This feature is part of A Tale of One City
Seville is an astonishingly beautiful city. Cloaked in distinctive, Moorish architecture and set against the dramatic backdrop of the river Guadalquivir, many would point to the Andalusian capital as being perhaps the most alluring city in Spain. Town streets enchanted with effortlessly stylish bars and colourful buildings, Seville is a charismatic metropolis, doused in the endless sun of southern Spain.
The obvious tourist attractions are the Alcazar and the Seville Cathedral – the third largest in the world. While soaking in the gothic brilliance of the cathedral is a no-brainer on any itinerary, experiencing the fiery passion of the Seville derby – inside the Estadio Benito Villamarín or the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium – is arguably the most exciting and arresting experience the Sevillanos can offer.
Contested between two historic institutions of Spanish football – Real Betis and Sevilla – the Seville derby is the lesser-appreciated sibling of the El Derbi Madrileño or El Clásico in Spain. The immense gravitational pull of media attention outside Spain garnered by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid are such that the Seville derby is somewhat omitted from discussion between football fans in Britain. However, whenever Sevilla and Betis meet, it is a strong reminder that Spanish football is much more than just Barcelona and Real Madrid. Much more.
The derby showcases the usual enmity between fans, and the passions can indeed boil over into ugly scenes at times, but this football match has also depicted the heart-warming harmony that can be shared between even the greatest rivals.
Back in 2007, Sevilla’s wing-back Antonio Puerta collapsed on the pitch during the opening weekend of the season. He had suffered cardiac arrest. When it was announced, at 2.30pm on August 28, 2007, that Puerta had passed away, the footballing community fell into a collective mourning at the sudden and tragic loss of a blossoming talent. Sevilla had lost their ‘Diamond Left Foot’ aged just 22.
Puerta’s death was felt by everyone in the country, with the sense of sympathy intensified by the revelation that his girlfriend was expecting their first child. His coffin was laid in the stadium, and thousands of well-wishers flocked from throughout Spain to pay their respects. Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, the eccentric owner of Betis, said: “This is a blow to the whole of Seville. Our thoughts are with Sevilla, with the player’s family and with the player, who I am sure will be in heaven.”
His words echoed the commiserating sentiments of the entire Betis fan base, which put their rivalry with Sevilla to one side in a mark of respect to a fallen colleague. He was a Sevillista; a Sevillista since birth thanks to his father who played for Triana Balompie and having grew up in Nervión, the area where Sevilla’s stadium is located, but Betis had willingly disregarded the historic conflict between the two football clubs to salute the Spain international.
Puerta’s death was a particularly heart-breaking moment in the storied history of the Seville derby. Sevilla were formed in 1905, by a group of English expatriates, but the progression of the team was perturbed by several founding members leaving to form what would become Real Betis. Neither team are close to threatening Real Madrid’s remarkable haul of 32 La Liga titles, with one apiece, but in Seville, winning the derby means just as much as winning the league.
The only league title Betis have ever won came in the same year as the Spanish Civil War, which saw the break-up of their title-winning side and ushered in a period of trouble, when they had envisaged further glory. In fact, it was Sevilla who basked in the sweet glow of a golden era, winning the cup in 1939 while finishing second in the league. Sevilla won their only league championship in 1946, the same year that Betis fell down to the Third Division — the dreaded basement of Spanish football — where they toiled for seven years.
Puerta’s passing was the presage of a calming period in the rivalry, that also came about after Juande Ramos was knocked unconscious after an airborne glass bottle – flung from the stands – connected with the Sevilla coach’s head. The atmosphere had been exceptionally intense during the Copa del Rey quarter-final but there was still no predicting Ramos ending his night in hospital. It was an extreme indication of the animosity that exists between the Betis and Sevilla fans.
The night of Ramos’s bottling, in February 2007, is highlighted as a nadir in the relationship between the two clubs. José León issued a controversial statement following the Ramos incident, apologising for the “one-off event”. The incident had not been isolated; the bottle that struck the Sevilla boss’s head was the third to be thrown from the stands during Sevilla celebrating their goal.
Ramos and Puerta, separated by just six months, appeared to be the two catalytic factors in a pacifying of the aggression shared between the fans. When the entire Betis team turned up to the funeral of Puerta, the bottling of Ramos seemed like a distant memory, a foolish act lost in the greater importance of showing respect for one of the coach’s players.
Since Puerta’s passing, Sevilla have honoured him by flourishing on the pitch. In May, they claimed a second successive Europa League triumph, while they also lifted the Copa del Rey in 2010. Under Unai Emery, Sevilla have become one of the most stylish and exciting teams in Europe, consolidating themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Spanish football; during the same period, their neighbours have endured a hellish rollercoaster of a ride.
In 2009, they were relegated from La Liga after finishing 18th. The club was cash-strapped and regressing on the pitch. Protests raged over their controversial owner, Ruiz de Lopera, as the club faced the ignominy of the Segunda División. In 2013, they were relegated once more, 12 months after finishing seventh, as the club found itself dogged by inconsistency.
Read | Sevilla and Betis: togetherness through tragedy
Indeed, the relegation of Betis has always provided an important footnote in the coexistence of these two clubs. In 1978, their demotion was shrouded in controversy, though, as Betis finished above Elche and Cádiz and level on points with Hercules and Espanyol, but with a vastly superior goal difference. Despite this, Betis were relegated. The system in operation back then was a complex one which compared home defeats with away wins and, thus, they were condemned to the lower division.
