There’s something brilliantly bonkers about Betis, the football club that melodrama makes its own, and Sunday night that was them distilled into 90 minutes. Or maybe even in just the two seconds it took for manager Joan Francesc Ferrer – aka Rubi – to watch another rescue start to unfold, living out another life on the edge. Standing alongside the pitch five minutes before half time, he appealed for one penalty, appealed for another and only stopped because he then got something even better. Suddenly, the ball was tearing through the air, through his protests and into the net, noise engulfing everyone. Fifty metres away Sidnei was clambering on to the advertising boards at the south end, helped up and held there by Marca Bartra, Emerson and Joaquín, arms wide. Betis were 1-0 up against Real Madrid and 51,521 fans were going mad.
It had all happened so fast that Rubi never had time to lower his arms. Instead, they remained outstretched, the accelerated emotional journey played out in hand signals. As the ball went into the box, there had been the hint of a handball, Rubi’s arms shooting skywards. Then it had dropped and Sergio Ramos had gone after it, bundling Nabil Fekir to the floor, Rubi opening his palms. On the grass Fekir appealed too, Ramos on top of him, but the referee didn’t even have time to give it. The ball ran free, momentarily Thibaut Courtois straightened and Casemiro slowed, and before any of them could react Sidnei had smashed it into the net, Fekir still appealing when the place erupted. Rubi’s palms closing into a claw as everyone leapt from the bench.
This was silly and it had only just started. Madrid arrived in Seville off the clásico victory, favourites to win the league, and knowing a win would put them top. Betis came having not won in six against Valencia, Mallorca, Leganés, Barcelona, Eibar and Getafe, just five points from the relegation zone, and with the fans were calling for the board to resign. As for Rubi, he was on the edge of the abyss, the sporting director not exactly offering a resounding vote of confidence. “No one is irreplaceable,” Alexis Trujillo had insisted. “And if what happens happens, we’ll have no problem re-evaluating the manager’s position”.
Rubi had been here before. In October, a 90th minute goal summed up sport and rescued him against Celta after four games without a win. In November, a 93rd-minute goal from Sergio Canales saw them defeat Valencia, pulling him back from the edge once more. And now, they were leading against Madrid. An hour later, they had beaten Zinedine Zidane’s team 2-1, Karim Benzema equalising Sidnei’s thunderous shot just before half time only for Cristian Tello to race clear and score the winner on 82, securing a victory they desperately needed – and at a time they most needed it, with their manager on edge and the Seville derby next week. “A shot of adrenaline,” Rubi called it. He had been revived again.
In the buildup to this game, one paper had described Rubi as escaping certain death twice before, as if he was “James Bond”. Madrid left that laser there creeping towards its crotch when they could have just pulled a trigger. Betis’s apparent nervousness had not been seized upon by a team seemingly complacent, too sure of its superiority. But Ramos’s judgment at full time – the “result is fair” – was not just about Madrid; it was about Betis too. “We lacked energy, play, possession, aggression, a bit of everything,” Zidane said. “This was our worst game this season.” For Betis, it was one of the best, nervy to start with but breathless and brilliant at times. Nervy at the end too, fans desperately whistling for the referee to blow the final whistle, watching Vinicius shoot over on 93:51 and Benzema flash a shot just wide on 94:47 and ending the night exhausted, their hearts still racing. “Tis is the best night since I have been here,” Rubi said at the end. “Football as not always been fair to us, but we deserved this.”
He was right. When Sidnei scored that absurd opener, Fekir had already drawn one superb save from Courtois, while Bartra had headed over from five yards. Madrid had only drawn level because Sidnei had connected almost as well with Marcelo as he had with the ball, sending the Brazilian into the air and gifting Madrid a penalty from which Benzema levelled. By the end, they had racked up 14 shots. The only surprise was that they had scored just two of them. Well, that and the fact that it did not slip through their hands at the death. They had been on edge to the last, but they had got through – a reminder of why they shouldn’t be so far down the table and also why they are. “With so many creative players, its not easy for them to focus on other aspects,” Rubi had admitted. It is easier for it to be fun, though, as Sunday proved.
This is the club where, while it might be a myth and while every team is special and every fan’s feelings deep, emotion is embraced and externalised most – for better and worse, ’til death do us part. Or ’til it doesn’t: one fan famously kept taking his dad long after he passed away, going to the ground weekly with a milk carton full of ashes. It’s the place where they like to think funny goes with the football and fun definitely does, where it feels right that their captain is Joaquín, the cheeky scamp with a glint in his eye and magic in his boots, playing better than he ever has before at 38.
Here, Joaquín, who became the player with the third most appearances in the entire history of La Liga, went around the goalkeeper and inexplicably missed. Fekir took Madrid to bits, much as he had done to Barcelona, his passing and running mind-bending at times. One run past Éder Militão was impossibly brilliant and ended, 60 or 70 yards later, with a Andrés Guardado volley that spun just past the crossbar. It had been barely an inch from being the perfect goal: a combination of individual genius, collective quality and a belting finish. Sergio Canales’s touch was perfect, his energy unmatched. And Tello’s finish for the winner was impeccable, leaving Courtois lying down. Benzema had handed it to him, mind you: he had scored one and gifted another. Just as Sidnei had scored one and gifted another. Ramos, meanwhile, had given away two penalties … and only got away with it because the ball was in the net quicker than anyone could make the call. It was Sidnei’s first this season, only his fourth in seven years in Spain, and it was like that.
As if flew into the net, ripping through everything, Rubi stood on the side-line, safe again. For now. One day he will be released, he knows, Betis-supporting journalist Fermín de la Calle insisting that when they do finally do, they should employ Alfred Hitchcock in his place. Betis had the start, but there was plenty of suspense left, more drama, more emotion, more nerves shred, more fun. When the second goal went in, victory close now yet vulnerable too, Joaquín had shouted for calm from the touchline, pointing to his head. But he knows better than anyone that’s not really Betis’s way. And sometimes it’s better like this.
• Every wonder about your life choices? A few weeks ago, Leandro Cabrera was starting every game at the heart of the defence in the team that’s fighting for a Champions League position, Spain’s great revelations. This weekend, he ended the game in goal for the team that’s bottom and on their way down. He did make one save, mind, you – even if it was not enough to rescue an Espanyol team that lost 1-0 to Osasuna, thanks to the most delicate of Panenka penalties from Roberto Torres Morales, and look worse by the week.
• The hankies were out, getting waved about as the Camp Nou chanted for president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign, which at least gave them something to do. OK, so that’s an exaggeration – and Barcelona did go back on top this weekend – but this wasn’t great and there really wasn’t that much going on, except for a bright first half from Martin Braithwaite. In the end, it took a penalty for a handball (an unlucky one, but a clear one too) to carry Barcelona to a 1-0 victory against Real Sociedad. Messi scored that; he couldn’t score the free kick for which Real Sociedad put all 11 players in front of the goal: three in the wall, two plus the goalkeeper on the line, five dotted about in front of them.