I left my house at about six on a sultry Saturday evening in Seville, turning right after Las Setas and heading toward the Guadalquivir. It was a pleasant night despite it being the middle of January and the streets were thronged with people.
I made it to the Benito Villamarín by about seven. It was a route I knew well from morning runs but it was an altogether different experience approaching the stadium on a matchday. Unlike the much more isolated La Cartuja, it’s situated close to the centre of Seville and has no shortage of bars to choose from.
I met two friends at Bar Jamaica. We got in a round of cold cerveza served in plastic vessels before repairing to the street, resting our beverages on a parked red car. The atmosphere was heady as the bar was packed, punters spilling out onto the street. Everybody was buzzing in anticipation of what promised to be a thrilling evening.
It was a huge game after all, as big as they come in the city of Seville. They take their football seriously in the Andalusian capital and pledge allegiance to Real Betis and Sevilla as opposed to Barcelona and Real Madrid. That’s a state of affairs not at all common in Spain and is something citizens of Seville are very proud of.
We made our way into the stadium touching nine, about thirty minutes before kick-off. The Benito Villamarín is a ground that leaves a strong impression. It’s proper old-school, a construction of steel and concrete that’s very much without frills. Once you make it to your seat you’re greeted by an awe-inspiring view. The stands are steep and imposing, making you feel like you’re hiked above the players, right on top of them.
There was electricity in the air. Aside from the section of the stadium closed to accommodate a reduced capacity due to covid-19 it was a full house, with Sevilla’s away end full to the brim and vocal. A stunning light-show turned the volume up even further before the 55,000 Betis supporters gathered unleashed a stirring version of their himno.
There was palpable aggression in the stadium from the first whistle. Not only was it a derby, of course, but it was also a knockout game and a place in the last eight of the Copa del Rey was at stake. Both clubs are performing well in La Liga this season but this was something else, and the home crowd made absolutely sure that the players were backed to the hilt. Every refereeing decision was questioned and every successful tackle was celebrated like a goal.
But Sevilla still have talented players and it was they who took the lead in the 35th minute through their diminutive playmaker Papu Gómez. The Argentine arrowed home an accurate finish from just outside the box after being teed up by Óliver Torres. It was undoubtedly a blow, but no sooner had the celebrations subsided than the entire crowd delivered encouragement to their players, cheering them on rather than castigating them.
And they were right to. Betis had been the better side up to that point, seeing the majority of the ball and putting an under-strength Sevilla team to the sword. Their equaliser came four minutes after the opening goal – Nabil Fekir scored directly from a corner kick, spotting that Sevilla’s third-choice goalkeeper Alfonso Pastor had been poorly positioned.
But that goal was the final bit of football played of the evening. A Betis supporter launched a missile from high in the stand and struck Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordán in the head, leading Julen Lopetegui to pull his team off the pitch and into the dressing room while Betis’ players stayed on the grass. Nobody inside the stadium was sure what was happening for 20 minutes or so, until eventually it became clear the game was going to be suspended and the entire stadium left their seats to begin their journeys home.
It was anticlimactic. The game had been enjoyable up to the incident and the second half had promised the world. To see it end in the way it did was deeply unsatisfying. We headed back toward the centre of Seville and enjoyed a couple of quiet beers in La Alameda while waiting to learn when the game would be replayed.
It turned out that it would be four in the afternoon the next day. But it was behind closed doors and the press presence was severely reduced, so instead of watching the game in the flesh I was forced to make do with a local bar. The rest of the encounter didn’t quite have the same intensity as the previous evening given it was being played in an empty stadium and illuminated by Seville sunshine. Nothing beats the menace of a late kick-off.
But the game continued in much the same pattern, with Betis on top and Sevilla, without the concussed Jordán, struggling to impose themselves in the way they normally would. The decisive goal eventually came in the 72nd minute through Sergio Canales. The Cantabrian controlled a quick ball, beat the offside trap and then finished ruthlessly past Pastor to give Betis a late lead. Sevilla had no response.
The final whistle sounded soon after but the reality of the matter is that this game is far from over. Sevilla were unhappy with the behaviour of some of the Betis players throughout the encounter, especially in regard to the way they treated Jordán. Sevilla also wanted to postpone the fixture further, determined to wait until Jordán was back. But their complaints went unheeded and they ultimately complied with the authorities.
And life goes on. Both clubs have a lot left to fight for – only Betis can look forward to a Copa quarter-final, of course, but both are still alive in the Europa League and sit in La Liga’s top four. Sevilla have a genuine chance of challenging Real Madrid for the league title while Betis will concentrate their efforts on securing a top four finish. They’ll face off next on February 27th in what’s sure to be an intense affair at the Sánchez-Pizjuán.