans are amongst the best in Spain, if not Europe. The stadium is fantastic, particularly with the new stand in place this season. On the pitch too under coach Quique Setien, Betis are perhaps the most exciting team to watch in La Liga – attacking in an almost cavalier fashion, scoring and conceding goals aplenty. An amazing atmosphere: tick. A loyal, giant fanbase: tick. An exciting, attacking brand of football that guarantees goals: tick. Sustained stability on and off the pitch is the last piece in the jigsaw for this great club. Get that right, and there is no limit on how far they can go.
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