Somewhere between the many beers given to me on the house, the raven-haired ladies who danced and held aloft their green scarves, and the frank prognosis that “the players are shit, the chairman is shit, and the manager is too, more or less” I became a supporter of Real Betis Balompié yesterday. You’re probably wondering why anyone would want to fly the colors of the team sitting 20th in the league table—and in case you’re not sure, there are exactly 20 teams in Spain’s top football division.
It all started yesterday morning, when I woke up after a relaxing night’s sleep at the sumptuously appointed Oasis Hostel in Sevilla and realized that since it was Sunday, there probably wouldn’t be much going on around town. Not only is this Spain, this is Andalucia, where it’s sunny and warm year-round and there seems to be even less motivation than usual to work. After a cursory check of the football schedule, it appeared that Sevilla FC, the more successful and wealthier of the two local clubs, was playing away. However, Betis were hosting the indomitable Athletic Bilbao, a team hailing from the Basque Country and vying for qualification to the Champions League next year.
Since there wouldn’t be much else going on, I decided on a whim to go to a Betis match. Around half past noon I left the hostel and began the walk down the Guadalqivir river toward the stadium. The neighborhood surrounding Estadio Benito Villamarin is filled with stately homes, all of them whitewashed, sporting red tile roofs, and groves of citrus trees. Not too far from the stadium I stumbled upon a plaza occupied by many people wearing green and white scarves–the Betis colors–and this particular bar. Unless I was mistaken, it was founded and run by firefighters.
It didn’t take very long for me to become friends with the people in the bar. They don’t get too many outsiders coming in and expressing interest in their club. Not that Betis is a complete failure: in 2005 they won the Spanish King’s Cup, the most prestigious knockout tournament in Spain, and they have won the league title before, although it’s been about 80 years since that happened. Thus, the history of Betis, although filled with tribulation, is celebrated by its supporters with gallows humor, in my opinion the best kind.
“Prepare to suffer!” I was told many times by inebriated Betis supporters. Considering the last match I attended was to see the perennial Scottish champions Rangers, the attitude on display here was very different. A Betis fan accepts that futility is simply part of what you get in life, and rather than crying from it, laughs at it.
One particularly gregarious guy named Antonio explained to me that unlike Barcelona or Real Madrid or other clubs with long illustrious histories of winning all the time, when Betis wins it’s something to celebrate.
“With these other teams, when they lose even one game it’s like the world is ending! Winning stops being special and you become bitter if you don’t win by enough goals.”
As a general philosophy for life, I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with that outlook.
Lest I forget to talk about the match itself, Betis predictably lost, although in spectacular and unpredictable fashion. They started aggressively and should have won themselves a penalty when a Bilbao player tripped up one of the Betis wingers inside the box after an excellent run. As the Universe seems to conspire against Betis in every way, shape and form, the referee almost immediately awarded Bilbao a penalty at the opposite end for a much, much softer challenge.
When Bilbao converted the penalty for the game’s first goal, the entire stadium–I should mention that despite this being the worst team in the division, there were probably 40,000 people in attendance–rose up in one wave of raw fury and drenched the referee with abuse. Questions were raised as to his mother’s profession of choice, he was compared to the lowliest of stray dogs, and although it would be an impossible coincidence that the multitude of Betis supporters around me were trained ophthalmologists, it would seem that the poor man was blind.
Were it not for the Betis goalkeeper, a lanky fellow named Adan, Bilbao would have made the game an embarrassing rout by halftime. However, Betis needed no persuasions to shoot themselves in the feet, and over the course of the match not one but two players were sent off for reckless tackles, including one that sent a Bilbao player airborne. The match ended with Bilbao the victors by a surprisingly narrow margin of two goals to nil, and although the referee walked off the pitch to a stream of vitriol, the players–those who hadn’t seen a red-card–were given a warm round of applause. Barring the most unlikely of miracles, Betis will probably spend next season in Spain’s second division, but I’m OK with that and so are the dudes who I met at the bar. To be a fan of Betis is to shrug when life hands you lemons and whip up the best damn lemonade this side of the Rio Guadalqivir. Olé Betis!