Quique Setien and Real Betis scale the mountain arm-in-arm

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 14, 2018

Quique Setien was in tears. His players rushed over to console him: an arm around the shoulder from Joaquín, who had been there from the start. But these were not tears of sadness. They were tears of joy, of disbelief, of realisation. Real Betis, with a 2-1 win over Malaga, had confirmed their place in next season’s Europa League.

“This has made very emotional,” Setien later said. “These experiences can soften you because we have had many difficult times and lows this season, but this makes up for everything we have experienced. I was convinced we could qualify for Europe.”

For Setien, this was vindication. Success, on this scale at least, was almost alien to him. And, for large parts of this season, it had seemed like his plans were unfolding, that his ardent beliefs and ideologies might hold him back.

That, in part, explains the tears. Setien is wedded to his ideas, but he is self-aware enough to acknowledge that they are unconventional. He knows, too, that other, more pragmatic coaches are often hailed for their methods.

Recognition is not something Setien is used to. At Las Palmas, who he coached before his move to Andalusia last year, he began to attract the attention of those with a keen eye for tacticians, but he remained relatively unheralded.

Now, at 59-years-old, his work has been validated. The outpouring of emotion was understandable, and it was shared by the fans at the Estadio Benito Villamarín. After years of underachievement, of languishing in the lower reaches of La Liga and occasionally dropping down to the Spanish second tier, Betis were back in Europe.

“I knew our capabilities but this is a dream and we have made so many people happy and allowed them all to dream some more,” said Setien. “Our fans have had years of frustration and to have that level of joy in the stadium, with 50,000 or 60,000 people singing, was fantastic.”

It was made more special by the way they had done it. Betis have, throughout the season, been the entertainers, the aestheticists, and no one who knew anything of Setien before his arrival is surprised.

Setien has often spoken of his passion for chess. He has, in fact, admitted that, given the choice, he would rather play chess than watch football. It is said that he once attempted to beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov. “There is less and less to see in football,” he said.

To onlookers, he might appear cynical, strangely contradictory. And, to an extent, he is. Setien preaches order: it is, in his words, “fundamental”. His teams must be structured, functional and adhere to strict positional instructions. Yet the fluidity, the expressiveness and creativity of his Betis team for much of this season appears to belie that notion.

With two games of the league season remaining, Betis have scored 56 goals, a total bettered by only four others in the division. They have also conceded 56 goals, the same number as bottom side Malaga. At times the results have been ludicrous: a 4-4 at Real Sociedad, a 6-3 defeat against Valencia, a 5-3 win over rivals Sevilla, another 5-3 but this time a defeat against Real Madrid.

To Setien, attacking football is the only way. There have been times this season, and at previous clubs, when it has seemed reckless, but he has persisted. In November and December last year, Betis did not win in five games and pressure began to build. There were suggestions that, after a promising start, Setien’s appointment may have been a mistake, that he was too dogmatic, not willing to compromise.

At Las Palmas last season, Setien’s side collapsed following the turn of the year after a disagreement between the coach and the club’s board of directors. So Setien left. And it was not for the first time. His first coaching job, with boyhood club Racing Santander in 2001, came to an end amid a row with the board. Then he moved on to Poli Ejido, but was sacked after four months. “The club did not understand my way of playing football,” he said.

“I will always play good football. I do not agree that the coach has to adapt to the players. There was a time when I thought about it, but that was because I did not understand football.”

Setien had brief spells as manager of Equatorial Guinea and Logroñés, before joining Lugo, where he found stability and stayed for six years. What had been established was that Setien needed to be trusted, needed to be afforded an element of freedom to enact his methods. He could not be restricted or given demands.

Betis, wisely, allowed him free rein. It paid off, though there were moments of wavering faith. That is inevitably the way with Setien: a footballing romanticist, a methodologist, a man for whom principles are more important than anything else. Had results not picked up in mid-season, he would not have changed his ways.

“I will always play good football,” Setién has said. “I do not agree that the coach has to adapt to the players. There was a time when I thought about it, but that was because I did not understand football.”

Setien, though, has admitted that there are “stereotypes”. “I want to win too,” he said in an interview with ESPN last year. “I’m as much of a winner as others, but I want to win through a series of mechanisms and an interpretation of football that is different. I understand football through the ball. There are others who interpret the game without the ball.”

There is, even if he would acknowledge it begrudgingly, an underlying element of pragmatism, too. He once said Juan Carlos Valerón’s talent could bring tears to his eyes, but admitted he was unable to play him in every game. “Football has become very hard; you have to run a lot.”

And at Betis this season, in an attempt to secure a place in Europe, there was a noticeable tactical adjustment. They became more rigid – though still entertaining – and significantly more organised. In March and April, Betis won five and drew one of their six games, and didn’t concede a single goal.

So perhaps there was an adjustment, if a minor one. Setien’s principles remain, though, as they always will. The tears that flowed after victory over Malaga were, as much as anything, tears of pride. In a sport of cynicality and ruthless pragmatism, a sport which Setien admitted “goes against all my principles”, his ideas prevailed. This was evidence, after 17 years of coaching, that ideological sacrifices need not be made to achieve success.

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