There are many better sides than Real Betis in La Liga, but certainly none more entertaining.
Sunday’s 5-3 defeat to Real Madrid at the Benito Villamarín was the latest in a series of high-scoring matches involving the Sevillian club this season, including (but by no means limited to) a 6-3 defeat to Valencia, a 4-4 draw with Real Sociedad and a 5-3 win over arch-rivals Sevilla.
Betis’ reputation has always been grounded far more in entertainment than success. Despite having a huge following and boasting the fourth-largest stadium in Spain, they have only one league title to their name and have spent more than their fair share of time in the Segunda División – but there have very rarely been dull moments.
It was appropriate, then, that the Betis board saw fit to appoint the arch-attacker Quique Setién as manager at the start of this season. In his two-year spell in charge of Las Palmas prior to taking over at the Villamarín, he turned the Canarian outfit into one of the most watchable sides in Spain.
Under Setién, Betis are attack-minded almost to the point of negligence. The side is built around the capricious talent of the 36-year-old Joaquín, a man made in Betis’ own image who is one of the game’s true entertainers and most likeable characters. Accompanied by the likes of Sergio León, Antonio Sanabria and Loren Morón, Betis have an adventurous, sometimes devastating attacking armoury.
But that swashbuckling style has its inherent risks. Such focus on attack can leave them vulnerable, and often hopelessly exposed at the back. Taking Sunday’s match as a case in point, Betis tore through Real Madrid in the first half, before the visitors ruthlessly highlighted their defensive weakness with three goals in quick succession to turn the tide in their favour and take the game away from their Andalusian hosts.
This has been a theme of Betis’ season so far. They have scored 41 goals, the joint-fifth highest tally in Liga, but have conceded 50, more than all but two clubs. Scoring plenty is no guarantee of success, and the fact that they have only won half of the games in which they have scored three or more goals this season speaks volumes. Entertaining they may be, they are also wildly inconsistent.
Joaquín summed this up succinctly after the defeat to Real Madrid, saying “it’s true that to have to score three, four or five goals in every match is very difficult.”
Although the philosophy of the club and the manager is very much of the “live by the sword, die by the sword” school of thought, it has to be said that with a little more consistency and defensive solidity, Betis could be much higher up the table than the tenth place that they currently occupy.
Some lip service was paid towards the defence in January with the signing of Marc Bartra from Borussia Dortmund, but the ink was barely dry on his contract before fellow defender Zou Feddal suffered a season-ending injury.
As much as the fans would surely like their side to be challenging at the top end of the table, it is not the be-all and end-all. Even when they have lost heavily this season, the Béticos have kept singing for their team; they are happy so long as the players match the passion shown on the terraces. The club’s whole philosophy is based on the phrase “viva el Betis manque pierda” – long live Betis, even if they lose.
Such supportive, loyal and partisan fans deserve to be rewarded with trophies, but silverware is of secondary importance to them. Their pride comes from supporting their club no matter what, unlike the spoilt fans of some of Spain’s larger, more successful clubs.
It is this affinity between fans and club that makes Betis a difficult side upon which to impose normal values. If they were to appoint a defensive manager and gain success through stodgy, cautious football, the fans would not be pleased. They would rather fail than compromise their principles.
In truth, that is the very identity of Real Betis in a nutshell: unpredictable, sometimes brilliant, often terrible, never boring. Even in defeat to Real Madrid, Joaquín’s overriding sentiment was pride that they had “played a worthy match, in keeping with our philosophy”. It is refreshing in modern football to find a club that believes in the primacy of football as entertainment, rather than merely a results business. With the fans, the club, Setién and Joaquín all sharing this outlook, there is no reason that anyone should want this crazy ride to end.