In a time when football is becoming depressingly sanitised and commercialised, the Seville derby is an authentic, passion-driven experience that towers above the rest.
Close to midnight, there were still Sevilla fans waiting outside the Ramon Sánchez-Pizjuán, their derby weekend not quite over until they had cheered every last player off into the night. Empty beer bottles lay strewn across every second inch of ground.
For many the event had started way back at midday.
Seven goals, 12 hours, two clubs, two matches, one derby. Unrivalled in Spanish football, and quite possibly anywhere else. Unlike some showpiece games, there is no need for excessive marketing to make the Andalucian capital’s big fixture compelling.
When Sevilla and Real Betis meet, it matters.
With their nine trophies since 2006, the side in red and white are Spain’s fourth club of the 2000s; five Europa Leagues earn them a place among Europe’s elite.
Their eternal rivals in green and white may envy the silverware count, but they make up for it in pure popularity: Betis have the fourth highest number of supporters’ clubs of any Spanish side and their fans are spread across the length and breadth of the country. Surveys rank them as the fourth most popular team there among all supporters.
“From fathers to sons, grandfathers to grandsons, a passion named Betis,” the slogan goes.
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Barcelona vs Real Madrid, El Clasico, may get more media attention, and two Champions League finals may have catapulted the Madrid derby onto the global stage, but there is a purity of emotional investment in the Seville derby that no amount of publicity can create. When it happens, the city stops. Even moreso when it happens on the eve of Semana Santa (Holy Week), the other time the Andalucian capital swells to the brink.
As if more sparks were needed, Real Betis women vs Sevilla women was also scheduled on Saturday, turning a derby evening into a marathon derby day. At 8:45pm the men would take the stage at the Sánchez-Pizjuán, but only after the women had fought out their battle on the other side of the city at the Benito Villamarin.
The scheduling was a stroke of genius and supporters responded; 24,000 people turned up at the Betis stadium for the 1pm kick-off, a strong away contingent also tucked into their corner of enemy territory.
Queue after queue snaked out of the Betis ground, zigzagging around the perimeter and panicking stewards who were trying to get fans in while constantly being implored that the anthem was about to start.
That song, belted out under a sea of hoisted green and white scarves, was as moving and electric as always. The volume swelling slightly more with each line, in any other place it would be the best. In Seville it’s only the second most moving song in the city.
The final score, honours shared with a 1-1 draw, was the perfect opening act.
But there were important rituals still to be followed too: a day of food, drink, sunshine and build-up to the evening event four kilometres away in the Nervión neighbourhood.
The energy really started to ramp up as 6pm rolled around, as Sevilla fans gathered outside the team hotel with flares, fireworks, smoke and relentless singing to remind the guys upstairs they had a job to do. Coaching staff occasionally popped their head out of a window from up above as if to check when the noise level was just right.
Then, when the team bus finally departed on its short journey to the stadium, fans slapped it on the side and wished them good luck, before accompanying behind on a steady march. No turning back now.
Once the supporters had packed themselves into the stands, the Biris Norte ultras unfurled a huge Semana Santa themed banner, depicting a penitent woman clutching onto a Sevilla scarf instead of rosary beads.
As the line-ups were announced, the biggest cheer of the night was for Joaquín Caparrós, the home coach who recently announced he is battling chronic leukaemia. Now in his third spell in charge, Caparrós took Sevilla out of the second division at the turn of the millennium, and his role in building the foundations of their golden era of European success has not been forgotten.
Then, there was the anthem.
Sang a capella, in perfect time, pitch and with an unrivalled degree of conviction, it is one of the great pre-match spectacles in the game, and with the added fire that the derby brings, it is something every football fan should aim to witness.
When it eventually ended, the noise didn’t subside, and would not for 90 minutes. The ultras may have been conducting the orchestra but they did not dominate it, the singing spreading throughout the fantastically open and old-school ground.
Coaches will tell you that there is such a thing as too much passion; players can sometimes be overwhelmed by the emotion of an occasion and make errors as a result. For Sevilla that seemed to be the case, Betis creating the best early chances, only for Jesé Rodríguez to squander a string of one on one situations.
The away supporters, tucked in a corner of the upper tier, let their appreciation be known; chants of ‘Betis, Betis, Betis’ with drawn out vowels rising just long enough for the Sevillistas to react and drown them out.
A fresh banner was unfurled, this time in support of Caparrós. ‘Red blood never gives up’ the play on words insisted, evoking the manager’s unusual way of announcing his fight with leukaemia last week, describing it as a clash between between the red and white in his veins.
Perhaps it was the rallying cry, perhaps it was just the space an increasingly confident Betis were leaving at the back, but Sevilla responded.
Their opener, crafted by Pablo Sarabia, featured the kind of deliciously in-swinging cross that clears every defender only to dip just in time at the back post begging to be nodded in.
Munir added the end product, the Pizjuan erupting as he ran over to the corner, pumping his arms.
Their pride hurt, Betis responded.
In a swift, swashbuckling attacking move that summed up Quique Setién’s teams at their best, wing-back Junior deftly controlled a cross-field pass on his chest, taking the ball in his stride and running at pace. Reaching the by-line, his cutback found Giovanni Lo Celso’s late run and thumping first time finish.
‘Betis, Betis, Betis’ – those long, drawn out, taunting chants were back.
Not for long, however, thanks to Sevilla’s supremely talented forward line.
An excellent counter-attack involving Munir, his strike partner Wissam Ben Yedder, and Sarabia in neat interchanges ended with the latter firing home. The movement in the build up was a work of art, fit for the city of flamenco, each touch, movement and release perfect before the finish.
Sevilla smelled blood, and El Mudo (the mute) Vázquez drew more of it.
Seeing he was about to be substituted, the Argentinian decided to go out with a bang, rifling a shot in from distance to blow the (figurative) roof off the ground. ‘Gol, gol, gol, gol-azo’ the stadium announcer emphasised this time.
He was right – though the three before it were tasty too.
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There was still time for yet more drama.
Betis and Spanish football legend Joaquín entered for the final 20 minutes to the loudest chorus of whistles audible to the human ear. The veteran doesn’t have the legs for 90 minutes but his quality is enough to change a game late on, as Sevilla found out when he scored the winner from the bench at the Villamarin earlier this season.
Fellow substitute Cristian Tello curled in a free-kick that set up a perfectly tense final 10 minutes, Sevilla pinned back in their own third.
As away goalkeeper Pau went up to attack two corners in the last seconds, the home fans roared once more in defiance. Sevilla’s entire coaching staff stood poised on the sidelines.
Betis were unable to capitalise, and finally, the whistle went.
The Sevilla bench ran on as if celebrating a trophy. Scarves twirled in the air throughout the stands., cries of “Vamos mi Sevilla, vamos campeón!” rang out.
In his celebratory press conference Caparrós, the biggest Sevillista of all, decided to drop analysis and let his soul speak its mind.
“Our people will be going around our city with their heads held high this week,” he beamed. “That Sevilla fan, that Sevilla fan, that Sevilla fan – you’ll spot them with their heads held high.”
Like the rest of derby day, from lunchtime to midnight, from the Villamarín to the Pizjuán, there was nothing choreographed about it. Pure passion. A genuine connection.
See it in the flesh at least once if you can. No other game matters more.