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Sep 18, 2006

I predict a riot

So far this Sunday evening there are no reports of civil upheaval in the burning streets of Seville, but maybe that's because there were no TV cameras there (Sevilla continue to be in dispute with everybody and everything) and also because a bit of urban rioting has become standard for the starters and desserts that sandwich the great Andalusian derbi.

It wouldn't particularly matter if the game were played in Regional Division obscurity. There would still be dustbins overturned. Indeed, the police would probably be disappointed if nothing happened, given the money spent on reinforcements and extra riot training.

This column has dwelt on the Seville derby before, but it remains a fascinating fact that of all the fire and brimstone matches in the world - Barça v Real Madrid, Celtic v Rangers, etc, the roots of the rivalry are well set out, in clear cultural or political terms. No-one is in the dark about these things any more.

But the Seville thing remains a mystery. The fact that Betis were founded in 1909 (four years after their neighbours) by two rebel Sevilla directors who were protesting at the snobbish refusal of Sevilla to sanction the signing of a player who came from working-class stock, has always given Betis a left-wing reputation.

But it hardly seems sufficient to fuel the almost apoplectic hatred between the two sets of supporters, most of whom must rub shoulders the rest of the year on the buses and the trains.

'It's a healthy rivalry' they always say down there, but I'm not so sure. Maybe it's just a bi-annual ritual to which everyone feels they should contribute, just to clear the air and get rid of a bit of excess testosterone. The two presidents actually had lunch together before the game this year, evidence of an official softening between the two clubs, maybe because they're both doing ok. It's said down there that the worst years (in terms of the relationship) have been when the teams have been far apart, with one riding high and the other in the doldrums.

This weekend's game had several extra added ingredients too.

Amazingly enough, despite the rich histories of both clubs, this was the first derby since the 1942-43 campaign that either side had come into the game in the position of top-flight leader. And that was Betis, all those years ago.

Three years later, Sevilla won their one and only league title, just as World War Two was in its final death throes. Indeed, this Sunday was the first time they have ever played the derby on their ground as leaders of the First Division. Not great for a club founded in 1905, but hey, let's look to the future.

The boys in white won a cracking game 3-2 (by all accounts - nobody could watch it apart from the 45,000 capacity crowd) after taking the lead, being pegged back to 1-2, then finally taking the points with a late goal from Renato. The Sánchez Pizjuan went ballistic (we were allowed to see the goals) and Sevilla continue to lead the table on goal difference from Barça and Valencia, who both won and maintained their 100% records.

The recent statistics for the leaders are impressive, quite apart from their demolition of Barcelona in the European Supercup and their win in midweek in the UEFA. They have now gone sixteen games undefeated, winning the last twelve of them - a consecutive run which has set their confidence levels at sky-high.

And all this without Reyes, Baptista and Sergio Ramos (throw in Saviola too), players whose departures from the club were seen as evidence that the president lacked ambition, and that he favoured cautious book-balancing over investment foe the future. Well - that may still be true, since those three players could hardly be sniffed at, but what has happened since is nothing short of extraordinary.

With a team sin figuras (without big stars), coach Juande Ramos has managed to achieve what all trainers seek to do - establish balance. At the back, Javi Navarro and Aitor Ocio survive from the Caparrós regime - hard no-nonsense centre-backs difficult to intimidate. Julien Escudé, bought from Ajax in the summer, has actually replaced Ocio at the back, but he's a centre-back in pretty much the same mould.

Excellent goalie Andrés Palop, the quiet man who played a mere 20 games in six years at Valencia, is now rated as one of the best in La Liga, and with Casillas wobbling at the Bernabéu and Cañizares not getting any younger he might soon come into the international reckoning. Two fizzy full-backs in Alves and David, a solid if unspectacular midfield held together by Renato and Poulsen allows Jesus Navas to do his stuff on the right wing - a player heavily tipped to replace the misfiring Joaquín on the right side of the Spanish team.

Navas' only problem seems to be a tendency to clinical depression, but with the team going so well, he's smiling for now.

And what of Fred Kanouté, hero of the derby hour with a brace of goals? Looks like another case of the Diego Forlan syndrome - a player who couldn't quite hack it in the Premiership but who blossoms in La Liga.

There's no law to this phenomenon, no pattern you can predict. But Fernando Morientes isn't complaining either. He scored again for Valencia at the weekend, after his Champions League hat-trick in midweek. Maybe it was the rain in Liverpool that made him a bit rusty last campaign. Ex-Premiership man José Antonio Reyes also got off the mark for Real Madrid against Real Sociedad, scoring a cracking free-kick that probably had Beckham, watching on from the bench, sweating a bit.

They don't even need him for free-kicks now? Well - Becks' various sponsors will have breathed a sigh of relief when the great man rose from the bench (replacing Reyes, who gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek), then took a late hoof from the defence in his stride and ran half the length of the pitch before blasting the ball neatly into the bottom corner for his first goal of the season. He looked quite chuffed. So did Fabio Capello, who looked distinctly unchuffed in midweek when his new regime seemed to be coming apart at the seams, once again in the hostile lands of Lyon. The jury's still out on Real Madrid, the only Spanish side to fail in Europe this last week.

But anyway, I digress. Are Sevilla authentic challengers? Well - with twelve wins on the trot (admittedly over two seasons) they have to be taken seriously, but their squad is fatally smaller than either of the big two, and thinner in the end than Valencia's. It could be their undoing, but for the moment the force is with them.

Next week should be interesting, when they travel to Atlético Madrid, the other team who were tipped to challenge this season. Having done their usual early-season stutter to date, they stuffed Athletic Bilbao 1-4 in San Mamés without the suspended Torres - but with Maniche and Agüero (who scored) in the starting line-up for the first time.

And although most teams look as though they could stuff Athletic at the moment, it'll do Atlético's morale good for next week. Expect an interesting encounter.


  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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