Betis’s bus made its way through a cloud of green smoke, while Sevilla’s passed the police cordon down the last, short stretch of empty street, turning off palm tree avenue to the Benito Villamarín. It was momentarily quiet outside, just a few stall holders in the sunshine, but inside the bus was different. On the right, a window had been smashed – not there, but four kilometres away, where a Sevilla fan had waved his team off over-enthusiastically – and sitting alongside it was the manager Joaquín Caparrós, exposed and in his element. Someone had put the club anthem on and he was belting it out like a man
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possessed, the 62-year-old shaking his fists as he sang. In the rows behind, the players banged on the glass. “We’re Sevilla and playing Betis is different,” he said.
It is, he knows, different to anything, anywhere – and he’s had a gun pulled on him in the dressing room. Born in Seville and once the Andalucían ‘national’ manager, he had unexpectedly been given another go – 18 years after his first derby, 13 after his last, and five months after a three-decade long coaching career had come to an end. And the man who had lifted Sevilla from the second división and helped lay the foundations for the best years of their lives, couldn’t be happier.
I took it on to help the club,” he said. Sevilla needed him. Asked earlier this season about missing out on European football, their then-manager Vincenzo Montella had insisted: “Non e una possibilita.” But, yes it was a possibility. They had beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford, played a European Cup quarter-final for the first time in 60 years and reached the Copa del Rey final. But they hadn’t won in seven league games and , which was when they sacked sporting director Oscar Arias and sacked Montella too, making Caparrós their third coach – for four nights only. “In football, you go from whore to nun in five minutes,” Caparrós reminded them.
On his first night back at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, he had run, leapt and shouted, conductor as well as coach, heart racing, jaw too, gum chewed into oblivion, hardly able to contain himself, the man who always said “my red blood
boils”. In the stands they went with him every step of the way, and so did his players. “I’ve looked at their eyes and their balls and they’re red and white,” he said. After his (re-)debut, he was still full of energy, hyperactive and ultra-enthusiastic. “This is the hostia!” he said. “It’s
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the leche.” The consecrated bread, the milk, the dog’s dinglie-danglies. But the milk, he knew, was what was coming next.
That night, Sevilla defeated Real Sociedad 1-0; five days after that, they beat Real Madrid 3-2; and three days after that came the derby. For his club, it was a potential crisis. Europe was slipping from Sevilla’s grasp, Getafe up there too and rivals Betis coming to prise their fingers apart.
“They’re preparing a party,” Caparrós added. Betis were safely in fifth or sixth, Europe confirmed, ready to enjoy it – preferably at the expense of their rivals. No pressure. No pressure? “Yeah, right,” one coach said. Everywhere their players went, the fans were there too, reminding them what this meant; 6,000 turned up for their final training session. Here was a chance to complete a double over their rivals 23 years on, to ensure they finished ahead of Sevilla for only the second time in 14 years. Betis coach Quique Setien was trying to calm them all down. “You don’t win just with eggs,” he noted, eggs being balls in Spanish, and he tweeted: “Betis fans can be calm.” It was accompanied by a picture of him .
“I’ve asked my players not to lose their heads; to do what they have done all year,” he added but, they were, one insider later admitted, “crapping themselves.”
This was big, after all. “A señor derby,” El Correo called it. “Euroderbi,” Marca’s headline said. As for ABC, they were going further afield, their front cover insisting: “The world is watching.” Inside, where they clearly had a lot of space to fill and
a journalist paid by the word, they were busy pointing out this was a game that would be watched in “over 180 countries”, helpfully offering up a list of “some of the countries, in alphabetical order, where this game can be seen.” The list was 201 countries long, including everywhere from ARY (the former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia to Zimbabwe, via everywhere else you’ve ever heard of ever and some places you probably haven’t, Nearer to home, they were certainly watching: as the penultimate weekend began, this was one of the few matches with anything riding on it.