However, that was not the real controversy. The hullabaloo was sparked not because of Betis’ injustice at the Spanish league system, but because of allegations surrounding the so-called complot de Alicante, when Sevilla – comfortable in mid-table – supposedly threw their game in order to get their rivals relegated. Following that, the rivalry grew yet more intense. Hatred erupted between Sevilla and Betis.
During the 2009 spell in the lower league, Betis fans dreamed of squaring up against their great rivals once again, but for a period of three years dream is all they could do, as the Seville derby was forced into an involuntary hiatus. Then, in January 2012, after three years of waiting, the derby was revived.
The game, at the Villamarín, finished 1-1, and with that draw the Sevillistas and Beticos had a rivalry renewed. Since then, it has been like the two teams have been making up for lost time, producing several classics in a modern game that has grown to become one of the most consistently entertaining in Spanish football.
Sevilla, determined as ever not to let their rivals re-settle themselves in the top-tier after promotion, demolished Betis 5-1 after a virtuoso performance that included an opening strike from José Antonio Reyes after just 11 seconds. Betis were hurting, and hurting badly. However, Pepe Mel’s Beticos were not to be outdone by their rivals, despite capitulating spectacularly against them in that season’s first meeting.
Come May, Betis avenged that harrowing 5-1 defeat with a valiant 2-1 victory, confirming their position over Sevilla that season, finishing seventh and six points above. For Mel and his players, it was a moment of great pride and redemption, rising up from the Segunda to finish above their rivals and earn a place in the Europa League. But the Sánchez Pizjuán has been an auditorium of terrors for Betis in recent years.
Their next trip produced another tormenting evening, hammered 4-0 by an irresistible Sevilla. ‘Betis head to the slaughterhouse again,’ ran the headline in El Mundo. Sevilla’s players may have just fallen short in gifting the home crowd to a second consecutive manita – a full hand of goals, one for each finger – but they inflicted further trauma on their rivals in a frenetic, high-tempo display. Goals from Carlos Bacca, Stephane M’Bia, Vitolo and Iborra – a quartet of players all playing in their first Seville derby – secured another immensely satisfying triumph and left Betis dejected and rock bottom of the table. It was to be another wretched campaign for Betis, who were once again relegated to the second division.
There were, however, still moments to cherish from that season for the men in green and white. During another dazzlingly entertaining derby, Nosa Igiebor struck in the 90th minute to complete a historic comeback for Betis, coming from 3-0 down to share the points with Sevilla. It was the first time Sevilla had ever lost a three-goal lead to their rivals, to anyone in the top division, in fact, and it spelt one of the most breathless and frenetic encounters this derby had seen for many years.
A night of loud drama and controversy, Marca raved about the “extreme derby,” while AS recounted on a truly “epic” encounter. Six goals, six yellow cards, 43,000 screaming fans, the match was an instant classic. Reyes, who had starred in Sevilla’s 5-1 win over their rivals, returned to haunt the back-line with a perfectly threaded through ball to the feet of Ivan Rakitić, who slotted home the opener. Six minutes later, the Croatian playmaker grabbed his, and his team’s second, and the visitors looked to have wrapped up the three points before half-time when Álvaro Negredo struck with typical aplomb to give Mel’s team a mountain to climb.
But it was a mountain they were prepared to ascend. Firstly, Dorlan Pabón clipped the ball over Beto to give the hosts a glimmer of hope. Then, the Betis voices roared as Rubén Castro converted a spot kick to haul them further back into proceedings. Suddenly, the Sevilla resistance was crumbling, and it was made all the more brittle after Gary Medel saw red for recklessly kicking out at José Cañas. The nerves crept through the Sevilla players uncontrollably. They had sprayed the ball around the pitch in the first half with consummate panache but, in the dying embers, the ball seemed glued to their penalty area.
Then, a cross was floated to the back post and headed home by Nosa Igiebor. An expensive summer import, Igiebor had struggled in his debut campaign in Andalusia, but his last-gasp equaliser vaulted him to heroic status in the eyes of the Betis fans. Betis had done the unthinkable as Sevilla hit the self-destruct button. For the Nigerian international, it was his finest moment in a Betis shirt, and a reminder of how this derby is where heroes are made.
Betis returned to La Liga in May 2015 at the first time of asking and when the 2015-16 season fixture list was released, the eyes of Betis and Sevilla fans looked immediately to when the derby will return. Being forced to watch on from the second division as Unai Emery’s men lifted another major honour in Europe, Betis will be undoubtedly driven to restore some balance to the rivalry.
Sevilla, meanwhile, will need no invitation to spread their bragging rights as they look down from the heady heights of the Champions League group stages. In monthly instalments, in the magazine ÉPOCA in the 1970s, revered Spanish football writer Juan José Castillo spoke of the two clubs within the context of cal y arena (lime and sand), as Phil Ball recounted in Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football.
He was referring to the emergence of a powerful Sevilla during the Second World War, while Betis descended into decline. And, while Sevilla have undoubtedly endured the greater success in recent years, there is also no denying that the resurgence of Betis adds another exciting dynamic to the Seville derby. In one of Europe’s most picturesque cities, two football teams are ready to go again.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11