Tthere were people on the ground. A few Pokémon too and a few rabbits and a few bears. A lot and many bear. Lots of goals too. At halftime of Real Betis’ last home game in 2021, the night they sang, danced and kissed and ended the year in a higher position than they’ve finished any season since 1935 , a bursting party in Heliopolis, it started to rain lint. An annual tradition now, fans had been invited to bring theirs to the ground – no more than 35cm please, and with no batteries included – and toss them from the stands, flying through the air over the grass above. below. Or in blankets waiting to grab them, as if all those stuffed minions and their companions were jumping out of a burning building.
It was raining cats and dogs everywhere, and sheep and dinosaurs. On the night Betis introduced Alba, an eight-year-old who conquered leukemia, as their ‘star signing’, 52,158 people were in the stands at Benito Villamarín, the place was packed and over 19,000 hugs were on the ground, literally fired. -full of things, picked up and offered to children for Christmas. What they had to do quickly: There was still half a game to go, and that turned out to be quite special too. “Pfff, said Marc Bartra. “A great night where everything turned out, from a football and fan perspective, one of the best I’ve had here.”
The one that ended with the Benito Villamarín singing the club’s anthem. “Here we’re going to sing you a song,” he begins, “… and even if you were the last, you would be champions in our eyes. “
The Betis are not the last. They aren’t champions either, and they won’t be, but they’re much closer than expected. A place at halftime, they had struggled. Their goal was another giveaway, with Real Sociedad goalkeeper Alex Remiro leaving his goal and almost the pitch for a ball he didn’t need to chase near the touchline and allowing Alex Moreno to roll into a open goal from 20 yards, like a golfer sink a long putt. La Real striker Cristián Portu alone had five chances, not unfairly insisting “we were much better than them in the first half” afterwards. And even Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini admitted he “didn’t like” the first 45 minutes. But in the second they had let loose, Juanmi, Nabil Fekir and Moreno scoring three more and now the place was bouncing, arms around the shoulders all around the stadium as they sang.
“Spectacular,” Fekir called him afterward. “We are very lucky to have fans like this and we try to do everything we can to thank them.”
Oh, they had done that, okay. It wasn’t just that they had won 4-0, that the second half was “brilliant” in their manager’s words; it was that he had said that the whole year had been and that he was not wrong. It was that Betis, always fun to watch, had just beaten the team that had run the league for a month, with many suggesting that they might in fact be contenders; that in one night, they had scored almost a quarter of the goals conceded by Real Sociedad all season. And that at the end of the weekend when the attention was drawn to the capital, where there was a derby and where one could not help but wonder if Madrid had won the title, it was was Sevilla who had two teams in the top three – the only clubs still in single digits from the league leaders.
For Seville, being second is not that unusual; for Betis, being third is. They’ve only finished higher once in their history and that’s when Patrick O’Connell led them to the title, 86 years ago. They have never finished as high as two more times and while it may not be realistic to stay there, the Barcelona crisis means that fourth place and Champions League qualification could just be plausible. The cushion is currently four points, nine above Barcelona – which they beat at Camp Nou last week.
“And it’s no accident,” says Bartra.
Betis don’t tend to take it easy – it’s a big, loud, laughing place – but this time they have. Which tends to be Pellegrini’s way, not least because he thought it had to be. Volcanic as a player, he made the conscious decision to be calm as a coach, also aware that the attention had to be that of the players. “A man who never takes the stage,” in the words of Jorge Valdano, who signed him – then was forced to sack him after just one season – as Real Madrid coach. “If you give Pellegrini time, he makes good teams,” the former sporting director said a bit pointedly at the Bernabéu on Sunday night and at Betis he certainly did.
Pellegrini took over after a difficult 2019-20 season in which they sacked coach Rubí with eight games to go and ultimately finished 15th. It got off to a rocky start, but then, although they draw too often – seven of their last 10 last season – took them to a series in which they only lost one of the 26 games they have played since the start of the year and finished sixth. This season, combining national football and Europa League, where they tend to turn, they have lost four in the league: against Villarreal, Madrid, Atlético and Sevilla, which can say something about their level or even their limits but it does say certainly something about their consistency.
Sunday night was their fourth consecutive victory, with local newspaper Estadio Deportivo calling them a “cyclone of the Champions League”, with Diario De Sevilla claiming they were living in a “state of nirvana”, a team that “nice to meet you”. They could repeat it, and they did, spitting out a cascade of praise for a team they called “a delicious football generator.” The Betis website has taken a different approach. “We could make this match report look better with tons of superlative adjectives, but that’s no use,” we read. “You have to experience it for yourself, live from Betis.“This is not bad advice. Always watch Betis. The fourth goal in particular was magnificent.
Only Madrid have taken more shots or scored more goals. No one is as pleasing to the eye as Fekir, a player so outrageously talented, so good, so dumb at times that he makes his teammates laugh. Sunday night’s goal was typically superb, with consistency now adding to its quality. Sergio Canales, once that teenage revelation, is perhaps better than ever at 30 after suffering terrible injuries. Juanmi certainly is, quickly becoming a cult hero. “Oh, Juan Miguel, we all want a goal from Juan Miguel”, they sing to the height of Ay Mamá Inés and most weeks they get one too. At least they do these days: apparently halfway through summer he’s just one behind his best. season total. This is largely thanks to the manager: “He knows me well. He is a coach with very clear ideas, a very recognizable style that he imposes on Betis, ”he said. “There are a lot of players who have had weak moments
“It’s a footballing conviction, an idea the players are realizing without a doubt,” Pellegrini said on Sunday night. Bartra explains: “I have had great coaches and Manuel is definitely one of them. He has three or four very clear ideas. It tells each player exactly what they need, no more and no less. It’s simple, nothing fancy, but he’s very smart in the way he tells you. We believe in what we do and you can see it. When you’re about to go out, everyone knows exactly what to do. The ball must be ours, everyone has their place, but with [some] freedom, offensive movements are worked on. We are very compact, in a 4-2-3-1 where positioning is very important but there is a certain freedom in it and we all defend: it cannot be only four. Solidarity is the word I would use. The idea does not change and there is no stability, which is important.
“He has a very even temperament: when you win, you are not the best in the world and when you lose, you are not the worst,” adds Bartra. “And honestly, there’s no euphoria inside. We know how bad things can go, how quickly they can get worse. For now, however, they just keep getting better. “What I take with me is the win and the way the fans appreciated it. It was a brilliant year in every way,” Pellegrini said at the end, hugging Moreno, author of two goals, at the whistle. There were tears in the eyes of the full-back on Sunday night when he finally stopped running on the left wing and looked at the fans still there and still singing, plush bags lined up around the pitch. “I’m super emotional,” he said. “It was one of the happiest days I’ve had. I just hope there are a lot of them. more to come.