Class prevails in renewed Seville derby

BY foxsports • January 22, 2012

During a week in which another keenly disputed clásico set pulses racing and tongues wagging in world soccer, the return of another perpetual struggle has captured the imagination in Spain. The southern city of Sevilla has been preparing for the first derby in almost three years between its two clubs, Real Betis and Sevilla.

The anticipation has been such that not even the respective coaches attempted to roll out the ‘one-game-at-a-time’ clichés this week. Betis’ Pepe Mel, who played in and scored for the club in the derby back in 1991, admitted the game was “much more than just three points” while Sevilla’s habitually understated boss Marcelino referred to it as “the derby of all derbies.”

It is perhaps little surprise that the city’s own sports paper, Estadio Deportivo, dedicated its first 36 pages to the derby on the morning of the game, with just one page subsequently given over to the continuing storm over the conduct of Real Madrid’s Pepe against Barcelona. After all, the various regional sports newspapers of Spain famously wear hearts on sleeves and are fond of painstaking detail on their preferred teams. Yet even the Real Madrid-obsessed Marca gave over six pages to the derby of Sevilla, under the headline “1.079 días son demasiados sin derbi” (‘1,079 days is too long without a derby’).

There are several plausible reasons for the intensity of the rivalry – the nature of Betis’ very formation as a modern entity, following a schism from Sevilla, the comparable size as well as the geographical closeness of the pair – but relations plummeted in the opening stanza of the 21st century, in a series of ding-dong battles between rivals presidents Manuel Ruíz de Lopera (Betis) and José Maria del Nido (Sevilla).

Arguments included accusations as grave as alleged match-fixing and barbs as laughable as boasting about which club has the biggest parking lot. The whole sorry business reached a nadir in February 2007 when Ruíz de Lopera’s nephew and del Nido became embroiled in a scuffle in the directors’ box during a derby.

This week, it’s been different. That the poison has largely been drawn from the rivalry is due in no small part due to Ruiz de Lopera fading from the scene – he stepped down from the presidency in 2006 and finally sold his shares in 2010. This was greeted with some relief on the green and white side of town. A road sign on Avenida Heliópolis, on the approach to the Estadio Benito Villamarin, marked with the ground’s former name ‘Estadio Manuel Ruíz de Lopera,’ has the former head honcho’s name crossed out in marker pen, with Roberto Duran’s legend ‘no más’ annotating it.

Del Nido may not have entirely changed his spots, and at a team lunch he hosted on Thursday he stood, called a toast and calmly told his players to play the derby “like the world is about to end.” Yet he is toeing the line to a certain degree at present, having been handed a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence for embezzlement while acting as a lawyer for Atlético Madrid’s infamous late president Jesus Gil in the years before becoming Sevilla president. He will appeal the sentence.

More human factors have evolved the rivalry into what it is today. The tragic death of Sevilla’s Antonio Puerta in August 2007 is one. The defender collapsed on the pitch at the Estadio Ramón Sanchez Pizjuan against Getafe after the first of a series of heart attacks and died in hospital three days later. He was 22. The penny began to drop. Rivals are rivals, but these teams, these fans, share the same city and the same lives.

Accordingly, when Sevilla took the field on Saturday night its players were all wearing T-shirts with the slogan ‘¡Animo Miki!’ (Have courage, Miki) for Betis’ former Liverpool midfielder Mikel Roqué, currently battling pelvic cancer. This is a new era, of understanding and respect.

José Antonio Reyes’ recent return might have garnered national – and international – attention as the homecoming of a son of the soil, but in many ways his fellow academy product Jesus Navas is far more representative of the new sevillismo. While Reyes’ tears on leaving home for Arsenal in 2004 are an iconic image, the current captain is such a homebody that he had treatment for homesickness-induced panic attacks, partly inflamed by European away trips in Sevilla’s golden era of success under Juande Ramos.

Now the jewel in Sevilla’s crown, the mature Navas sets the mood. Having come up through the youth system at the same time as Puerta, he felt his colleague’s sudden passing as keenly as anyone, and was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

The coaches have also done their bit. This week, Marcelino qualified his (justifiable) comments about Sevilla’s greater sporting expectations for the season by emphasizing his “respect and admiration for Betis, the club and its supporters.” He and his opposite number have also talked up their own understanding.

