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Raining goals and cuddly toys: Real Betis get the party started | La Liga


There were some people on the pitch. Some Pokémon too and some bunnies and some bears. Lots and lots of bears. Lots of goals, too. At half-time in Real Betis’s final home game of 2021, on the night when they sang and danced and hugged and finished the year in a position higher than they have finished any season since 1935, a party breaking out in Heliopolis, it started raining cuddly toys. An annual tradition now, fans had been asked to bring theirs to the ground – no bigger than 35cm please, and no batteries included – and throw them from the stands, flying through the air onto the grass below. Or into blankets waiting to catch them, as if all those stuffed minions and their mates were leaping from a burning building.

Everywhere, it was raining cats and dogs, and sheep and dinosaurs. On the night when Betis presented Alba, an eight-year-old who overcame leukaemia, as their “star signing”, 52,158 people were in the stands at the Benito Villamarín, the place packed and over 19,000 cuddlies were on the pitch, literally sack-fulls of the things, gathered up and given to kids for Christmas. Which they had to do fast: there was still half a game to play, and that turned out pretty special too. “Pfff,” Marc Bartra said. “A great night when it all came together, from a football and fan point of view, one of the best I’ve experienced here.”

One that ended with the Benito Villamarín belting out the club’s anthem. “Here we are to sing you a song,” it begins, “… and even if you were last, you’d be champions in our eyes.”

Betis are not last. They’re not champions either, and they’re not going to be, but they’re a lot closer than anyone expected. One up at half-time, they had struggled. Their goal was another gift, Real Sociedad goalkeeper Alex Remiro leaving his goal and almost the pitch for a ball he didn’t need to chase way out near the touchline and allowing Alex Moreno to roll into an open goal from 20 yards, like a golfer sinking a long putt. La Real striker Cristián Portu alone had five chances, not unjustly insisting afterwards “we were much better than them in the first half”. And even Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini admitted he “didn’t like” the opening 45 minutes. But in the second, they had let loose, Juanmi, Nabil Fekir and Moreno scoring three more and now the place was bouncing, arms around shoulders all around the stadium as they sang.

“Spectacular,” Fekir called it afterwards. “We’re very lucky to have fans like this and we try to do all we can to thank them.”

Cuddly toys thrown on the pitch at the Benito Villamarín
Cuddly toys thrown on the pitch at the Benito Villamarín. Photograph: Pressinphoto/Shutterstock

Oh, they had done that, all right. It was not just that they had won 4-0, that the second half was “brilliant” in their manager’s words; it was that he said the whole year had been and he wasn’t wrong. It was that Betis, invariably fun to watch, had just defeated the team that had led the league for a month, many suggesting they could actually be contenders; that in one night they had scored almost a quarter of the goals Real Sociedad had conceded all season. And that by the end of weekend in which attention had been on the capital, where there was a derby and you couldn’t help wondering if Madrid had wrapped up the title, it was Seville that had two teams in the top three – the only clubs still within single digits of the league leaders.

For Sevilla to be second is not so unusual; for Betis to be third is. They have only ever finished higher once in their history and that was when Patrick O’Connell led them to the title, 86 years ago. Only twice more have they ever finished this high and if it may not be realistic to stay there, the crisis at Barcelona means that fourth place and Champions League qualification might just be plausible. The cushion currently stands at four points, nine above Barcelona – who they beat at the Camp Nou last week.

“And it’s not chance,” Bartra says.

Betis don’t tend to do things quietly – this is a big, loud, laughing kind of place – but this time they have. Which does tend to be Pellegrini’s way, not least because he thought it had to be. Volcanic as a player, he took a conscious decision to be calm as a coach, aware too that the attention had to be the players’. “A man who never takes to the stage,” in the words of Jorge Valdano, who signed him – and then was forced to sack him after just one season – as coach of Real Madrid. “If you give Pellegrini time he makes good teams,” said the Bernabéu’s former sporting director a little pointedly on Sunday night and at Betis he certainly has.

Pellegrini took over after a difficult 2019-20 season in which they sacked coach Rubí with eight games to go and eventually finished 15th. He had a difficult start but then, although they drew too often – seven of their last 10 last season – took them on a run in which they lost just one of the 26 games they played since the turn of the year and finished sixth. This season, combining domestic football and the Europa League, where they tend to rotate, they have lost four in the league: to Villarreal, Madrid, Atlético and Sevilla, which may say something about their level or even their limitations but certainly says something about their consistency.

Sunday night was their fourth win in a row, local paper Estadio Deportivo calling them a “Champions League cyclone”, the Diario De Sevilla claiming that they were living in a “state of nirvana”, a team that “delights”. They could say that again, and so they did, spewing out a cascade of eulogies for a team they called: “a delicious generator of football”. Betis’s own website took a different approach. “We could make this match report more beautiful with loads of superlative adjectives, but there’s no point,” it read. “You have to experience it for yourself, live Betis.” It’s not bad advice. Always watch Betis. The fourth goal in particular was gorgeous.

Manuel Pellegrini dishes out instructions to Nabil Fekir
Manuel Pellegrini dishes out instructions to Nabil Fekir. Photograph: Pressinphoto/Shutterstock

Only Madrid have taken more shots or scored more goals. No one is as enjoyable to watch as Fekir, a player so outrageously talented, so good, so silly at times that he makes his team mates laugh. Sunday night’s goal was typically superb, consistency now added to his quality. Sergio Canales, once that teenage revelation, may be better than ever at 30 having come through terrible injuries. Juanmi certainly is, fast becoming a cult hero. “Oh, Juan Miguel, we all want a goal from Juan Miguel,” they sing to the tune of Ay Mamá Inés and most weeks they get one as well. At least they do these days: seemingly half way out in the summer, he’s just one behind his best season total. A lot of that is down to the manager: “He knows me well. He’s a coach with very clear ideas, a very recognisable style that he is laying down at Betis,” he says. “He knows me well. He’s a coach with very clear ideas, a very recognisable style that he is laying down at Betis,” he says. “There are lots of players who have had low moments, who are playing well now.”

“It’s a footballing conviction, an idea that the players carry out without doubting,” Pellegrini said on Sunday night. Bartra explains: “I’ve had some great coaches and Manuel is definitely one of them. He has three or four very clear ideas. He tells every player exactly what they need, no more and no less. It’s simple, nothing out of this world, but he’s very intelligent in how he tells you. We believe in what we’re doing and you can see that. When you’re about to go out, everyone knows exactly what they have to do. The ball has to be ours, everyone has a space, but with [some] freedom, the offensive movements are worked through. We’re very compact, in a 4-2-3-1 where the positioning is very important but there is some freedom within that and all of us defend: it can’t be just four. Solidarity is the word I would use. The idea doesn’t change and there is stability now, which is important.”

“He is very even tempered: when you win you’re not the best in the world and when you lose you’re not the worst,” Bartra adds. “And honestly, there’s no euphoria inside. We know how bad things can get, how fast they can get worse.” For now, though, they just keep getting better. “What I take with me is the win and the way the fans enjoyed it. It’s been a brilliant year in every sense,” Pellegrini said at the end, embracing Moreno, scorer of two goals, when the whistle went. There were tears in the full-back’s eyes on Sunday night when at last he stopped running up the left wing and looked up at the fans still there and still singing, sacks of cuddly toys lined up around the pitch. “I’m super-emotional,” he said. “This was one of the happiest days I’ve had. I just hope there are many more ahead.”





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