Sheffield United: The ties that bind The Blades and Real Betis

They are separated by geography, language and even the colour of the stripes on their famous jerseys.

Friday, 12th July 2019, 1:58 pm
Sheffield United fans show their passion: Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

But Sheffield United and Real Betis, who face Chris Wilder's side at the Algarve Stadium tonight, share plenty in common according to a journalist and supporter of the Spanish team.

Carlos Urbano, who has chronicled the Seville based club's fortunes for publications including Marca, the country's national sports newspaper, cited the passion of Betis' fans, coupled with the fact their home city is split across footballing lines, as two characteristics the United followers who have travelled to Portugal will appreciate and recognise.

"Football is like oxygen to most of Seville's citizens," Urbano said. "They live their team's signings, games and rivalry on a daily basis, no matter where and no matter when. I would say that Sevilla and Real Betis are the city's spine; the beginning and the end of almost any conversation.

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"It even gets funny when a derby is coming and a family 'splits' in two sides during a week until the match is over."

United's rivalry with their neighbours Sheffield Wednesday has shaped the identity and personality of both teams. The same, according to Urbano, can be said of Seville, where Béticos view themselves as guardians of its blue collar roots.

"There's an extended belief that Sevilla is the rich people's club and Real Betis the working class' one," he continued. "Lots of stories and legends around both teams foundations claim that the reason Real Betis' founders decided to leave Sevilla F.C. was that some of the members of the board didn't want a working class person playing for them. They only accepted bourgeois, according to this version.

"Maybe that helped Real Betis fans grow a suffering-fighters reputation."

Although both Betis and United are now playing at the highest level of the game in their respective countries, both have endured periods of struggle. Despite being promoted from the Championship last season, United had just finished mid-table in League One when Wilder was appointed three years ago. Betis, after experiencing a series of financial difficulties in the early Nineties, spent a brief period in Spain's second tier before again being beset by off-the-pitch difficulties.

"Even though Real Betis fans claim how much they've suffered in their history, on and off the pitch, they've become one most loyal crowds in Spain and maybe in Europe," Urbano, previously director of the fanzine, said. "When things get worse, more season ticket holders the club would have. It doesn't matter if the team get relegated or don't get promoted. It doesn't matter if Sevilla lift another trophy. They will always be there, with their team."

"That's what their motto is all about: Even if we lose'," Urbano added. "The 'You'll never walk alone' equivalent. "They see themselves as loyal, humble and self-made people, as the club used to be. It's all about identity. On the other hand, 'béticos' see Sevilla fans and their coaches as anything but."

Like United supporters, Urbano explained, Beticos are loyal and fiercely protective of their team.

"Real Betis fans grow in adversity, it's almost their natural state," he said. "They're not used to trophies or European nights. But they are always there, always turning out."

Rubi, previously of Sporting Gijon and Espanyol, took charge of Betis earlier this summer and, like Wilder, is determined to construct an attack-minded, creative team. The 49-year-old was appointed when his predecessor Quique Setién decided to leave the Estadio Benito Villamarín following two years at the helm.

"Rubi's arrival means that Real Betis plans to keep the same philosophy that Quique Setién brought in 2017," Urbano said. "Both are Johan Cruyff admirers, but Rubi worked at Barcelona for Tito Vilanova and Pep Guardiola has praised him publicly several times.

"His tactical knowledge is more complete than Setién's, and that means that Real Betis could become a very unpredictable team. The logical formation would be a 4-3-3 based on possession but, as long we're in preseason and they have a new head coach, I wouldn't be surprised if Rubi tries something different."

United are expected to include new signings Phil Jagielka and Luke Freeman in their line-up against Betis while Callum Robinson, the Preston North End forward, is poised to complete his transfer from Deepdale. Rubi, meanwhile, will use the fixture to explore the potential of the squad he inherited from Setién.

"Real Betis have some really good players in their squad," Urbano said. "Now Quique Setién is gone, there's a huge chance that Rubi, the new manager, would line up Cristian Tello as a left winger instead of as a left back. That's his natural position, where he shone while he played for Barcelona, Porto and Fiorentina.

"Sergio Canales and Giovani Lo Celso, however, were the team's top scorers in 2019, even though they're not strikers, but midfielders. Marc Bartra and Zou Feddal, the centre backs, are really dangerous on set-pieces."