Spain's fallen giants struggle to claw their way back to La Liga
The Estadio Benito Villamarin in Sevilla holds 52,500 people. Bigger than Anfield, Stamford Bridge or the Etihad, it is a ground built for top-flight football, occupied by the sixth-most-supported team in Spain.
This season it has to make do with life in the Segunda. In the same year that Real Betis came within a penalty shootout of the Europa League quarterfinals, a miserable 25 points from 38 league games saw them relegated to the second division. Mismanaged on financial, institutional and sporting levels, this grande (big team) now hosts Barca B instead of FC Barcelona.
They aren't the only huge club slumming it in the second tier. Between Betis and their Liga Adelante rivals Mallorca, Real Zaragoza and Osasuna, there are a collective 12 domestic trophies, two international cups and multiple spells in the Champions League. All are desperate to return to La Liga, where they feel they rightly belong, yet all are far from guaranteed to do so.
Betis (currently in a playoff place) are coping best, though defeats to modest sides like Leganes and Ponferradina mean they have yo-yoed in and out of promotion positions. Real Zaragoza were in the top six, but have gradually slipped behind to ninth after two losses and a draw in their last three games. Osasuna are lower still in 12th (they even hit 19th in December), while Mallorca, most damningly of all, are 13th. Closer to relegation than promotion.
The islanders are nothing short of a mess, a shadow of what they once were. In 2003 they won the Copa del Rey, a certain young forward called Samuel Eto'o scoring twice against Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. Two years prior they finished third in La Liga, eight points above FC Barcelona, and went on to beat Arsenal in the Champions League. Some 22,000 spectators packed Son Moix to watch them defeat the Gunners, with attendances regularly hitting that mark in those days. Now it's a different story, as only 3,646 turned up for a home game with Albacete on Jan. 3.
The explanation for Mallorca's descent is a familiar one for anyone who follows Spanish football. Overspending in times of plenty, followed by a need to sell their best talents in order to pay the bills. War in the boardroom, and a revolving door of managers (six since 2013). Fans aren't excited anymore because frankly there isn't anything to get excited about.
For a short time it looked like there might be, when homegrown playmaker Marco Asensio graduated from the academy and took the league by storm. Asensio is 18 but already the dictator of the team. He takes the free kicks, is the player others look for with their first pass, and is the one left up the pitch when the rest of the team is defending in the hope of orchestrating counterattacks.
He is also on his way to Real Madrid. Asensio only made his Mallorca debut on Oct. 27, 2013, but by Dec. 5, 2014, Los Blancos had signed him. Mallorca get to keep their gem until the end of the season -- aware of the possibility of relegation, the player asked to stay on loan -- but when he goes, what little cause for optimism there is will go with him.
Real Zaragoza supporters can empathise. Like Mallorca, they have been stuck in the Segunda since for two seasons now. And at one stage last year they came close to disappearing altogether. Crippling debt has resulted in sanctions that leave them struggling to pay basic utilities like water, electricity and the cost of maintaining the pitch at La Romareda, a ground accustomed to success far greater than the second division.
The closest the club have come to meeting their 34,500 capacity this season was when 25,000 turned up to watch a 1-1 draw with Osasuna in August. The opponents that day offered a brief chance to relive the La Liga glories of yesteryear, when players of the class of David Villa and Diego Milito regularly broke the 20-goal mark for the club and the Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup were draped in Zaragoza colours. Or better still, when Arsenal, Chelsea and Feyenoord were put to the sword in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.
No one-hit-wonders, Los Blanquillos achieved big things across several periods. In the all-time La Liga table they still place ninth, above Villarreal and Deportivo, an indicator of their longevity.
Osasuna, the side who helped draw that rare big crowd at La Rosaleda in August, sit in 12th. The club from Navarre can't lay claim to trophies like Betis, Mallorca or Zaragoza but they do have a European history to boast of. In 2006, they finished fourth in La Liga, claiming a Champions League spot ahead of noteworthy names like Sevilla and Atletico Madrid. The following year they made it to the semifinals of the UEFA Cup, beating Rangers and Bayer Leverkusen along the way.
Remaining undefeated at home was a key part in reaching the last four of that particular European competition. For years, El Sadar was also a horrible place to visit to for La Liga's giants -- possibly the most hostile stadium in the country. Real Madrid were beaten there in 2009, held in 2010, then defeated again in 2011. Even Pep Guardiola's great Barcelona team fell, trumped 3-2 in February 2012. Far lesser teams pick up results from the same ground nowadays; it's no longer the fortress it once was.
Osasuna have followed the pattern laid out by their prestigious league-mates. They are 72 million euros in debt, 53 million euros of which is owed to the Navarrese regional tax authority. It goes without saying that there is no money for quality signings; players from the lower leagues or loans were used to bolster the squad last summer. Ironically, the club's own academy has produced several talents worthy of the elite. Three of them -- Raul Garcia, Javi Martinez and Cesar Azpilicueta -- played in the Champions League semifinals last year.
Osasuna won't be meeting Martinez or Azpilicueta again any time soon. The days of the club's European adventures may be less than 10 years ago but they feel far more distant. Right now, like Mallorca and Zaragoza, survival is the priority. The best way to ensure it would be a return to La Liga, but for all three teams that looks increasingly unlikely this year.
With Real Betis, however, there is at least hope. Unlike Osasuna, Mallorca and Zaragoza, their sizable support has never wavered. Relegation brought more new season ticket-holders than Europa League qualification did. Results have been mixed over the last six months, but fan favourite Pepe Mel has just returned as coach. That could lead to the kind of bounce they need to solidify a playoff place.
There is also the feeling that, in contrast to the other big clubs they share the Segunda with, for Betis the suffering of recent years has at least served a purpose. The club's debt has been reduced to 33.9 million euros from 99.3 million euros in 2011, an encouraging sign in the long term.
This year is the 80th anniversary of their only La Liga title win, and president Juan Carlos Ollero says he wants to mark it with a return to the top flight. Perhaps the Benito Villamarin will see Barcelona and Real Madrid again sometime soon. Son Moix, La Romareda and El Sadar may have to wait longer.