Just a short trip up the road from Huelva, Seville is my nearest location for top flight football, boasting as it does two of the country’s best-supported clubs in Real Betis (who I’ll talk about some other day) and Sevilla.
Sevilla FC came into being in 1890 when some British residents of the city heard about the formation of Spain’s first football club in Huelva and decided to challenge them to a match. So on 8th March 1890, the first official football match in Spain took place in Seville, with the hosts emerging triumphant by two goals to nil.
The present-day club has stressed its link to this first game, proudly proclaiming ‘Desde 1890’ (since 1890) around the stadium, although this hasn’t always been the official policy (they celebrated their centenary in 2005, the hundredth anniversary of the club’s official formation). The centenary coincided with the start of the club’s modern golden era, which has brought numerous trophies, most notably the five UEFA Cup/Europa League victories. They’ve hit upon a winning formula, bring through young players and sign players of potential, then sell them on for a huge profit, and repeat: Ramos, Navas, Alves, Reyes, Rakitic, Bacca, Gameiro… and that’s only scratching the surface of the huge list of players who have made their name at the Sanchez-Pizjuan before big money moves elsewhere.
The summer of 2016 brought a lot of new signings and a new coach in the shape of Bielsa disciple and football-hipster favourite, Jorge Sampaoli, so naturally as soon as I got my first months wages in the bank, I was off up the road to see a game.
After a morning spent in the historic centre of the city, wandering around the streets which are home to the city’s cathedral and the palace and gardens of the Real Alcazar, once home to medieval kings, now home to the almost universally panned Dorne parts of Game of Thrones, the Sanchez-Pizjuan is just a short metro ride away. €2,70 takes you from Puerta de Jerez to Nervion, where you turn the corner and you’re pretty much outside the ground, tucked away behind a shopping centre, which is pretty handy for pre-match food.
Depending on which side you approach the stadium from, you’ll be greeted by one of two magnificent azulejos (tiled mosaics). The older one, over the main entrance, was commissioned in 1982 to commemorate the ground’s staging of two games at the 1982 World Cup and features the club crest, surrounded by those of a number of their opponents. The other, on the south side of the ground, was commissioned for the centenary in 2005 and shows the club crest flying above the landmarks of the city.
The pre-match atmosphere on this occasion had a distinct theme to it as fans from both sides joined together by the main entrance to protest against deeply unpopular Liga President Javier Tebas. Shouts of “¡TEBAS VETE YA!” filled the air. Although it seems they fell on deaf ears as Tebas was eventually re-elected to the presidency unopposed.
Once inside, I was relieved to be on the sheltered side of the ground. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know Seville is almost unbearably warm during the summer months and even on the first day of October, it was still hot enough for shorts and t-shirts to be acceptable attire and for a water break to be necessary during the second half.
As kick off looms, you are treated to one of the highlights of the matchday experience. Every club in Spain has an anthem that is played before kick-off. Not some appropriated pop song like certain British clubs, but a song specifically composed for the club. There are classical-sounding ones, traditional-sounding ones, even rock-sounding ones (Depor’s sounds like a bad Status Quo b-side), but Sevilla’s, recorded by local singer El Arrebato for the centenary celebrations in 2005, is comfortably one of the best. Hearing the crowd belt it out before kick-off is a proper ‘shivers down your spine’ moment. It’s no wonder that former Sevilla boss Unai Emery reportedly made new signings learn the words, even those who didn’t speak Spanish.
The 16th minute is another landmark moment in any Sevilla home game, as the crowd applaud and chant in honour of Antonio Puerta. Puerta was a homegrown player who died after collapsing on the Sanchez-Pizjuan pitch during a game in August 2007. Sevilla tried to retire the number 16 shirt in his honour, but were prevented from doing so by Spanish league rules. There is also a permanent tribute at gate 16 (which of course in Spanish is puerta 16).
Back to the game in question, Sevilla started like you’d expect a Sampaoli team to, attacking furiously. Lining up with two strikers and three attack-minded midfielders, they applied lots of pressure but Alavés showed exactly how they’d drawn with Atletico Madrid and beaten Barcelona already this season – resilience. And with some quick counter-attacks, they almost caught out their hosts on a couple of occasions.
The match was stopped early on to allow Sergio Rico to change his shirt as prior to the game no one had thought that allowing Sevilla’s goalkeeper to play in almost the same shade of blue as Alavés’ kit would cause any problems. Once Rico had put on the orange replacement top, play resumed.
For such an open game, that it was 0-0 at the break was quite a surprise. That it stayed 0-0 for almost 20 minutes after was an even greater one, but Sevilla eventually made the breakthrough on 74 minutes, Wissam Ben Yedder converting Ganso’s backheeled pass to open the scoring.
But Alavés showed their durability again. Lesser teams might have crumbled, but they hit back in the 84th minute, capitalising on some poor marking at a corner to level up the scores.
But Sevilla weren’t to be denied and in the final minute of the 90, Ben Yedder grabbed his second, neatly backheeling the ball past the ‘keeper from close range and the ground exploded with noise once again. There were five minutes of added time, as a result of a slightly chaotic half where in addition to the aforementioned water break, Sevilla lost two players to injury (Alavés had been forced into two substitutions inside the first 30 minutes) and even the referee wasn’t able to finish the game, with the fourth official replacing him for the final stages.
Sevilla are definitely going to be fun to watch this season, and visiting the Sanchez-Pizjuan is definitely an experience I’ll be repeating.