Hundreds of football fans wearing green and white crowded around the reception of a hotel in a working class area of Barcelona before Spain’s La Liga clubs broke for the international break two weeks ago.
They were fans of Real Betis, from Sevilla, 900 kilometres to the south west. Fourteenth-place Betis were about to play league leaders Barcelona at Camp Nou and nobody quite knew what to expect.
This is Betis, after all, the team who beat AC Milan in the Europa League this season … either side of league defeats to Real Valladolid and Getafe.
Betis are well supported. They took 5,000 fans to Milan and boast 30 supporters’ clubs in Catalonia, the result of hundreds of thousands of Andalusians who moved to Catalonia or the Basque Country in search of work in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We told the team hotel that there would be fans there and they should be prepared,” explained Julio Jimenez Heras before a previous game against Barcelona. “The hotel had two security guys for 4,000 fans. We have open training sessions when we play in Catalonia.”
Despite their size and 47,200 average home crowds, Betis are not well known outside of Spain. Many of the Manchester United fans visiting Seville in February had little idea that Betis came from the city.
A lack of European football has not helped their profile, but they’re a fascinating club. No club has so many fans in the home section against Barcelona as Betis – and on November 11 they were rewarded as their team attacked Spain’s champions away, outplayed them and won 4-3.
It was the biggest shock of the Spanish season so far, the first time Barca had been beaten at home in more than two years and the first time Betis had won in Camp Nou for 20 years.
Barca fans were magnanimous in applauding Joaquin, the 37-year-old captain and scorer of Betis’ second goal.
It was a glorious game of football, one of many this season in Spain where just four points separate the top six and three points the following nine teams.
It is a league where giants Valencia and Athletic Bilbao have won only three games between them, where Alaves are above Real Madrid. So much for La Liga’s much derided predictability.
Betis, who finished sixth last season and 15th the one before, remain an enigma. They Had scored only eight goals in their previous 11 league games before they met Barca, the lowest tally in the league. Then they hit four in the most difficult stadium to get a win at in Spain.
But Betis do surprises and in attack-minded coach Quique Setien, they have the perfect match.
“My influence comes from the feeling I have inside me,” Betis’ manager said. “When I grew up and started to play, it was the beginning of the Barca of Johann Cruyff and I played against them. You were chasing the ball for 80 minutes.
"We tried to steal the ball and couldn’t get to it. I’d watch this and think ‘Wow, this is what I want’. I loved what they did. I studied the mechanism of Cruyff’s play, the positioning, how high the full backs played, how the centre backs split, the build up.”
Manolo Marquez is the man who replaced Setien when he left Las Palmas for Betis in 2017. The previous year, Marquez had seen him work close at hand.
“Setien is black or white,” he said. “When his team is inspired it’s hard to stop them. But his team can also concede five – as they did to Barcelona in January.”
Given Setien’s Cruyff-inspired philosophy, he’s been linked with being a future Barcelona manager, although Marquez does not think this would be altogether a wise move.
“He’s good enough to coach at Barca, but the problem comes when you lose two games there. There’s not much patience. But wherever he is the teams play very well.”
“Setien is a perfectionist with a strong character. He works all the time with the ball in training and gives very specific instructions. He wants his players to listen and act on his instructions and he’s not happy with them if they don’t.”
Betis return to action on Sunday with an away game at Villarreal. Betis are unpredictable, brilliantly so, and nobody has a clue which Betis will turn up.
This is the team who beat Madrid away last season but lost 5-1 at Eibar. They drew 4-4 with Real Sociedad and lost 6-3 at home to Valencia a week later. They beat their cross-city rivals Sevilla 5-3 away and they lost 5-3 at home to Real Madrid.
Maybe they can build upon the euphoria of their shock 4-3 defeat of Barca in their last game – or maybe not.