Commentary

Behind the Real Betis renaissance

Plus: Can Jose Mourinho find a way to beat Barcelona?

Updated: January 25, 2012, 3:24 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

[+] EnlargePepe Mel
Cristina Quicler/Getty ImagesPepe Mel brought Betis up from the second division and has the team playing attractive, possession-based football.

Approximately a 10-minute walk from the Real Betis Balompie stadium lies the concrete cesspit known as Tres Mil Viviendas -- "3,000 Houses." I'm quite certain that within this hostile, beaten-up, dangerous and crime-scarred neighborhood there are many hard-working, honest families who aspire to better things and keep their noses clean. It's just hard to find them.

There are also countless inhabitants who use drugs, guns, machetes, intimidation, knives, blackmail and extortion, and for whom theft and violence are unfortunate ways of life.

Perhaps it is against that backdrop that we have to understand the efforts of both Sevilla and Betis this past weekend to calm the derby match down and avoid violence between their fans. There is a perma-threat of drunkenness, aggression, provocation and fighting in and around a high-risk derby match. Those who work hard to prevent that deserve thanks from everyone who loves football, in Spain or worldwide.

In recent meetings -- notwithstanding the thousand-day absence of this classic match because of Betis' relegation after the 2008-09 campaign, then return to La Liga this season -- the Seville derby has been blighted by one violent act after another. It all gained maximum notoriety in 2007 when Juande Ramos, then Sevilla coach, was knocked unconscious by a bottle thrown from someone in the stands.

The board members of the two clubs were feuding so badly that it led to fisticuffs and stadium damage, fans ran onto the pitch, more objects were thrown and arrests were made around the stadium, which was at the time named after Betis' president, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.

In June 2009, after the club dropped to the Segunda Division, 65,000 Betis fans took to the streets to demonstrate against the club's failings, the biggest demonstration (social, economic, religious or sporting) in the history of Seville. Ruiz de Lopera was sentenced to jail time for financial impropriety and was forced out of office. His successors came and went, and Los Verdiblancos -- one of Spain's great sporting institutions -- went into administration.

Ill feeling began to tarnish the good name of the city plus those of the two clubs, and to choke the chances of attractive football being played.

But the protests served as a catalyst for revival. If you visit Los Verdiblancos today, there is a sense of youth, urgency, honesty and renewal. The club is answering the heartfelt roar of frustration of its supporters. Under the mandate of a relatively new president, Miguel Guillen, Betis is beginning to resemble FC Barcelona in 2003.

I followed very closely the wave of fresh, determined, visionary thinking that gradually pulled Barca back from the brink of financial, sporting and social disaster. In January 2004, despite poor results, Barcelona kept faith in coach Frank Rijkaard when the logical thing to do was to sack him. His results were atrocious and the downturn seemed inexorable. Instead, Barca listened to Johan Cruyff, who said that things were quietly improving, and sure enough Rijkaard's side finished second that season. One year later it was the Spanish champion, and 12 months after that champion of Europe.

Betis might not quite scale those heights, but it believes Pepe Mel is its Pep Guardiola. He played for Betis, he brought them up from the second division as coach, he believes in possession-based, attractive football to give fans value for their money. While Betis cannot boast Barca's massive fan base and is extremely unlikely to unearth a Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi or Samuel Eto'o, it may, just may, be able to develop its own Xavis and Iniestas under the vision of Mel.

In Barca and Betis, we see how bright, youthful, business-trained men and women can take a club, shake it to its senses and begin to build around smart, commercially viable decisions while vesting faith in a particular style of football. It takes energy, vision and much hard work. It also takes nerve. But all you have to do is quiz Guillen, educated in an English boarding school and at a Tennessee university, about his objectives and results.

"Real Betis has gone through many years of suffering when we lost touch with the real identity of the club," he says. "We are here not only to try to improve the economic situation but to recover all of our real personality. Thanks to God for our magnificent supporters. They can feel the renovation while we try to get back to our identity of being humble, working hard, being generous. That [the identity] was the basis for our club for more than 100 years and it was only lost over the last few seasons.

"In Seville, you might have five or ten thousand people, at most, protesting for political, economic issues, but never 65,000. It's the biggest protest in our city's history because the club is a part of the life of the people of Sevilla and they could not allow the situation of the club to continue like it was. It was not just a sporting or economic question -- it was the entire identity of the institution which was at risk."

After a meteoric start to the season, Betis found itself in the middle of a desert. No wins in 10 matches, sweltering under the pressure of becoming whipping boys and looking more like buckling than finding an oasis. But Guillen and his board had faith. "The easiest thing to do is to sack but we genuinely believed that if we had the right man, and we were sure we'd chosen well, then the right thing to do was to support him" he says now.

