An eerie silence will sweep through the streets of the city, which above all others in Spain exudes heart and soul. Saturday evenings usually see the streets crammed with locals enjoying their tapas, sipping an ice-cold refreshment or queuing at one of the dozens of vibrant street stalls. The 2,000 Sevilla fans will have already begun their two-mile hike from the gates of Sanchez Pizjuan, the club’s home in Nervion – the swanky business district of downtown Seville – down to Heliopolis, the southern suburb where their fierce rivals, Real Betis, will be waiting for them with a 50,000-strong sea of green and white.
At times it's easy to forget that this is a city with only 700,000 inhabitants – less than Leeds – yet it’s two iconic stadiums hold over 100,000 spectators. Meandering through the enchanting city streets of the Old Town – the largest in Europe – you are overcome by the sense that everyone is either a Sevillista or a Betico, such is the prominence and passion of their respective fanbases.
El derbi sevillano is a game like no other. Historically, it has been the most competitive and encapsulating inner-city derby in all of Spain by some distance. Uptown Sevilla and downtown Betis both reflect the city’s characteristics and mirror them in football, often spectacularly. Noise, colour, passion, atmosphere. This is the hottest city in Europe and these matches often reach boiling point.
Betis are traditionally the club of the city’s working class, often grumbling at the implied favouritism their city neighbours receive from the authorities. The city’s metro system does not extend to the south of the city, nor is it served by one of the tram routes throughout Andalusia’s capital. But these days, the demographic constraints are less obvious. In fact, both sides share a lot in common – the Ultra groupings both swing politically to the left, they both endured a turbulent period of being run by despot presidents and both have recently suffered the trauma of seeing first-team players pass away.
The egotistical duo of Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, President of Betis, and his Sevilla counterpart Jose Maria del Nido, oversaw the darkest period in the derby’s history as their controversial, confrontational leadership styles led to a toxic atmosphere inside the stadium. Tensions rose several notches. Matches became ‘high risk’, with the city almost locked down with police presence on derby days. Fireworks were launched between the sets of fans, street battles took place outside stadiums between ultra groups and bar-room brawls between rival sets of players and fans erupted. It was chaotic and poisonous. Things reached a head in early 2007 when a fist-fight broke out in the director’s box at Benito Villamarin, starting in utterly-bizarre fashion as Del Nido refused to sit beside Lopera after a particularly highly-fuelled and public feud, while then-Sevilla boss Juande Ramos was knocked out cold by a bottle from the stands.
Something drastic had to change, and it did, tragically. Sevilla’s blossoming young talent Antonio Puerta, the Rojiblanco born a stones-throw from Sanchez Pizjuan died on the pitch due to heart failure. Out of tragedy, hope and friendship blossomed. Betis President Lopera went on TV to state, “Betis and Sevilla are brothers… Antonio Puerta has sent us a message of unity from heaven.” The two Presidents openly embraced later that day, both in tears. They weren’t alone. The entire Betis squad attended Puerta’s funeral. The entire city mourned. A horrific, chilling incident transformed a city and a derby for the better.
Both clubs quickly oversaw structural change as both Lopera and Del Nido were ousted and new, more progressive figures were appointed. Five years later, promising Betis defender Miki Roque died of cancer. It was another episode of unbearable pain and Sevilla reciprocated the solidarity for their rivals.
Regular chants in memory of Puerta and Roque break out by both sets of fans – they are no less of proud of their club, of their identity, but Sevilla is a city which swims in passion and emotion, and these heartwarming acts can only be admired and applauded.
Police on horseback will marshal Saturday’s legion of travelling Sevilla fans out of the city’s centre, along the Rio Guadalquivir and up past the city’s docks towards Betis’ 52,000 seater stadium – mightily impressive yet markedly outdated, a relic from a bygone age.
This perhaps mirrors Betis as a club; an almighty institution who, despite playing in La Segunda last season, had a higher average attendance than three-quarters of La Liga, including Sevilla. Traditionally the city’s bigger club, their only League title came in 1935 under Irishman Patrick O'Connell, although they did enjoy two Copa del Rey successes, including the 2005 crown.
Real Betis Balompie were formed in 1907 as the result of a merger between Sevilla Balompie and Betis Football Club, seventeen years after Sevilla FC – the ‘FC’ honouring the British heritage of the club. Like Los Verdiblancos, Sevilla have won a solitary La Liga crown (1946) but won five Copa del Reys and four UEFA Cup/Europa League titles, all of which have come within the last decade.
The balance of power currently lies with Los Rojiblancos, who will mock their neighbours’ lack of success both in terms of titles and in ties between the two. Betis have failed to win any of their last eight home clashes in the fixture and historically won 37 of the 120 clashes, with Sevilla triumphing 55 times.
Benito Villamarin will be a carnival of noise and colour, and the travelling hoards from downtown Seville – who had to queue overnight to get their hands on precious match tickets – will be given a hostile welcome. A turbulent rivalry which has transformed beyond recognition in recent times, this is a fixture that you’ll never want to miss.