Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao – the three historic hotbeds of Spanish football, where some of Spain and Europe’s most passionate rivalries take place. But for once let’s forget about these three cities and focus on the metropolis that is Seville. It is here where one of Spain’s fiercest and often most overlooked rivalries takes place. Where red and white meets green and white. This is Sevilla vs. Real Betis – the Derbi Sevillano.
Seville, based in Andalucía, the southern autonomous region of Spain, is without question one Europe’s most enchanting cities. It is a quintessential Spanish city, full of colour, flamenco dancers and draped in ancient Moorish architecture. Throw in the seemingly never-ending sunshine, Seville doesn’t struggle when it comes to attracting tourists. Visiting the city’s stunning gothic cathedral is usually the number one attraction on the tourist’s itinerary. But if you’re in town at the right time of the year, you may be lucky enough to indulge, along with the locals, in their number one event – when the city’s football teams come face to face.
Not only is this one of Spain’s most passionate rivalries, but it is also one of the oldest. First on the scene was Sevilla FC in January 1890, who were followed by Sevilla Balompie (Balompie used to be the Spanish word for football) in September 1907. With internal disputes rife at Sevilla, over the alleged refusal to sign a player from a low socio-economic background, breakaway club Betis Futbol club was formed. In 1914 Betis Futbol Club and Sevilla Balompie aligned, thus creating the club we now know today as Real Betis. It is here where we have a key component in the narrative of the Seville derby; the class divide. Sevilla representing the social elite and Betis, the working class.
The first meeting between the two clubs took place in 1915, with Sevilla running out 4-3 winners. The game, however, had to be abandoned due to the rioting spectators. It would not be the last time that the derby would be overshadowed by violence. One of the earliest talking points of this historic rivalry came in 1918. With many of the Betis first team players occupied with their national service, they were forced to field a team of youth players. The game went ahead and unsurprisingly Sevilla won. How much did they win by? Just by 22 goals. Sevilla 22-0 Real Betis.
Historically, Sevilla have been the top dogs in the city, having spent more years in La Liga and winning more trophies. Although both have only once been champions of Spain, it is Betis who can lay claim to being the first club from the city to achieve this goal – in 1935. Just before the outbreak of Spain’s brutal Civil War and under the management of legendary Irishman, Patrick O’Connell. Los Rojiblancos however, would have to wait until 1946 to reach parity with their neighbours.
Betis’s home ground was bombed during the war and many of their influential players who happened to be of Basque heritage – due to the large amount of Basque families who moved south in hope of employment when the industrial revolution in the north of the country began to decline – either went into hiding or fled the country. Spain’s champions were ripped apart and were never to be the same again. Who knows how far this team could have gone had it not been for the Civil War. With Spain now under full control of General Francisco Franco the two clubs were about to go in different directions. Sevilla regularly competed at the top of La Liga, with frequent top six finishes throughout the 1940s and 50s, winning their one La Liga title. Betis on the other hand – with their liberal fan base – spent the best part of these two decades in Spain’s second and third tiers. The championship of 1935, now a distant memory.
In 1978, after a period of consolidation in La Liga and just one year after winning their first ever Copa del Rey, Los Verdiblancos, found themselves back in the Segunda division in more than questionable circumstances. With Sevilla comfortably sitting in mid table, it is alleged that they threw the game against their neighbour’s relegation rivals, Hercules CF, thus seeing their crosstown rivals slide down the Spanish football pyramid. From that day, the hatred in the rivalry ratcheted up a notch.
When the city of Seville won the bid to host the 1999 World Athletic Championships, a proposal was put forward for both Sevilla and Betis to leave their ageing stadiums and share the newly constructed Estadio Olimpico. Unsurprisingly, both Sevillistas and Beticos never allowed this to happen. With too much pride at stake, both clubs still reside happily at opposite sides of the city – in the districts of Heliopolis for Betis and Nervion for Sevilla. Their passionate dislike for each other shining bright and fuelled in their respective neighbourhoods.
This was at a time where it looked as if Betis were ready to leave their nearest and dearest behind. They had money and lots of it, thanks to their president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, who was the kind of person you either love or hate. The money wasn’t all talk either, and in 1998 Betis broke the world transfer record, bringing Denilson de Oliveira over from São Paulo. With this stunning transfer, Betis fans had found a new arrogance. It also helped that at the same time Sevilla were suffering from heavy debts, with reports that they may have to sell their beloved home the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium. Unfortunately for Betis this arrogance wasn’t to last long.
