I don’t know about you, but I can’t help choosing a favourite when a city has two prominent clubs. More often than not I will plump for the lowest-ranked as I feel that it is in my footballing DNA to support the underdog. I don’t think too many Real Betis fans would dispute their position as the underdog, but they certainly have the more colourful history, more interesting stadium and as with all good underdogs, an ability to snap at the ankles of more illustrious opponents.
Real Betis was founded by a splinter section of disgruntled Sevilla FC members on 12 September 1907. They were originally called España Balompié (Balompié being derived from the Spanish translation of ball & foot – balón & pie) and set up home at the Campo del Huerto de Mariana. In 1909 they moved to the Campo del Prado de Santa Justa, changing their name to Sevilla Balompié. They were on the move again in 1911, switching to the Campo del Prado de San Sebastián, which was an area of open parkland also used by Sevilla FC. In 1914, the club absorbed a number of smaller teams including Betis Foot-Ball Club and changed its name to Real Betis Balompié after receiving royal patronage on 17 August 1914. The club continued to use the Campo del Prado de San Sebastián, but in 1918 moved to Campo del Patronato Obrero. You can read more about Betis’ former homes here.
We move on a decade and the staging of the Ibero-American trade fair in Sevilla. Among the many attractions was a new stadium in the Heliopolis district of the city, which was given the unimaginative title of the Estadio de la Exposición. With an 18,000 capacity, this open, square-sided arena was ideally suited to the up and coming Betis, but it saw its first action on 17 March 1929 with an international between Spain and Portugal. Whilst Betis played a few games at Heliopolis and a number of accounts have them in-situ from 1929, the club continued to play their home matches at Patronato until the end of the 1935-36 season. This is significant as Betis reached the final of the Copa in 1931, won the La Segunda title in 1932 and won their first and only La Liga title in 1935, with the home form at Patronato key to the success. Despite winning the league title, finances at the club were in a poor state and in 1936 the club reached an agreement with the Municipality to effectively swap Heliopolis and in return, the municipality took control of Patronato. The timing of the agreement could not have come at a worse time. Signed on 15 July 1936, the Spanish Civil War began 48 hours later and with it, fighting in the streets of Sevilla. The club offices were bombed, most of the staff fled abroad and membership dropped below a hundred.
Peace arrived in the spring of 1939 and Betis finally had a chance to use Heliopolis. In the months leading up to its reopening, the club played a few games at Sevilla’s Estadio Nervion. The impact of the war was particularly severe on Betis who were effectively broke, had few members and no quality players remaining from the championship-winning side of four years earlier. It was certainly on a par with the plight of Barcelona and Real Oviedo, so it was a surprise that the club contested the 1939-40 season when it could have, like Real Oviedo, requested a moratorium. The decision to play backfired and five years to the day that they won the league title, Betis was relegated. After a season consolidating in the second tier the club won its second La Segunda title in 1941-42, but the return to the top was short-lived and Betis finished the 42-43 season bottom of La Primera with just 2 wins in 26 matches. Back in La Segunda and two moderate finishes occurred in 43-44 and 44-45, but it was really just papering over the cracks. Betis was a club in decline and in 1946-47, just nine playing seasons after winning La Liga, the unthinkable happened and Betis was relegated to the Tercera.
There were many who thought that the trip to the Tercera was the result of a bad season and the club would bounce straight back, but in reality, it was a sign of long-term decline which turned into a seven-season slog to get back to La Segunda. There were some near misses with defeats in the playoffs, but in the end, it required a Tercera title to reclaim their spot in the second tier and with it, Betis became the first club to win the championship at three different levels. A great deal of credit must go to President Manuel Ruiz Rodríguez, who steered the club through the desperate seasons in the third and nurtured good relationships with bigger clubs that helped Betis in the transfer market. With the club back in the second division, Rodríguez handed over the reins to Benito Villamarín and the next phase of the club’s rise up the league began. In 1955-56 Betis finished second in the Segunda but missed out in the playoffs. Two seasons later, however, a third Segunda title was won and fifteen long years after last gracing La Primera, Betis was back. The stadium, now approaching 30 years of age, needed a refit. The shallow terraces and the north and south ends were replaced with more substantial structures in time for the 1958-59 season. Floodlights were installed at the end of the 1958-59 season and were inaugurated on 6 June 1959 with a friendly vs Sporting Lisbon.
Betis looked reasonably comfortable on their return to La Primera and a series of top half finishes was capped in the 1963-64 season with a third-place finish. By then Heliopolis had been purchased outright and renamed Estadio Benito Villamarin in honour of the chairman. Betis turned it into a fortress and during that successful 63-64 campaign won 12 of their 15 home matches, with the only reverse coming in a 2-3 defeat to Barcelona. The following season saw Betis play in Europe for the first time, but it was a short-lived campaign with a first-round defeat to Stade Francais 1-3 on aggregate. This Betis team was reaching the end of the road and so had President Villamarin, who stood down at the end of 1965. The 65-66 campaign was a tight affair, with only three points separating the bottom seven teams. Unfortunately for Betis home form deserted them and a porous defence made them easy prey on the road. The summer of 1966 saw the twin blows of relegation and the death of Benito Villamarin, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 49.
