The plane bumps in late to a darkening Seville, packed with passengers diverted from a flight that has fallen foul of the latest Iberia strike. It only takes 90 minutes to fly the length of Spain (from Bilbao), although of course, Seville isn't quite at the bottom. It's warmish and raining outside, and walking across the tarmac it smells of kerosene and the softer southern air. The pinkish-black sky makes it seem like a different planet from the frozen north.
By the time I've dumped my stuff in the hotel it's 20.45 and I can't be late for my date with the opening game of the weekend - Betis v Osasuna on a wet Friday evening. My wife declines to accompany me so I jump into a taxi and tell the driver to head to the Benito Villamarin. Immediately, as if on cue, he asks me in rapid-fire Andaluz if I support Betis or Osasuna. 'Neutral' I reply, adding that my team is Real Sociedad and that due to league placings I'd prefer Osasuna to win, but that I mean Betis no ill-will.
He's young, but down south you tend to open with the polite form of 'you', and since he has addressed me as 'usted', I do the same. Usted es de Betis, supongo?> (I suppose you support Betis?) I ask him as he whisks me around the darkened streets. Que si! (Sure am!) he says. "That was a good game last week in Anoeta," he enthuses. I agree, then tell him I was there and talk up Betis' contribution to that 3-3 spectacle. It's a little trick you play to bond temporarily with other males of the football species in Spain, with a quick nod to the virtues of their team, and he plays ball (as it were) by reciprocating my gesture. "'I like that Carlos Vela," he says, and then breaks the rule by adding: "He should have come down here".
We go back a long way, Seville taxi-drivers and me. The last time I was in the city, almost twelve years ago, it was to research a chapter for my book, Morbo, which I decided to call 'Five taxis', given that each one that I took during my stay offered me differing versions of the Betis-Sevilla rivalry, and all of them were keen to engage in conversation. It was as if the identity thing was total in the city - you were one or the other and that was it. I decided to engage with five different drivers to get their stories, to hear their takes on the city's weird but wonderful football scene. I hit the jackpot, because the second one that picked me up was an ex-Betis player, and it all just got better from there. One of ESPN's editors back then read the book, reviewed it, and centred his critique on the 'Five taxis' chapter. We exchanged e-mail comments, and he asked me to start this column.
Spookily, I've hit the jackpot again. "I've just come back from the ground," the taxi-driver tells me. "I took the ref and the two linesmen. They're staying in the same hotel as you. I said to the ref - ha, you'd better let Beti win, or I won't take you back to the airport tomorrow." I laugh and ask him how the referee reacted. "He took it well. Not like some of them. I usually get the job of driving them around - there are two of us who work for the club," he adds. "And we take turns to ferry the refs. This one was funny. He said he'd think about letting us win but that I wasn't to tell anyone", upon which he lets out a massive cackle. I ask which referee it is. "He's that one from the Canaries. He's useless - they all are. He's a tarjetero (over-zealous), but hey, he has a sense of humour. He's the one with the funny name". I suggest to my new friend that it must be Hernández Hernández (Alejandro). "That's him!" he enthuses. "He's blond and he looks like an Englishman. Hey - you know your football," he nods, in male-bonded approval. He's dropped the polite 'usted' form now. That means we're mates. Nice folks, these béticos.
We continue to head for Betis' ground, at breakneck speed. Convinced he's found a potential convert to his cause, the taxi-driver begins to fiddle with his cell phone, telling me that he wants me to watch a video clip. I'd prefer him to watch the road ahead, but he finds the video, and hands the phone to me, over onto the back-seat. "Es que se nace bético" (You're born a Betis fan), he says, by way of introduction to the clip. "A Sevilla, se va cualquiera"(Seville fans are just anybody) he explains, in a complex dismissal of Betis' traditionally snootier rivals. The video is a take on Genesis - the biblical version, not the band - and as the days of creation flash by I kind of guess what's coming. "And on the 7th Day," announces the narrator, "God created Beti!" Well maybe he did, but of course, he left no time to create Sevilla, which is the final thing my friend needs to tell me before nipping up a side-street and pointing to the looming target of our 10-minute pilgrimage. "There it is," he points, as if we've just arrived at an ancient monument of historical significance. "I wish I could go tonight," he sighs and then wakes up from his momentary trance - "Hey! Don't forget my phone!"