“We talk a lot more than people might think,” said Mel during the week, while after the game Marcelino said the pair’s relationship is “sincere, frank and respectful.” The two bosses were even photographed enjoying a beer together in the run-up to the game on Thursday, as part of a promotion by the local brewery.

This impromptu drink-up showed that just because something’s staged, it doesn’t necessarily make it any less sincere. Many of the week’s events – the two boards of directors convening for dinner, del Nido and Betis counterpart Miguel Guillén’s reception with the mayor at city hall – have been for show, but if they’ve helped to define a calmer mood, all the better.

The surprise emergence of newly-promoted, but in-form Betis as a marginal favorite also skewed the balance. In an attempt to lift the spirits of a support frustrated by its side’s spluttering form of late (19 goals in 18 La Liga matches leading up to the derby), Sevilla opened the doors to the Estadio Ramón Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday morning for fans to watch the players go through a light training session before the game. Fifteen thousand turned up. New signing Babá, presented on the pitch after arriving from Portuguese side Marítimo, must have been impressed.

Of course, the fire never completely disappeared from the city’s belly. Groups of Sevilla fans began to congregate around the Ramón Sanchez Pizjuan from mid-afternoon, drinking and letting off firecrackers and fireworks. By 6 p.m. – still four hours ahead of kick-off – a dozen police vans surrounded the thousands of singing fans preparing for the march to Heliópolis, the district in which the Villamarín lies.

At the Villamarín, the partisan crowd chanted ‘[expletive] Sevilla, [expletive] Sevilla’ as the teams took the field. Meanwhile, the 5,000-strong contingent of away fans only began to stream into the ground five minutes before kick-off, as part of a police security measure, and the visitors’ section continued to fill during the first 20 minutes of the game.

Other remnants of pettiness exist, such as the unavoidable hypocrisy in the Betis announcer’s rather sniffy telling-off to the visitors: “Sevilla supporters, please stop throwing things on the pitch.” Of course, objects intermittently flew from elsewhere in the stadium throughout, and Álvaro Negredo was hit in the face by an errant toilet roll as he wheeled away to celebrate his equalizing goal.

Yet the atmosphere is discernibly different than in years past. On this writer’s visit to the corresponding fixture eight years ago, he was greeted on arrival at the stadium by the sight of some young Betis fans setting fire to a parked car. In the match itself, Dani Alves conceded a first-minute penalty with a ludicrous handball, allowing Alfonso to give Betis the lead, before Antoñito equalized for the visitors and the match descended into an ugly, fractious scrap.

Saturday’s derby couldn’t have been more different. While intense, noisy and hot, it was open, daring, optimistic and expressive. “Football was the winner in an emotional derby,” said Sunday’s Marca on its front page. Its pride stung in recent weeks by local and national criticism, Sevilla played with much of the expansive and forthright style that its supporters demand. Reyes’ lithe burst to release Navas to cross perfectly for Negredo’s goal was a window into how its future might satisfy expectations.

Yet Betis played – as they did at Barcelona the week before – without fear, and with the hunger to show La Liga what it was missing in the two years that it was away. Beñat’s sublime free-kick to open the scoring lit the Villamarín up, with béticos not just delighted to be lording it over their rivals, but thrilled by the expression of their side’s verve.

“We knew that there was real enthusiasm and excitement in the city about this match,” Betis midfielder Juanma told FOX Soccer after the match. “And we’d been looking forward to it while we were in the Segunda (last season). It was a great match too, with each team playing its football. In the end, a draw was fair enough.” His coach Mel concurred. “We’re happy because Sevilla are going home happy.”

Of course, he actually meant that Sevilla’s pleasure at leaving with a draw was a mark of his side’s progress, but his ease at using such language shows how times have changed. At the match’s climax, both sets of players and fans were applauding each other, in an appropriate end to the derby drought. The city of Sevilla needs this rivalry, but it is all the more gripping for the fact that its intensity is undimmed by mutual appreciation.

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