When you think of Spain it doesn’t take too long going down the list of cultural touchstones until you reach the beautiful game.. fútbol. So while I would want to go to a match simply for the pure enjoyment of watching the sport, I also wanted to experience this important Spanish slice of life while I was in Seville.
The city has two teams – FC Sevilla, the more accomplished and decorated side, and Real Betis, the city’s “second” team that has struggled throughout its history. Real Betis is known to have some of the most loyal supporters in Spain, even drawing huge crowds when they bounce down to the country’s second division, a place they were as recently as the previous season. But this year, they ascended back into La Liga, and on a Saturday night in October, were taking on RCD Espanyol. With a little help from our Airbnb host back in Madrid, we obtained tickets for the match, and were among the first people through the gates when they opened at the Estadio Benito Villamarín.
We bought those seats to have some protection from the overhang of the stadium’s roof in case of a rainy night. Even though the day featured almost biblical rains, the evening cleared away for a perfect night for soccer. My wife and I are getting the hang of soccer matches in Europe now (a Lazio match last year in Rome, a Sparta match a couple years back in Prague) and make sure to coordinate our colours with the home side. For this trip, I bought a new Betis shirt while my wife happened to have a perfect colour match shirt already in her wardrobe.
We settled in to watch the two teams warm up. At the far end, the Betis goalkeeper, Antonio Adán was getting loose, while his Espanyol counterpart was already working on stopping some shots from the top of the penalty area.
A unique quirk of southern Spain matches in the summer and early fall is the exceptionally late start time to avoid the oppressive heat of the day. As the players were coming out for the pre-match formalities, the clock had already struck 10:00pm. That didn’t deter anyone and even the youngest Betis fans were amped up for the match to start.
As Real Betis entered the Estadio Benito Villamarin, 30,000 supporters held their scarves high and sang the team’s anthem to them. It gave me goosebumps.
Promptly at 10:05pm, Real Betis was over the ball and ready for the opening kick.
Although their fans were ready for the game, Betis was clearly not. Four minutes in, off a set piece, Espanyol drove a header into the Betis goal to take a 1-0 lead and quiet the crowd immediately. Bummer.
The first half was a blur of action with a ton of chances for both teams. After the poor start, Betis took over control of play for a long stretch and repeatedly threatened the equalizer. I had mostly lost my voice by halftime cheering for chance after missed chance. Below, one of their better opportunities, a header from a corner kick was knocked just wide of goal by the Espanyol goalkeeper.
Throughout the match the Real Betis fans sang and drummed almost continuously, with the supporters section behind the net trading off with another rowdy section up in a far corner of the upper deck. Much of the game had me bopping in my seat to the rhythms. It was a full-on assault of the senses.
At the end of a thrilling half, Betis was down 1-0. Halftime is an interesting experience at a game in Spain. Most fans bring in foil wrapped sandwiches for a meal (at nearly 11:00pm on this night!). Everyone around us had delicious looking sandwiches, many of which were plumply filled with delicious chorizo. A very ingenious fan in the row in front of us had brought in what looked like a second foil wrapped sandwich, but was in reality a foil wrapped plastic bottle filled with red wine. Brilliant. I love Spain!
Sandwiches devoured, the crowd lost a bit of steam early in the second half and Espanyol regained match control and took a 2-0 lead in the 51st minute. The goal scorer ran to the sidelines to mock the Betis fans and a few of the team’s substitutes as part of his celebration.
Espanyol added a third goal only four minutes later to essentially salt away the match. As the subsequent minutes ticked by, Espanyol dropped into a defending stance and slowed the game down – anyone who was even breathed on fell to the ground feigning injury to kill some time.
Betis did deliver me a goal to celebrate. In the 89th minute, just after this scramble, Vincenzo Rennella found the back of the net on a well placed shot and I got to leap out of my seat to cheer. I realized everyone else had lost interest in the match when few around me did more than offer polite applause.
Betis kept the pressure on through four minutes of stoppage time and had a number of excellent chances to draw within a goal, but the lack of quality finishing continued to hamper them as it did in the first half. Shortly after midnight, we filed out of the stadium amongst a very quiet group of people who stayed until the bitter end. A loss for the home team, but an incredible slice of Andalusian and Spanish culture, and a full evening of great memories for me.