There can be few better approaches to a stadium than walking down the Avenida de la Palmera in the late afternoon sun. Its buildings, alternating between businesses and sprawling high-end villas, contain a hotchpotch of grand architectural styles like a Mediterranean West Egg. Some of Seville’s most expensive properties hide behind ten-foot-high, foliage-covered walls that block your view of the Benito Villamarin until the last moment.
In contrast, the raw concrete of the stadium catches you off guard. Its weathered nature – Seville is the unofficial “warmest city in Europe” and it is 30 degrees Celsius at 5pm in late October – gives it the impression of a drained manmade lake, pockmarked and fissured gray where color might usually appear.
It is also a wonderful place to watch football. Its steep sides make it feel compact and yet it holds over 60,000 spectators. The rundown fascia is contrasted by the renovated interior that traps the noise inside and swirls it around.
But the best part of the stadium are the stairwells in the top tier that are open to the outside world. They offer square windows of outside life: industry, apartment blocks, something other than football. As the sun sets, each square glows first gold, then orange and then pink. You could not wish to be anywhere else in the world.
Until 2005, Sevilla and Betis’ rivalry was largely competed on an equal footing. Neither team has won La Liga since 1950, they had won one Copa del Rey between them over the same period (Betis in 1977) and in the preceding 25 years had each suffered two relegations to the Segunda Liga. Sevilla had a historic reputation as the club of the middle class and Betis as the club of the proletariat, but those lines had largely become blurred over time. The rivalry was fevered and frantic, but Seville was the city of sleeping giants.
And then Sevilla rose to European prominence. Or, to be more specific, Monchi happened. Appointed as the club’s sporting director in 2000 and tasked with overhauling the academy and recruitment model, Sevilla feasted on the fruits of Monchi’s labor for a 15-year period. They won six Uefa Cup / Europa League titles and two more Copa del Reys. During a 15-month period in 2015 and 2016, Sevilla competed in six finals.
Over the same period, Betis won two trophies, both of them second-tier titles following shambolic relegations. Even the best UEFA Cup run in their history – in 2013/14 – ended after they beat Sevilla 2-0 in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan only to lose by the same scoreline at home a week later, lose the penalty shootout too and then lose seven of their next eight league games to be relegated. Between December 2013 and December 2014 alone, Betis had five different coaches.
If Sevilla’s honeymoon caused great jealousy in Heliopolis, Betis were lucky to be afloat at all. Majority shareholder Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, who had assisted the club in the 1990s and famously funded the world-record purchase of Denilson, was already unpopular with supporters after Betis’ relegation in 2009 but was then charged with fraud offences relating to tax bills in the late-90s. Betis were left in limbo for five years, under judicial control with Lopera unable to sell his shares and with debts mounting.
But then losing and crises have always been part of Betis’ culture. They have a phrase – manquepierda – that has become a philosophical doctrine. Literally translated as “even if they lose”, it describes a refusal to give up in a crisis, a faith not that good times are certain to come but that good times do not matter. The relationship between supporter and club does not depend on success, simply on an indelible pride. That pride is more visible when times are tough. It isn’t that Béticos embrace defeat and shun victory – this is not a philosophy of defeatism. But they will treat each of those imposters the same.
It is more than a catchphrase or marketing slogan. Betis may have won two major trophies in 85 years, but they have a majestic fanbase. Villamarin has the fourth highest average attendance in La Liga and the club recently passed 50,000 season ticket holders. Forty thousand arrive for a Europa League game against Bayer Leverkusen, a midweek early kick-off. Around the front of the middle tier, a sign reads: “From parents to children, from grandparents to grandchildren, a passion known as Betis”.
And they are finally being rewarded for their faith. After a judge lifted the restrictions on the club’s spending and ownership in 2015, shareholder Angel Haro won the election to become Betis chairman in February 2016. One of his first initiatives was to invite Beticos to buy shares in the club and become the majority owner. Supporters now own 55 per cent of Betis and that increased sense – figurative and literal – of ownership has strengthened the bond between club and community even further. They now have more season ticket holders than at any point in their history.
Two per cent of those shares are owned by Joaquin, the 40-year-old winger who is a personification of Betis on the pitch: loyal, hard-working with a touch of unpredictable magic, still desperately hanging onto his career. Joaquin has now played 585 La Liga matches, 35 more than any other outfielder in the league’s history. He is not even close to being a one-club man (nine years at Valencia, Napoli and Malaga saw to that), but there is only one club in his heart.
On Thursday evening, Betis were pegged back by a Bayer Leverkusen side that sits third in the Bundesliga and will challenge them for top spot and an automatic qualifying place in the Europa League’s knockout stages. But they are enjoying themselves again. They are consolidated back in La Liga – four top-half finishes in six years – have assembled an excellent squad and finally feel no obligation to sell their best players. In charge is Manuel Pellegrini, a wily old head who always seemed more comfortable in Spain than England.
Perhaps it is purely a coincidence that a calmness has washed over Betis in the years following their fan ownership scheme. The romantic would plead otherwise: Betis are finally moving forward sustainably because they have those who love the club most closer to its center than ever before. As higher-profile La Liga clubs struggle to juggle financial mismanagement with pandemic economics, Betis are in a brighter place than most. Manquepierda will never die; it is a cornerstone of what Betis is and always will be. But this club might finally be in a place to win again.