As Deportivo La Coruna slip out of the Primera Division following their relegation at the end of last season, another famous name returns to the top-tier of Spanish football.
Real Betis ended their 2 year hiatus from La Liga by clinching the Segunda title. Pepe Mel’s side finished 4 points clear of nearest challengers, Rayo Vallecano, and made up for the disappointment of the previous season’s fourth place – the Verdiblancos completed 2009/10 level on points with Hercules and Levante, but missed out on promotion by virtue of having an inferior head-to-head record when compared to their two rivals.
The club from Seville have been league champions once, Spanish Cup winners twice and are said to be the sixth best supported team in their homeland. However, to suggest that Betis have had a turbulent recent history would be something of an understatement. As recently as 2005, they were Copa del Rey winners and in the same season came fourth in La Liga, thus qualifying for the Champions League. Their first appearance in Europe’s premier competition resulted in a respectable third place finish in their group, including a victory over Chelsea.
However in domestic terms, it was all downhill from there. A succession of finishes in the bottom-half of the table culminated in relegation at the end of 2008/09, sending Betis to second division football for the first time since 2001.
When they failed to achieve an instant return, Mel was appointed. As well as having spells in charge of Tenerife (where he succeeded Rafa Benitez) and Rayo Vallecano, Mel played for Betis’ promotion winning side of 1990, scoring 22 times. He has now repeated the feat as a boss, aided by the likes of 27-goal striker Ruben Castro and midfielder Salva Sevilla.
Any dramas on the pitch however, pale into insignificance when held up against the off-field turmoil which has engulfed the club. By the time of Betis’ relegation in 2009, fans and other observers had became more than a tad concerned by Manuel Ruiz De Lopera’s handling of the club’s affairs. Owner since 1992, De Lopera presided over the some of the most notable triumphs in Betis’ history, but has also overseen two relegations, the then world record signing of Brazilian flop Denilson and even had the temerity to rename the club’s stadium after himself.
Supporters frustrations came to a head on 15 June 2009 or ’15-J’ as it became known – it was estimated that up to 65,000 ‘Beticos’ took to the streets, marching to call for the end of De Lopera’s reign. It took another year, but it looked as if finally the fans wishes were granted when first, De Lopera was charged with fraud, and then he agreed to sell most of his shares to a consortium headed by businessman Luis Oliver. However, Oliver had hardly covered himself in glory previously having taken two other clubs (Xerez and Cartagena) to the brink of bankruptcy and it then transpired that De Lopera was merely looking to ‘park’ his shares with Oliver and will still intent on remaining very much in charge.
Step forward Mercedes Alaya, the Spanish judge who had brought those charges against De Lopera. She froze his assets before any transaction could be completed and appointed a three-man committee to administer his shares in Betis. One member of this committee was Rafael Gordillo. While Gordillo is probably best known as an excellent left-sided defender and midfielder for Real Madrid and Spain in the 1980’s, he spent the first nine years of his career at Betis and was later to return for another spell – he was also at the forefront of the ’15-J’ protests.
While Gordillo has now handed over the reins to new president Miguel Guillen, his return and the departure of De Lopera led to a period of relative stability – and the stadium returning to it’s previous name of Estadio Benito Villamarin. Betis however, are by no means out of the woods – they remain in the Spanish version of administration with reported debts of around 84 million Euros.
Betis fans will aim to relegate financial and boardroom concerns to the backs of their minds in the coming season as they resume hostilities with Barcelona, Real Madrid and, most importantly, their cross-town rivals. In terms of intensity and animosity, the Seville derbi is arguably only surpassed in Spain by El Clasico itself. However, as satisfying as victory over Sevilla would be, in the short-term the biggest battles for Real Betis will be fought away from the field of play.