Lord Byron once described Seville as “a pleasant city which is famous for oranges and for women”, but had he been alive to witness the derby, the best city rivalry in all of Spain, then he might have had something different to say.
When Sevilla take on Real Betis, the city stops and the rest of the country watches on with intrigue as well. While passions also run high in the Clásico and in the Madrid derby, El Gran Derbi of Seville takes it to a whole new level, partly because both teams are actually located in the same city and partly because both teams consider the other their biggest rival, which cannot be said of Real Madrid’s perception of Atlético.
It is the biggest match of the season for both sides and winning the derby brings the same euphoria as lifting a cup. That was evident last Saturday evening when the two sides met at Sevilla’s Estadio Sánchez Pizjuán, with Betis edging an eight-goal thriller 5-3. When Cristian Tello scored the away side’s fifth on a counter attack with the last kick of the game, the most incredible thing wasn’t the ludicrous scoreline, but the zeal of the players, fans and coaching staff.
Fabián Ruiz, the scorer of the opener, may have had ice strapped to his leg after going off injured, but he hopped around the touchline in joy just like all the others, before later describing the derby win as the happiest moment of his entire life. Club captain – and shareholder – Joaquín was similarly thrilled, telling the press that any Betis player who didn’t celebrate the derby win until at least 5am would be fined. Usually it’s the other way around, but not with this fixture.
Sevilla’s players and fans would have been home well before 5am, perhaps after briefly drowning their sorrows, but they too have experienced derby day delirium. In fact, with 59 victories to Betis’ 38, they are more often than not the kings of this fixture.
The sweetest derby victory in recent memory was Sevilla’s to treasure, as they won the only ever meeting between the two clubs of Spain’s fourth most populous city in European competition. It was the 2013/14 season and the two teams met in the last 16 of the Europa League, with Betis winning the first leg away from home 2-0. As the second leg entered the final 15 minutes Sevilla had pulled back one of the goals they needed, but were facing elimination and, more importantly, humiliation. Then Carlos Bacca appeared, converting Alberto Moreno’s cross. The derby went to extra time and then to penalties. With Vitolo missing Sevilla’s first kick, the quarter-final tickets were dangling within Betis’ reach, but Alfred N’Diaye hit the post, Ivan Rakitić scored and then Nono shot wide when he had to convert. In a matter of 90 seconds, Sevilla had wrestled the derby honours back and progressed to the next round, ultimately going on to win that year’s edition of the Europa League. Worse, though, than seeing their rivals go on to claim continental success, Betis fans had had to endure the sight of the red-shirted Sevilla players dancing with glee in their building.
And, like all derbies, this is how it goes. You win some, you lose some, but you can never utter the phrase “you win some, you lose some”. The hatred is real and the derby is life and death, at least until death actually does pay a visit…
In 2007, Sevilla’s 22-year-old full-back Antonio Puerta, whose girlfriend was expecting their first child, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch and later passed away. For a moment, the city rivalry was put on hold; some things, it turned out, were more important. “This is a blow to the all of the city of Seville,” said Betis owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera. “Betis’ thoughts are with Sevilla, with the player’s family and with the player, who I’m sure will be in heaven.” The Betis fans, one of whom had thrown a bottle at Sevilla coach Juande Ramos during an encounter earlier in that year, echoed the words of their owner and, in their own ways, mourned Puerta’s passing too. The Betis players even attended the funeral.
The relationship between the two clubs has improved since that tragedy, even if there will still be some incidents of violence, such as last weekend when 24 fans from both clubs were arrested on the eve of the derby with knives and ice picks in their possession. There aren’t many glaciers in the south of Spain, so one can take a guess as to what these items were intended for.
While there is generally more respect than there was before, don’t doubt for a minute that the passion persists too. The singing of the Sevilla hymn on Saturday evening was goosebump-inducing, just as it will be when Betis fans sing from their own song sheet in the return fixture at the Estadio Benito Villamarín in May. Perhaps the fact that the derby was cancelled in 2009/10, 2010/11 and 2014/15 due to Betis’ relegations has made the fixture even more special, as if that were possible.
It is the best derby in Spain, whether there are eight goals or none.