It’s February 2016, I’ve just received my first pay packet from my new job in Huelva, I’ve already paid next month’s rent up front. So obviously I’m going to plan a trip away somewhere. Nowhere too far though. Just up the road…
A Long-Held Ambition
Almost as long as I’d been living in Spain, I’d wanted to visit Sevilla.
Part of this came from watching Sevilla and Betis games on the TV and gaining an appreciation for the superb atmospheres created by their passionate fanbases.
There were also more basic reasons for it. Stuck up in the rainy northwest, I was somewhat envious of the sunny south and at the start of my third year in Spain, I had made preliminary plans to visit once 2016 rolled around.
That became significantly easier once I moved to Huelva in January 2016, which is only about an hour away by bus and slightly longer on the train. So when I got the opportunity to go, I decided I was going to stay for the whole weekend and make the most of it.
Sightseeing in the City
Once I arrived in the city it took a while for me to find my bearings – I initially didn’t realise that the bus I caught to take me to my hotel was a circular line and as it had just come from that direction, it was going to be a long time before it headed back there.
But once that was sorted I was able to walk out to the magnificent Plaza de España to begin sightseeing.
It was the first of many visits there over the next two and a half years and I took my time to soak it all in.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, Plaza de España is a complex of buildings built for the 1929 Ibero-American Worlds Fair. Around the central square there are small tiled alcoves, one for each of the provinces of Spain. Nowadays the main buildings hold government offices but the square has been used as a filming location for several movies, most famously Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars Episode II.
It’s also one of my favourite places in the entire country. Over the next two and a half years I’d regularly end up in Plaza de España, just watching the world go by from one of my favourite provinces (usually A Coruña or Huelva) and soaking up the atmosphere. And it all started on that mild February afternoon.
The following day I spent the morning the the Alcázar de Sevilla. This is a palace built in the Islamic Mudéjar style for Pedro I of Castilla (also known as Pedro the Cruel) in the 14th century on the site of an old Muslim palace.
It was greatly expanded over the years and with its beautiful gardens became a favoured residence for the Spanish monarchy in the country’s golden age. It too has latterly become a popular filming location for such big-budget productions as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones.
Then after lunch, it was time for a look around the Cathedral. Sevilla’s Cathedral is actually the third biggest in Europe and is famous for holding the tomb of Christopher Columbus as well as its bell tower La Giralda, which is a pretty steep climb (it was supposedly constructed with ramps so as to allow people who needed to climb it to ride a donkey up there) but once you make it to the top your a rewarded with one of the most magnificent views of the old part of Sevilla.
But of course the main reason I went there was for some football…
The Estadio Benito Villamarín
Situated outside the city’s historic centre in the barrio of Heliopolis, Betis first played in what was then the Estadio de la Exposición in 1929, but it was only in 1936, after they won their first (and so far only) La Liga title, that it became their permanent home.
The stadium was renamed after the club president Benito Villamarín in 1961 and has remained that way since, save for 13 years as a monument to the ego of another former president, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, between 1997 and 2010. Once he had left the club, the members wisely voted to revert to the classic name.
Betis had become something of a yo-yo club by the time I finally made it to see them, having just been promoted back to La Liga in 2015 after a shock relegation in 2014.
I made sure to get there early, I’d been able to pick up a ticket at the stadium earlier in the day so there was no stressing about getting in, instead I was able to enjoy the pre-match build-up and browse the souvenir stalls which had popped up on the street outside.
The ground itself is huge – after reconstruction of the Gol Sur end was completed in 2017, it became the fourth-largest stadium in the country, only behind the Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabéu and Wanda Metropolitano – and watching a game from the top tiers really drums home the scale of the stadium.
It didn’t exactly turn out to be a classic.
Things did get off to a good start with Betis mascot Palmerín, a large anthropomorphic palm tree (of course) – named after the stadium’s location on Avenida de Palmera – whipping up the crowd by dancing along to the pre-match music.
Then came the announcement of the teams and Betis announce the visitors’ line-up in a unique fashion – by reading it out accompanied by the Imperial March from the Star Wars movies.
But once the players arrived, what we got was a scrappy contest between two mid-table sides.
The only goal of the game arrived just after the break, with Rubén Castro tapping in from close range after a great move involving himself, Charly Musonda and Ricky Van Wolfswinkle. Looking back at it now, I realised I’d totally forgotten that either of those last two players had ever played for Betis.
Also on display for Betis was Dani Ceballos, who showed plenty of the promise that would eventually persuade Real Madrid to sign him, with the Valencia defenders eventually realising that the only way to stop him was by fouling him.
Valencia did have chances, Alvaro Negredo was denied by a goal line clearance midway through the half and late on Shkodran Mustafi had a goal chalked off for an offside. By this stage the visitors were already down to ten men, with José Gaya earning a second yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Musonda.
¡Neville Vete Ya!
A side-note to this game was that it was one of the games in Gary Neville’s ill-fated stint as manager of Valencia.
Four years on, this still seems like something utterly bizarre, one of the biggest clubs in Spain appointing a former-player turned television pundit, with no managerial experience and no prior knowledge of playing or working in La Liga simply because he was mates with the owner.
In truth, Neville was lucky to have lasted this long. He had taken over on 6th December, but had managed seven games without a win in the league. He had however, taken them to the Copa del Rey semi-finals in the same period but came under renewed pressure when just a few days before this game, his team lost 7-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
Needless to say the contingent of Valencia fans were not impressed by this latest poor showing and the final stages of the game were dominated by them chanting for his dismissal and loud whistles at full time. Somehow he clung on until 30th March before finally leaving the club.
Reflections from 2020
Betis have had something of a rollercoaster ride of a time since February 2016. Unfortunately with more downs than ups for one of the country’s most passionate fan bases.
The highlight was the 2017/18 season where under Quique Setien they finished fifth, above their city rivals, and qualified for Europe. But he was sacked after a hugely underwhelming second season and his replacement, Rubí, was fired before the end of the pandemic-disrupted 2019/20 season as Betis slumped to 15th in the final table.
Current manager Manuel Pellegrini has a reputation as a safe pair of hands in La Liga, having worked wonders at Villarreal and Málaga as well as posting what was a then-club record points tally in his sole season at Real Madrid, but appears to have his work cut out with a top-heavy, unbalanced squad.
While I was living in Huelva, trips to Sevilla became a regular occurrence, for both footballing and non-footballing reasons.
Unfortunately I would only make it to the Villamarín on two further occasions before summer 2018. There were a couple of reasons for this – Betis tickets were generally more expensive and harder to acquire than Sevilla ones – during the 2017/18 season most games started at €55 for non-socíos – and as a result of Betis not competing in Europe, they regularly ended up filling the free-to-air TV slot on Friday nights, which meant a late kick off and no public transport back to Huelva until the following morning.
My most-recent visit – in September 2017 – was blighted by my proximity to a Perspex screen dividing two sections of the stadium, which combined with the setting sun, made it almost impossible to see anything that happened at the far end of the ground as Betis beat Depor 2-1 thanks to two goals from the eternally-youthful Joaquin, who is of course still going strong today.
Once fans are allowed to return to La Liga and travel becomes easier again, a trip to Sevilla will certainly be top of my agenda and I’d love to add to my tally of matches in the Benito Villamarín. Maybe even el gran derbí itself, which remains one of my bucket list fixtures.