The 1999/00 season saw both clubs suffer the humiliation of relegation from La Liga, a real embarrassment for such a proud footballing city. An immediate return to the top tier followed for both, with Seville pipping Betis to the title. Cue bragging Sevillistas.
Since the beginning of the new millennium the derby has been littered with controversy and violent episodes. In February 2002, a Sevilla fan ran onto the pitch to attack the then Betis goalkeeper Toni Prats, causing uproar amongst all Beticos. However, nothing comes close to the unsavoury incident of 2007. A winner takes all Copa del Rey tie between the two rivals is always going to set the pulses racing but on this occasion things went a step too far. There was already a toxic atmosphere within Betis’s Estadio Benito Villamarin, with the home fans provoking the Sevilla contingent by burning flags with their club’s emblem on it. With Sevilla taking a 1-0 lead and Betis fans incensed; bottles, screws, lighters and coins rained down (as they had been throughout the game) on the celebrating staff and players, all missed, but one.
A bottle struck former Betis manager Juande Ramos – now in charge of the eternal enemy – on the back of the head. The blow caused Ramos to lose consciousness, he had to leave the stadium in an ambulance and he spent the night recovering in hospital. The incident saw the game abandoned. The ambulance taking the Sevilla manager to hospital was also pelted with bottles and the chant of ‘Ramos Die’ was reported. This is not to say that Sevilla fans were impeccably behaved, as we know there is always a minority on both sides. The two-hundred or so Sevillistas that were reportedly denied entry to the stadium began setting light to a number of rubbish bins and telephone boxes in the area. It was clear the rivalry had hit a new low.
The aftermath saw the directors of both clubs blamed for creating an environment in which this hateful episode could flourish. The build-up to the encounter saw many public arguments between members of the hierarchy of the two clubs as to whether or not Sevilla’s president Jose Maria del Nido would be allowed to attend the game in the VIP section of the home stadium. This was due to the farcical relationship the presidents had with each other – in short, they didn’t want to be seen in public together. Eventually, an agreement was reached and the president was allowed to take his seat, where he too had coins thrown at him, with one striking him on the nose.
The sports minister of Spain Jaime Lissavetzky, eventually got involved, condemning both clubs over the ordeal. “It’s a shameful incident…certain individuals from the clubs generated a climate that meant the game could not take place in a normal atmosphere”.
It would be Sevilla that had the last laugh though, ending the season by winning both the Copa del Rey – their first since 1948 – and UEFA Cup – their second in two seasons. Sevilla were firmly the dominant force in the city and continue to be so today.
In August 2007, six months after the Copa del Rey fiasco, the tragic death of Sevilla defender Antonio Puerta shook the city of Seville. He suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch in a league game against Getafe, aged just 22. Puerta was a Sevillista from the moment he was born, having been raised in Nervion. The heart-breaking nature of how Puerta passed away only grew more upsetting, with Puerta’s partner, Mar Roldan being heavily pregnant with the couple’s first child. Two months later, his son, Aitor Antonio Puerta Roldan was born.
However, it was this terribly distressing incident that saw the two clubs come together. Betis fans, players, management and board members joined their neighbours in paying respects to Antonio Puerta. With President De Lopera stating, “Betis and Sevilla are brothers – Antonio Puerta has sent us a message of unity from heaven”. Both opposing Presidents embraced one another, an image which seemed impossible just six months prior. Grief and mourning had brought these two old foes together for the first time.
It is unquestionable, since both clubs won promotion back to La Liga together in 2001, that Los Rojiblancos have dominated the football scene in Seville. Their two Copa del Rey’s and the quite incredible five (three in the last three seasons) UEFA/Europa Cups are testament to that. Whilst Los Verdiblancos have been relegated on three separate occasions. That’s not to say it has been all doom and gloom for Betis. They too have achieved their own success in this time period with their triumph over Osasuna in the 2005 Copa del Rey final. Combined with their qualification into the Champions League as a result of their fourth place finish in the same season. A famous 1-0 victory over José Mourinho’s English champions, Chelsea would follow.
With the first Derbi Sevillano of the season going Sevilla’s way with a 1-0 win in September, the two great rivals will not meet until February, when from within the beautiful heart of this beautiful city, the beast will be released once more. You can be sure that there will be some kind of talking point to add to this fascinating derby, where Spain’s most picturesque city plays host to the nation’s fiercest intercity rivalry.