Real Betis make it past Zenit St. Petersburg to keep their Europa League dream alive

Vincent and Football España were in the shadow of the Benito Villamarín but we couldn’t see the stadium; block after block of high-rise apartment buildings blocked our view. We found Enrique and the rest of our friends before dipping into the local bazaar, stocking up on litre bottles of Cruzcampo before rejoining the group. It was the legendary pre-match botellón, taking place in an ordinary park in a barrio near the ground. A youngster that couldn’t have been more than ten was challenging adults to go one-on-one on a makeshift pitch; he wore Real Betis’ blue away kit and had Sergio Canales’ number ten on his back. Another youngster, who must have been around 15, was making runs to the bazaar to buy adults mixers for their cocktails. He delivered our group a two-litre bottle of Fanta Limón. Night had fallen and the air was dense with a heady mix of anticipation and marijuana. Vincent, a Frenchman studying the culture of left-wing politics in Spain, was impressed.

Because this was football at its purest, the kind of thing those who consume the game through television screens will never understand. Betis isn’t a brand to the mildly sozzled souls attending this botellón. Betis is something that’s deeply tied to their sense of identity, to their sense of place. Betis is an idea as much as it is a football club, a way of living in the city of Seville and expressing your pride in the region of Andalusia that isn’t tinged with nationalism or an affinity for the right. I joked that virtually all Beticos I met seemed to be leftist to one of our group, a heavily bearded guy with skin darkened by the Andalusian sun. “It’s incompatible to be Betico and to be of the right,” he replied.

And it certainly feels like that. Betis were facing Zenit St. Petersburg on this evening, remarkable given the match was taking place on the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine to spark Europe-wide fears of real conflict. It was the second leg of a Europa League playoff to determine who makes it to the last 16 of the competition and Betis eventually progressed, earning a scoreless draw to complement the 3-2 victory they secured in Russia the previous Thursday. As the final whistle went and the players did the rounds, thanking the 44,000-strong crowd for their support, the chant that went around the stadium was loud and clear. “F**k Russia,” it went. This was no grand political statement, but it was clearly a moment where those assembled took a stance on the conflict.

The game itself was loaded with tension. We were perched high up in the Fondo, right above the touchline. Betis, tired after their recent exertions, didn’t play the sparkling football they have been this season. Nor did they play with the lightness that they’ve exhibited this term. After a dream-like campaign, it seemed, the pressure was on. These players were defending a lead against a tough team that was a veteran of the Champions League. The final stretch of the season was fast approaching and for the first time Betis had something to lose; behind me, in the stand, anxiety manifested itself whenever a defender took a gamble in his own third or a midfielder misplaced a cheap pass. Every 50/50 decision taken by the referee was greeted with uproar. “Me cago en tu puta madre,” was a common shout. Put that in Google Translate if you don’t understand.

And there were close calls throughout the match. Betis hit the post twice and Zenit had two goals disallowed, the second of which coming after a VAR check right at the death. The referee’s decision to disallow that second goal was greeted by the Benito Villamarín with the relief of a man given a stay of execution, celebrated like a goal. They know their football at Betis and they know they got away with one. But the game finished scoreless and they were through to the last 16 of the Europa League and that was all that mattered.

Sevilla, Betis’ neighbours, had been playing earlier in the evening in the same competition. They’d lost 1-0 to Dinamo Zagreb but as they’d beaten the Croatian side 3-1 at the Sánchez-Pizjuán last week – a game Football España also attended – they also proceeded to the last 16. The final of the competition will be held at their Sánchez-Pizjuán, too, meaning that the likelihood of having a Seville Derby, one of the most heated in European football, in the final of the Europa League in Seville doubled in probability once the draw for the last 16 was made; Betis got Eintracht Frankfurt and Sevilla got West Ham United.

But we won’t have to wait until then for the next Seville Derby; that’ll come this Sunday. And it’s not going to be a polite affair, either. Shortly after the assembled Beticos, basking in the glow of progression, were singing against Russia they turned their attention to Sevilla. This is a rivalry based purely on football but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in bite. Far from it. Both of these sides are flying in La Liga this season – Sevilla are second and Betis are third – but the former are enduring a tough moment while the latter are walking on air. Having rode their luck and come through their clash with Zenit unscathed their attention has turned completely to Sunday’s trip to the Sánchez-Pizjuán. And after the bad blood generated from their last clash, the missile-interrupted Copa del Rey derby at the Benito Villamarín back in January, the atmosphere is guaranteed to be hot.

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