Over the next eight seasons, Betis switched between La Primera and La Segunda on five occasions and that air of change was matched off the pitch as well. Between 1971-73 the terraces at the north and south ends were rebuilt and the corners filled in. 1975 saw the addition of a daring upper tier on the west side, with banks of green and white seats and a slender green cantilevered roof. Up to that point, everything in the stadium had been white. Betis won their first Copa del Rey in 1977, beating Athletic Bilbao on penalties, but a year later the club was back in La Segunda. Building continued however and in 1979 the east side was demolished and a new Tribuna was constructed. A second-tier and propped roof were added to the East Tribuna in 1981 before an amphitheatre was built between the upper and lower tiers of the west stand in 1982. As well as additional seating, this housed new media facilities which were used when the stadium hosted two World Cup matches in 1982. By now, Betis was back in La Primera and three seasons into their longest ever run in the top flight. Fifth place was achieved in 83-84, before a slow decline and after ten seasons at the top, the inevitable relegation came at the end of the 1988-89 season.
During the 1990s things quietened down on the building front, but things were anything but quiet elsewhere in the club. After a season-long visit to La Primera in 91-92, Betis was back in La Segunda and to make matters worse, had to convert to a SAD, or Sports Limited Company by the end of the season. With finances tight and the threat of relegation to Segunda B a very real possibility, enter stage right Manuel Ruiz de Lopera. Lopera guaranteed the funds and took over ownership of the club, but time was to prove that it was a Faustian pact. Promotion was won in season 93-94 and a year later Betis finished third in La Primera and qualified for the Uefa Cup. A relatively stable few seasons followed with an appearance in the 1997 Copa del Rey and regular football in Europe, before things began to unravel, Betis style.
Lopera had convinced the board that the stadium should be rebuilt and bear his name. Work started in April 1998 with the demolition of the north and east sides of the ground. The stadium would consist of three tiers on all four sides of the ground, set off with a roof, but to start with, the north and east sides would be built. The first tier was completed in September, but then disputes with the construction company meant the work dragged on until the two new sides were completed in late 1999. Whilst all this was going on off the pitch, Betis’ fortunes on it were plummeting and at the end of the 1999-00 season Betis took their 52,000 capacity stadium back to La Segunda. One silver lining was that city rivals Sevilla FC also dropped into the second division.
Both Betis and Sevilla FC made a quick return to La Primera and in Betis’ case, a period of relative stability ensued. Steady league placings culminated in a fourth-place finish and a second victory in the Copa del Rey in 2004-05. In truth though, Betis were borrowing heavily to acquire this success and development of the stadium had ground to a halt. The club celebrated its centenary in 2007 but with more departures than arrivals, the writing was on the wall. Relegation arrived on the final day of the 2008-09 season and with no money to invest, there would be no immediate return to the top. Manuel Ruiz de Lopera decided to sale up in July 2010, but any relief experienced by the Betis fans at his departure was short-lived, for the man who stepped into his shoes was one Luis Oliver. Oliver is a man with a proven track record… of taking clubs to the brink of bankruptcy, as the fans of Cartagena FC and Xerez CD will testify. At this point, the courts became involved and blocked Oliver’s purchase of Lopera’s shares and appointed former player Rafael Gordillo as an administrator. With all this turmoil going on at the club, Betis won promotion to La Primera for the eleventh time.
After 10 years as an unfinished monument to the ego of Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, Betis fans voted in October 2010 to return the stadium to its former name. At this point, the Estadio Benito Villamarttin was essentially three stadiums joined together, rather unconvincingly it has to be said. Work finally commenced on bringing some balance to the stadium in June 2016, when the old Gol Sur end of the ground was demolished. In its place rose a single-tiered open stand, that completed the sweep of open seating from the northern to the southern end. The development of the new Gol Sur cost around €17m and has raised the overall capacity of the Benito Villamarin to 60,721, making it the 4th largest club stadium in Spain after Barcelona Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid’s new Estadio Metropolitano. The completion of the southern end of the stadium brought a degree of uniformity to the Estadio Benito Villamarin, although not necessarily symmetry. The southern end of the stadium does not quite join the West Tribuna in the same manner as the northern end.
The current configuration of the stadium is a vast improvement of the patchwork, mix-and-match approach of the Lopera era. Individually, the stands are fine, especially the exterior detail which reflects Sevilla’s Moorish past. The addition of the new Gol Sur only adds to the incredibly intense atmosphere the Betis fans generate. However, I much preferred 1980’s version of Benito Villamarin, with its grace, symmetry and broad bands of green and white seats. But nothing lasts forever in this world, particularly Betis’ top-flight status.