Death of a President?
Far Left versus Far Right, Di Canio's fascist salutes, a winner for Inter in extra time - all witnessed over a weekend break in freezing northern Italy, where - journalist strike notwithstanding - they appear to live their football just as intensly as the Spanish do theirs. They also know La Liga well, and one of the questions over dinner on Sunday night - apart from the 'Are Real Madrid seriously thinking of buying Keane?' was the one about poor Betis. 'What's happened to them?' Good question, and one not altogether easy to answer.
Perhaps it's the cult of personality, so constantly fed by President Manuel Luiz de Lopera, that is finally coming home to roost. One has only to look at the stadium's name - formerly Benito Villamarín- to see part of the problem. Don Manué, as he likes to be known, has named the smartened-up version after his goodself, normally an event that takes place posthumously - but Don Manué being the control freak that he is couldn't possibly leave it to others for after his death. One has to be immortalised in the here-and-now.
Then again, although Betis lie bottom of La Liga after this weekend's games, after a week in which they achieved the seemingly impossible feat of losing at home to Anderlecht, it has to be said that their famously bad-tempered president has always put his money where his mouth is. Taking over as the majority shareholder in 1992, Lopera has restored Betis to the map, whether it's all been a way of upping his profile or not. Few presidents are in the game for purely altruistic reasons.
During Don Manué's time there the club has qualified three times for the UEFA Cup and once for the old Cup Winners competition (although they were losing finalists in 1996), actually won it last season and then qualified for the Champions League proper this season. In an amusing finish to the race for 4th place last season, Sevilla's president José María del Nido - thinking that his side were about to win the conveted last spot - commented to the press that it was a good thing that Andalucía was about to have its first representative in the Champions League, only for Betis to pip them for the place on the last day of the season. Lopera then chuckled to the press that it was indeed a good thing, especially considering that it was Betis who had made it.
As is now well documented, there is little love lost between the two teams - indeed between the two communities, although Betis' working-class image is a little harder to take these days. Lopera, of course, is a self-made man, making his fortune through the sales of old TV sets and washing-machines in the 1970's, renting them out on less-than-generous terms to the very people that he would later come to represent as boss of Betis. Self-made men tend to think that they are right, and it would appear to be the basis of their problem this season.
Lopera worked hard to keep the star turn, Joaquin, at the club, even though the rumours of a move to Chelsea or Real Madrid were well advanced. He even turned up at the winger's wedding in a typical blaze of self-publicity, completely eclipsing the bridegrooms's big day. With the King's Cup under his arm he rattled on to the press about how Joaquin was staying because Betis were no smaller than the clubs to which he was rumoured to be moving, and that the cup under his arm was proof of that. Next season it was to be the Champions League trophy. Why not?
Why not indeed? Well - one problem was the depth of the squad, a fact pointed out to him in the summer by manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, himself a feisty (but lower-profile) chap who has accumulated years of experience working as a manager and a right-hand man at various clubs - Barcelona and Mallorca included. He was at Betis in a former life too, and took them to their best-ever league position (3rd) since they won the title way back in 1935.
Ferrer drew up a list of players he fancied for the new campaign, including Cicinho and Baiano, but got such luminaries as Xisco and Oscar López instead. Things haven't quite worked out for them (or for Nano and Juanlu), and to rub salt into the proverbial, top player Ricardo Oliveira was seriously injured at the beginning of November. To show how bad things have become, he remains their top scorer.
It seems that Betis' 1-0 win over Chelsea may yet remain the high point of their season, unless some of the rot can be gouged out. To add to the club's woes, it would also seem that manager and president have fallen out, partly over the summer spending but partly over the fact that the sympathies lie with Ferrer. He'd better watch his back. Don Manué doesn't like folk to be more popular than him.
Not only the above, but for those with superstitious natures, things do not augur well. Betis' first venture into Europe, in the Cup-Winners' Cup of 1977-78 was an interesting affair, during which they beat AC Milan and Lokomotiv Leipzig before bowing out with some dignity to Dynamo Moscow in the quarter-finals. Seville was awash with 'EuroBeti' fever, and the future was looking good. As you might have guessed, Betis went down that year, infamously relegated on the last day of the season when best of friends Sevilla - cruising in mid-table, appreared to throw their game against Hercules, Betis' relegation rival.
Death threats were exchanged across the city, and although there had been incidents of this nature before, things have never really been the same since. The Italians with whom I had supper on Sunday night were surprised by Betis' league position, but in no way surprised by the intra-city emnity between the two sides. The Italians, it would seem, are used to that.
Joaquín is not the same player this season, down to two assists from fifteen games - a poor statistic for a footballer notoriously good at setting up goals. He tried to turn it on at Stamford Bridge, perhaps in a final attempt to persuade Mourinho that he would be better than Shaun Wright-Phillips in the wide berth, but Asier Del Horno took good care of him in that game, eventually keeping him quiet after the winger had threatened to run riot in the opening quarter.
This weekend's home draw with Espanyol seemed an even lower point than the defeat to Anderlecht. Fortunately for Don Manué, he was at home watching the game with his feet up. Visibly shaken by the reaction of the fans after the midweek game, he chose to stay at home - a decision not particularly appreciated by the faithful, judging by the club's blog sites. Here, you have to 'Dar Cara' (face up to your accusers), and for once, Don Manué preferred the easier option.
With the prospect of a trip up to freezing Bilbao next weekend, to a club also struggling in the relegation zone, the idea of losing this 'six pointer' must have the president quaking in his hand-made shoes. Are we witnessing the death of a president, or are the rumours greatly exaggerated? We shall see, but where it was once sunshine, all seems to be gloom and despair in a certain corner of Andalucía.
Historically it's nothing new for this 'cara y cruz' team (face and cross - two sides of the coin), who have always lurched between the promise of success and the reality of failure - but who have always done it with a smile. Their supporters remain among the most loyal in Europe, with their most un-Spanish of slogans celebrating defeat - 'Viva er Beti, manque peirda' (Up with Betis, even if they lose!). They might be thinking of changing that in the future, if things don't improve.