Long Live Real Betis, Kings Of The Cup
11:31 AM EDT on April 25, 2022
What can you expect from a team like Real Betis? In concrete terms, not much generally. The Seville-based club is solidly middle class in a country utterly dominated by two hegemons. Because of this, their prospects for both success and failure are circumscribed. The average year for Betis is one of safe passage somewhere in the fat middle of La Liga's table, whereas a bad year might see the team dip a little lower into the relegation scrap. During good years, the club can aspire to the lower rungs of the European places, maybe collecting a famous victory or two against their betters for fans to enshrine in memory as monuments to the happy times. A deep run in the cup competitions, a dogged fight for a Champions League place—this is the stuff of dreams for Betis and Athletic Club and Real Sociedad and Valencia and Spain's other big-but-not-too-big clubs, who must find meaning in being obstacles, not rivals, to Real Madrid, Barcelona, and, lately, Atlético Madrid. Thankfully for Béticos, this season is one such dream year, and for once they will wake up from it and find actual silver in their hands.
On Saturday, Real Betis met Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey. It was a rare opportunity for a club outside Spain's hegemonic powers to claim a major trophy—though the feat has become a little more common recently since, after the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Spanish soccer is in the midst a generation change. Regardless of the winner, this Copa would be the third of the four most recent cups to be lifted by someone other than Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Atlético. For comparison's sake, Barcelona (6), Real (2), and Atlético (1) combined to win nine of the 10 cups prior to that between 2009 and 2018.
Ironically, the smaller stature of the Copa finalists only magnified the value of the cup itself. In this day and age domestic cups across Europe's biggest soccer countries are treated as little more than trinkets for the continent's major clubs to collect along their way to the truly important contests. At best, domestic cups serve as embellishments to the big club's bigger successes (win it and turn your title-winning season into a double, or maybe even a treble!) or as consolations for disappointments elsewhere (hey, maybe you didn't win anything that really matters, but at least you didn't go home empty-handed!). But for Betis and Valencia, clubs with no realistic chances to win La Liga or the Champions League now or in the foreseeable future, this cup final was everything.
That gave Saturday's final an energy all its own. Betis has been by far the better of the two teams this season, so it was no surprise that the Béticos came out almost literally flying. It took only 10 minutes for Betis to find the opening goal after Héctor Bellerín sent a high cross into the box that mountain man Borja Iglesias soared up to and drilled into the net with his forehead. The cross was a fine one, and the header scored with a pleasingly physical thump, but my favorite part of the goal was Nabil Fekir's pass that sent Bellerín running:
In Messi's absence, Fekir has risen as La Liga's leading source of magic. To paraphrase Biggie, Fekir has technique just dripping out of his feet (presumably he ties his laces tight so as not to mess up his cleats?), and it's evident literally every single time he touches the ball. His pass to Bellerín is a good example of why he's such a fetish player. The moment wasn't difficult and didn't call for anything special, but the way he flicks the ball with the outside of his foot like that, putting that perfect tension and little hint of English on it to send it and Bellerín exactly where they need to go, is just delightful. Fekir is capable of the spectacular, though he didn't manage any big showy moments on Saturday, but what makes him so incredible is how much panache he has even when doing the mundane. It's pure luck that Fekir is even playing for Betis (a world champion with France, Fekir would've left previous club Lyon for one of the sport's true giants if not for concerns about the health of his knee, and has instead wound up here), and his presence goes a long way toward explaining why Betis is capable of a dream season like this one.
But back to the match: Betis could've and probably should've killed the game off in the first half an hour. Buoyed by the goal and the heavily pro-Betis crowd in Seville, Betis regular tore through Valencia's defense during that opening stretch. Had they scored any of their multiple golden opportunities, Betis probably could've buried Valencia then and there. Instead, Valencia had the match's next decisive moment, after midfielder Ilaix Moriba's clipped through ball sent Hugo Duro into a one-on-one with Betis keeper Claudio Bravo, which the striker converted for the equalizer. It was Valencia's only shot of the first half, but they made it count.
The tides changed after halftime. Valencia proved the more aggressive and inspired team after the interval, as Betis's early confidence seemed to turn into anxiety. Nevertheless, there weren't too many great chances on either side in the second half, and so the match went to extra time, and then penalties. After three scored penalties a piece, Valencia's American midfielder Yunus Musah stepped up and missed what proved the decisive spot-kick. After two more conversions, defender Juan Miranda had the potential winner on his left foot. He scored it, immediately collapsed onto his knees, then flopped over flat on his stomach, pulling his shirt collar over his sobbing eyes, having given Betis their first silverware of any kind since their 2005 victory in this same tournament.
Joaquín, the overjoyed man lifting the trophy in the photo at the top of this post, was the only player of the current squad who also played in that 2005 final 17 years ago. The 40-year-old forward came up through the Betis youth academy and has made nearly 500 appearances for them across two separate stints at the club. He owns the club record for most appearances, is eighth all-time in goals, and has now won two of Betis's three ever Copas del Rey, making him arguably the greatest figure in Betis history. The last time he won the title, he celebrated by getting married in a ceremony attended by the entire Betis squad and also the Copa itself. Let's see what he'll have in store this time.
But while Joaquín was the only one who played in both finals, he wasn't the only one present at both. Miranda, the scorer of the winning penalty, also attended the 2005 final as a fan when he was just five years old. Three years after that final, the native Sevillan joined the club as a youth player. Six years after that, having emerged as one of the most promising young talents in Spain, he left Betis for Barcelona's academy. In Catalonia, Miranda continued to grow as a player, but never broke into the first team in spite of his evident talent. Now 22 years old and back where he started, it's probably safe to assume that today Miranda wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
The paths of Miranda and Joaquín and Fekir and so many others who have made this Betis run possible—chief among them manager Manuel Pellegrini, who has quietly had one of the best careers of any coach of his generation—are a crucial part of what makes it all so special. It takes a certain kind of club to attract Pellegrini and Fekir, but not to saddle them with the kind of burdensome expectations that often occlude enjoyment of what's actually seen on the pitch. It takes a certain kind of club to lose Miranda to Barcelona as a teen, but then to lure him back when he's still young enough to potentially become a star. It takes a certain kind of club to keep a roster spot open for a 40-year-old club legend whose main value at this point is expressed in the dressing room rather than on the pitch. It takes a certain kind of club to make it to the Copa del Rey final, while also treating the trophy with more reverence and awe than those who regularly etch their names into it.
This Real Betis team is no fluke. All season long it has been one of the best and most entertaining teams in Spain. A late dip in form—probably attributable in part to runs in this Copa and in the Europa League—will probably keep them from the Champions League place they've occupied for most of the season, but the fifth-place finish they're currently in line for would be a fantastic result and proof of just how genuine their talent is. Normally for a club in this position I'd point to just how bright the future is, with its potential promise of Champions League play and more money and further investment and the allure of bigger success ahead. That wouldn't be wrong in Betis's case, but it would be a little besides the point. The future may very well be bright, but for this club, nothing is or has to be shinier than the glinting cup right there in their grasp.