Everyone loves a hipster club. The type that attack with abandon, the one with an innovation manager at the helm. Typically clubs outside the big guns in the league, they canvass support from unlikely regions due to their style and the excitement they produce. In the La Liga, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid may have hegemony over the top three (along with Valencia this year); but peer outside of that clique, and you have Real Betis, a club that ticks all of the aforementioned boxes.
Betis are one of the bigger clubs in Spain, even with their tumultuous history. Their stadium, the Benito Villamarín, has a capacity of 60,720; with a passionate and hardcore fanbase, it is no wonder they have the platform to enthral. But as shown by Betis bouncing back immediately in 2014-15 after relegation the previous year, consistency is a rare commodity. Betis finished 15th last season, eight points clear of relegation, but stuck in the all-too-common logjam of teams in the bottom half. This season, in contrast, has been stunning; a perfect marriage of experience, youth, and innovation.
An excellent summer window set the tone for such consistency, the path for which was paved by the resident grandmaster, Quique Setién. His achievements at the modest Las Palmas were known by many, with the club playing some classic football despite the constraints around them. And so, after stepping down to end a dispute with their board, Setién chose to move to Betis. Setién’s love for chess is well-documented, and his beliefs that lessons gained from the board can be transferred to the pitch may hold some truth.
He strengthened the ballast of his team with swiftness, purchasing four central midfielders. Andrés Guardado and Javi Garcia, both at 31, have been main-stays this season in the middle of the park, bringing their experience to the table. There have been superlative performances across the squad; none more so than Sergio León, a Betis graduate who left to tour the country and returned triumphantly last summer. He scored 22 in 41 for Elche in the Segunda División two years ago, earning a move to Osasuna in the top-flight, where he top-scored with ten despite their relegation. It was how Betis got him for the price of 3.5 million euros: a bargain if there ever was one.
But there have been stellar showings all round. Captain Joaquín, even at 36, has the fourth highest minutes in the squad. There is the young Fabián Ruiz, moulded by Setién to take over from Dani Ceballos in midfield. It is incidental that Ceballos continues to stagnate in Real Madrid’s stable of players, but there is no doubt that the fee they received for his sale contributed to the strengthening of the squad itself. Marc Bartra was tempted enough to come down to Betis and be a part of their project, moving from Dortmund, a game time-triggered move that is still significant in many aspects.
And yet, Betis continue to give their academy graduates game time. While Ruiz is the main benefactor, there has been others. Junior Firpo, at left-back, has been a revelation, pushing the incumbent Riza Durmisi hard. There is also Loren Morón, who toiled in the lower leagues with the B side. Granted a debut against Villarreal on 3rd February, he took his chance by the scruff of the neck, scoring a brace in a 2-1 win, and has since scored four more.
It is notable that he replaces Rubén Castro, who has been the club’s figurehead for most of the decade. Castro’s half-season loan to China signalled a change of the guard. Betis remain rooted to its principles and identity, but are also progressive on the pitch in many aspects. It is why, against the odds, they’re pushing for direct Europa League qualification ahead of other domestic stalwarts.
Betis are free-flowing, they retain a high level of possession, and are risk-takers. Setién does not shy away from playing football the way it deserves to be played. He could be termed the poor man’s Guardiola, yet he is his own man. Betis have had some high-scorers to this point: a 4-4 draw to Sociedad, a 3-6 loss to Valencia, a 0-5 loss to Barcelona, and a 3-5 loss to Real Madrid. That they beat Madrid at the Bernabéu but lost to them at home sums up their season in a sentence.
Setién is not afraid to take on the big guns, and it shows. But there’s also been the 5-3 derby victory to Sevilla away from home, a monumental victory. With four games to go, Betis have scored 54 and conceded 53. There’s no other philosophy Setién goes by. He wants to entertain, to go forward, to focus on chance creation. It is why they’re the hipster’s delight.
However, to support Betis is to also support a club with an indescribable history. Copa 90’s immense Derby Day documentary provides a deeper insight into this. Next season’s adventure in Europe (if fate doesn’t double-cross them) is likely to remain that; an adventure, and one hopes it extends for however long it can. This is a city with unrivalled passion, fuelling a positive club. Led by the wonderfully inquisitive Setién, Los Verdiblancos are on a roll. If you haven’t heard of them before, you will now. Viva el Betis manque pierda!