Betis steadied itself with a 1-1 draw with Sevilla this past weekend, looking like a team that not only will avoid relegation, but that, with intelligent reinforcing, can significantly build on its achievements next season.

Mel said something that lit a fuse in my brain Friday when I was at his news conference. "I didn't like what I saw in the last few Seville derby matches -- this should be a game which doesn't just bring greatness to our city; it should do that for Spanish football too." I agree with him, and -- just like Levante under another clever, hard-working young president, Quico Catalan -- Betis is showing that there is an intelligent, strategic and attractive way to deal with the massive debt problem in Spanish football.

The formula is straightforward: Develop a plan; elect a smart, hard-working president; rely on a coach who promotes attractive, intelligent football; and put together a squad that is in touch with the demands of its public. To steal a famous Hollywood phrase: "If you build it, they will come."

Best of luck not only to Betis and the highly impressive Guillen, but to the football city of Seville.

[+] EnlargeLionel Messi
Cristina QuiclerAFP/Getty ImagesThe difference maker: Lionel Messi has scored or contributed a goal assist in all but two of the nine Clasicos during Jose Mourinho's tenure at Real Madrid.

Here We Go Again

The media revelations over the weekend that Jose Mourinho, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas had exchanged stern words were interesting but not seismic. Anyone who follows Spanish football closely will have known that despite Madrid's relentless scoring, its killer instinct and its current firm grip on La Liga leadership, there have been raised voices and cold glances throughout Mourinho's reign.

Some of his actions and statements are anathema to one or two of his players, to traditional Madridistas and, broadly, to the media in Spain.

I noted recently that Mourinho has also never had a more toxic series of results than his horrible lose-draw streak against Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. Being humiliated -- and that's the word -- twice in just over a month at home to Barcelona sticks in the craw of all but the Real Madrid "Ultra" fans who adore his arrogant, aggressive stance on all things related to Camp Nou.

Thus Mourinho's name was jeered and whistled by rank-and-file fans Sunday night when the Ultras chanted it during what should have been a nourishing 0-1 down, 4-1 up, comeback victory over Athletic Bilbao.

And there lies the rub. Managers can win titles when they are practically at war with parts of their team. The situation under Fabio Capello during his second title-winning season at the Bernabeu was at least as bad. Ill feeling with players, including Casillas and David Beckham, and rows with the board almost completely fractured relations with large swaths of the fans, and there very nearly was a walk-out by the coach midseason -- that was the Capello title year.

Countless footballers despise or fear their manager but go out and do the job, often well, for a wide range of reasons. So I would contend, as another Clasico looms into view, that it is still possible for Mourinho to surf a wave of distaste all the way to at least one major trophy this season. Not guaranteed by any means, but certainly feasible.

However, like a one-night stand that starts in a trendy nightclub and leads to domestic gymnastics that threaten the stability of some furniture, it's all quite heady until the morning after. Reality sets in, people feel grubby, and in the gray morning light there is repentance.

Whether or not there are league or Champions League trophies to celebrate at the end of the season, the Madrid-Mourinho axis is an ill fit unless the Portuguese changes his personality pretty dramatically -- something you would bet heavily against. In the meantime, wining a trophy remains at least as important for him as it was previously.

To leave, as I now feel sure he will, at the end of the season with still more silverware will become an imperative for this serial winner.

Meanwhile, the Camp Nou awaits Wednesday night. It would be a seismic shock if Real Madrid, following the series of dull performances it has had against Barcelona, managed to overturn a 2-1 deficit. But I would put down two firm warning markers, as I'm sure Guardiola will also be doing during his prematch talk to his players.

Firstly, the two best performances of a Mourinho-Madrid side have come at Camp Nou. Los Blancos should have won the 1-1 Champions League semifinal second leg last season. And in the 3-2 Supercopa defeat in August, the game was both pulsating and very, very evenly balanced. Both matches were played with Real Madrid very much on the front foot, carrying the battle to Barcelona, which is exactly what most of the clubs' fans and players want Mourinho to do Wednesday night. The time for cagey affairs is over.

The second thing to note is that for all Barcelona's almost absolute hegemony of this fixture since 2008, Messi has scored or contributed a goal assist in all but two of the nine Clasicos during Mourinho's tenure at Real Madrid. Only twice has the world's greatest footballer not directly influenced the scoreline, and on those occasions Real Madrid has drawn (that Champions League semifinal) and won (the Copa del Rey final). We can talk systems, form, psychology, skill, mentality, Indian signs -- anything you want. But when you have a genius in your arsenal, winning is a great deal easier.

If Messi has his night, then Barcelona will stride on -- possibly even making Real Madrid look distinctly second-best again.

If not, then there is just a glimmer of a chance that Madrid can make it an uncomfortable evening for Catalan fans.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.