THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Relegation, a much-loathed owner and an uncertain future. Dermot Corrigan examines troubled times at Real Betis

Since Real Betis’s relegation on goal difference on the last day of last season, the club’s fans have been directing waves of anger and frustration at the club’s majority shareholder Manuel Lopera.

On June 15, over 60,000 supporters marched through Seville’s city centre demanding Lopera’s departure. Furious fans of all ages and sizes took 90 minutes to file down Sevilla’s Avenida de la Constitución. Chants of “Lopera vete ya!”, which can be loosely translated as “Lopera get to fuck”, echoed off the city’s 1,000-year-old cathedral walls. Banners ranged from the humorous – Lopera photoshopped as Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons – to the furious – Lopera being advised to do the decent thing and top himself.

“Lopera says he will not go,” bellowed ex-Betis legend and 75-cap Spain left-back Rafael Gordillo at Seville’s jam-packed Plaza Nueva. “But we, the many thousands of Béticos, will follow him no more.” Former Betis legends Hipólito Rincón and Julio Cardeñosa, the club’s most successful manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer and even ex-regional governor José Rodríguez de la Borbolla also called for change, while local flamenco star José Manuel Soto lead rousing renditions of the imaginatively titled club anthem Olé Olé Betis. It was an emotional night.

Similar protests have been held in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, France, California and Kosovo. Even before Betis’s relegation after an unlucky 1-1 home draw with Valladolid three weeks previously, unrest had been simmering. There were demonstrations after home games, with fans unhappy with the application of talented but feckless players. A team with internationals from Spain, Portugal, Cameroon, Chile, Turkey, Germany and Brazil could outclass Seville 2-1 away in February’s derby, but lacked the fight to eke out points against relegation rivals.

None of this really surprised Betis’s 40,000 season ticket holders, well used to false dawns and rude awakenings since Lopera’s arrival in 1992. Lopera is possibly no more or less dodgy than your average La Liga owner, but his meddling in transfer and team affairs has seen managers such as Luis Aragonés, Guus Hiddink and Javier Clemente come and go without success. Breaking the world transfer record by spending £21.5 million on Brazilian keepy-uppy artist Denilson in 1998 was more about Lopera’s ego than sensible team building. Ditto the decision to rename the club’s 50,000-seat stadium after himself. Even when Serra Ferrer guided the club to Copa del Rey success and a Champions League place in 2005, Lopera screwed it up by falling out with the manager who promptly left for AEK Athens.

Although Lopera managed to ride out the various slings and arrows over the years, a tipping point has now been reached. As relegation worries mounted last season, increasingly angrier protests took place outside the stadium, then eggs were thrown at players leaving training, and finally more sinister threats against Lopera lead to him reportedly going into hiding. Local football daily Estadio Deportivo is not known for angering the club, but its columnists have united in calling for Lopera to sell.

Since the mass protest the city of Seville has heaved with rumour and plots abound. A Borbolla-fronted group called Fundación Heliópolis aims to “rescue the club’s unstoppable and painful process of social, institutional and financial deterioration”. Catalan businessman Luis Castel, who attempted to buy the club in 2007, is reportedly trying again. Other supporters groups, including Por Nuestro Betis and Liga de Juristas Béticos, are organising and fundraising furiously. Fans scour newspapers and websites for concrete developments, but thus far, none has been forthcoming.

Lopera says he will sell for about €60 million (£51.8m) but has yet to receive a serious offer and scoffs at suggestions of a fan-friendly ownership scheme. “I am still here because there is no one to buy,” he ranted recently to Cadena Ser radio station. “These gentlemen seem to want Betis for free.”

Meanwhile, the club – and the city – are preparing for life in La Segunda. Lopera replaced last year’s manager José María Nogués (who himself only took over in April after Lopera sacked Paco Chaparro) with Antonio Tapia, who did impress at Malaga last season. However, leading players such as Edu and Juanito have already left, while Portuguese keeper Ricardo, Cameroon playmaker Emana and Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez look set to follow. Their replacements – Brazilian Iriney and defender Carlos García from Almeria, and former Malaga goalkeeper Goitia – have not set the fans’ pulses racing.

At the moment nobody really knows what will happen at Betis next season – who will be in charge, which players will take the field or whether promotion is a realistic prospect. For a team of Betis’s size and following this is a real shame. Everyone in Seville, though, knows the best way to fix the situation. The shouts of “Lopera vete ya!” look set to continue.

From WSC 271 September 2009

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