By Richard Martin
SEVILLE (Reuters) – When Real Betis finally snapped a six-year winless spell in the league against city rivals Sevilla in January with a 5-3 away win on enemy territory, there was only one thing on veteran midfielder Joaquin’s mind: celebrating in style.
“Tonight no-one can rest and no-one should be drinking Nestea. Anyone who gets home before five in the morning should be fined,” said the 37-year-old Spaniard, who is known as much for his lively personality as his ability as a player.
His words encapsulated the passion of one of Spanish football’s fiercest rivalries, known locally as El Gran Derbi (The Big Derby) and which will bring the city of Seville to a standstill on Sunday when Betis host Sevilla in La Liga.
“For the people of Seville the derby is one of the most important events of the year,” Joaquin told reporters in a conference call.
“Weeks before the game people start talking to you about it on the street, telling you how excited they are about it and how you have to win. The feeling between the two sets of fans is indescribable, you really have to experience it first-hand to understand it.”
Former Sevilla defender Julien Escude once described going to play at Betis as like going to war and tensions have often flared when the two teams meet, most famously in 2007 when then Sevilla coach Juande Ramos was knocked unconscious by a bottle thrown from the crowd.
Betis supporters showed solidarity with their rivals, however, after Sevilla midfielder Antonio Puerta died following a cardiac arrest in August 2007. They displayed a mosaic in tribute to the player in their first game after his death and joined Sevilla fans in a memorial at the derby.
Betis endured their own tragedy when their player Miki Roque died of cancer aged 23 in 2012.
“Fortunately, the game is usually played with sportsmanship these days even though the feelings between the two fans are still very strong,” said Joaquin.
“Some people will roll out the same clichés and say it’s just another game or it’s only worth three points, but that’s not true. A win can give you a huge morale boost and transform your season.”
Betis rode the crest of the wave of that momentous victory by going on to finish sixth in the La Liga standings and earning a return to the Europa League, also recording their biggest points total in 13 years.
They finished above Sevilla for the first time in five seasons, hinting at a turning of the tide after their neighbours had enjoyed a golden age in the previous decade, winning five European trophies and two domestic Cups while Betis were relegated twice and lurched from one crisis to the next.
The backing of Betis’s loyal supporters, though, has remained a constant. The club boasts 50,000 season ticket holders, making them the best supported club in Spain behind Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
The atmosphere at their 60,000-capacity Benito Villamarin stadium is considered to be among the best in the country.
“Betis’s grandeur can be seen in the devotion of their fans,” added Joaquin, who joined Betis’s academy as a teenager and returned to his boyhood club in 2015 after spells with Valencia, Malaga and Fiorentina.
“So many years without winning a league title (their only La Liga triumph came in 1935), but every year they prove they are the best fans in Spain.
“Fortunately in the last few years we are improving and returning Betis to where they belong and our aim is to be able to compete for trophies in a few years.”
Joaquin tasted success in his first spell with Betis, helping them to qualify for the Champions League in 2005 and also winning the Copa del Rey that year, famously posing naked in the dressing room with the trophy, which was also visible on the altar on his wedding day.
“Betis is my life, it’s where I grew up, I feel identified with the club in every sense and I hope I can keep enjoying myself on the pitch,” he said.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Clare Fallon)