I've bought a cheap ticket high up in the gods, but it's great to tread the Benito Villamarin at long last. My previous visit was on a week day, and consisted of a wander around the club shop. My seat is wet from the rainfall earlier, and the pitch below reflects puddles in the floodlit glare. Not exactly sun-drenched Sevilla. It's ten minutes to kick-off and the pitch is circled in its entirety by banner-bearing women. It's International Working Women's Day, and the banners read: El R Betis con la mujer (Betis hand-in-hand with women) in a rootsy nod to the club's original socialist principles. Betis still considers itself the working-class club of the city, the team of the common folk and the authentic Triana-based flamenco, with its ground situated in the formerly left-wing neighbourhood of Heliopolis. The fact that King Juan Carlos and his son Felipe are honorary members and that Spain's richest woman, the Duquesa de Alba, is the club's highest-profile fan, is a mild contradiction that fails to unhinge this basic socialist feel to the club.
The game is live on Marca's open TV channel, but there is still a healthy-looking crowd. The ground is bigger that it looks on the telly, with three steep-sided stands and a lower, unfinished-looking part behind the goal to my left. There's a positive feel, despite the cold wind blowing about my ears, up in the roofless heights of the stand. I enquire of the man to my right which is the 'Fondo Norte' (the northern stand). He points to the huge one, to my right. "And that's the south stand," he adds helpfully, pointing to the left. I thank him for the geography lesson, but there's an immediately friendly feel to the place, as if you're a guest being welcomed to the party.
Of course, despite the positive reputation of the Betis fans, of their undying devotion and of their pledge to support their team through thick and thin - manque pierda (even if they lose) - things are going well for them this season. They're getting general praise for their attractive attacking football, and Osasuna - despite their reputation as an organised defensive side - are not seen as a threat to further progress tonight, with the possible prize of a Champions league placing for Betis if they can take all three points. Not bad for their second season back in the top flight, after their relegation in 2009. Their manager, Pepe Mel, is now a local hero, but was only spared the sack after last season's shaky start because the club couldn't afford to pay out his contract.
Mel is an interesting character. An ex-Betis player, he has just published a novel called El Mentiroso (The Liar) which is attracting not only surprise in the Spanish media but critical acclaim. Thankfully, it's not about football but is a Dan Brownesque thriller about some other Dead-Sea Scrolls that lead us all the way to the Vatican vaults. Tonight Mel's back in the contemporary world, down under the west stand in his dark suit, his balding literary pate shining in the lights.
Betis are all action, and their star-man Beñat is hyperactive in midfield. He asks for the ball constantly, but finds his efficiency reduced by the pools of water in the centre of the park. He lacks the overall finesse of the other midfielders who play for Spain, but the occasional inaccuracy of his passing is due to his constant ambition. Every ball he plays is vertical, with offensive intent. It scares Osasuna and it doesn't take long to unpick them. Beñat pings out a long ball to Joel Campbell on the right, who in turn sends over a cross that Jorge Molina majestically heads home. The crowd goes wild, as if they've won the cup. I jump up too, so as not to look like the party-pooper. The fans remain on their feet, bursting into spontaneous song and holding their scarves up high (everyone has a scarf but me, it seems) until they finally tire and sit down. Nevertheless, they continue to sing an astonishing variety of 'Beti' songs, most of whose dialect-infused lyrics I find impossible to decipher.
I tell the geography teacher that I like Campbell. He nods in approval. "We want him to stay!" he beams, and you can see why. Arsene Wenger's decision to loan him out was either a stroke of genius or complete folly, because his every touch panics Osasuna. Betis continue to look better at attacking then defending, but Osasuna are the league's lowest scorers, with 23. It shouldn't be a problem, but in the second half the visitors raise their line and start to attack with more intent, sensing that Betis' right-hand side is their weak point, with Angel López having a stinker.
When Fran Silva equalises after a silky counter, the Betis fans around me go into a sort of collective wail, as if they have just lost a loved one. Curiously, they throw bread from their half-eaten sandwiches into the air, as a sign of protest against the whimsy of fate, but in truth Osasuna deserve to be level. The crowd seems devastated, head in hands. Andalusia has over 50% unemployment, against 26% nationwide. The 24,000 crowd, as a snapshot of the area, must love how these games enable them to temporarily forget the crude reality of the economic tsunami devastating their region. When the opposition score, the truth seems to seep back into the stadium.
Dorlan Pabón comes on for Beñat, slips a pass forward to Ruben Castro, and it's thank you and goodnight. The geography teacher is so happy he starts to weep, and folks are hugging each other with the emotion of it all. And it's only Friday. They care about their team at Betis, that's for sure. The next day, the Diario de Sevilla leads with the headline that Betis are now safe from relegation, having arrived at the magical number of 43 points. Novelist Pepe Mel assures the interviewing journalist that "we can now aspire for more". They sure can. Musho Beti!