SEVILLE, Spain — Dolores travelled 80 miles up the E-5 autovia from Chiclana de la Frontera to Seville. She wanted to be at Real Betis’s Bentio Villamarín stadium when it presented its new signing. She wasn’t the only one, either. Around 4,000 fans, either without jobs, on their lunch break or skipping work, also made their way towards Avenida de Heliópolis, clad in green and white and looking forward to catching a glimpse of Rafael van der Vaart.
Van der Vaart’s road to Betis has seen stops at Ajax, Hamburg, Real Madrid and Tottenham. The midfielder who has made 109 appearances for the Netherlands’ national team describes himself as a street fighter, someone desperate to enjoy himself on the pitch and entertain fans. “When I lose the fun in soccer, it’s better to quit,” he’s explained on numerous occasions.
And Dolores? Well, Dolores is his grandmother. All the photographers present at the 32-year-old’s June presentation wanted the shot of Rafa and Dolores, while the media narrative led with the line that being close to his grandparents was a deciding factor in the Dutchman’s move from Hamburg to Betis.
“No …,” van der Vaart responds, when asked if that’s true. “I mean, it’s nice that they’re close, but I’m a soccer player … I’m here to play soccer and to show that I’m still a big player.”
Viva el Beti, maunque pierda
Real Betis, meanwhile, is back in La Liga, where it wants to show that it’s a big player, too. The club’s been relegated from Spain’s top flight twice in the past seven seasons, but it now hopes signings like Van der Vaart will help to provide a platform which will stop them tripping over their own laces again. The club’s also been linked with other prominent talents, like its former winger, Joaquin, and the troublesome Argentinian striker Dani Osvaldo — although they might do well to avoid that mischief-maker.
You can’t escape the feeling that La Liga is a better place with Betis. Perhaps the club’s story doesn’t include the same fairytale charm as one of last season’s darlings, Eibar, but Betis’s is story about the return of one of Spain’s biggest and best-supported clubs.
“Everywhere you go in Spain, there are Betis fans,” van der Vaart says the next day, when he’d come on a substitute in the club’s first preseason friendly, turning the game on its head. Local newspaper Estadio Deportivo was impressed: “Van der Vaart is now in charge,” was its headline the day after the 4-1 success against fourth division Coria. “I’ve been told that Betis is the fourth [biggest] club in Spain,” van der Vaart continues:
“[It had] unbelievable attendances in Segunda [last season], around 35,000 or 40,000? That means a lot.
“The people, they love the club. You can feel it in the city. At my presentation I felt it straight away. I came into the stadium, I think it was noon, and there were 3,000 or 4,000 people there just for me, that means everything. They played in the second league and the people were still coming to the club. This is a big club.”
Last season, despite being away from the big bucks, Betis laid claim to the sixth highest average attendance in Spain, with more fans regularly flocking to the Villamarín than to rival Sevilla’s Sánchez Pizjuán down the Guadalquivir river. Both the Seville-based clubs are among the nine to have won La Liga — Betis has also claimed two Copa del Rey titles, the most recent coming in 2005 — but both, the Verdiblancos in particular, are not strangers to adversity. It’s where the Béticos most famous chant comes from: Viva el Beti, manque pierda (Up with Betis, even when they lose).
A common goal
It’s the morning after the Coria win, and van der Vaart has just showered following a training session in the 100-degree Fahrenheit heat at Real Betis’s conveniently named Luis del Sol training complex. As he beats away the rapidly reappearing sweat with a white flannel, he reminisces about his time in England, a period which he describes as the best two years of his career.
They liked him at Tottenham Hotspur. They still do. Playing in a team patched together by Harry Redknapp, the former Madrid midfielder starred alongside future Madrid players Luka Modrič and Gareth Bale.
Off the pitch, he remembers having a lot of fun, too. “I always used to go to the Live Room in Barnet with Robbie Keane. I still have all the photos actually,” he giggles, as he remembers pulling pints at Keane’s leaving party. “It was a great place. We loved to have a drink there, a laugh. The people in there, the fans… they were great as well. I loved them.”
So was he not tempted, at 32, to follow the current LA Galaxy star’s route to Major League Soccer?
“I had some contacts in America. I’d played three years in Hamburg and I knew I was going to leave, but at the end of the day it’s also about my feeling and I spoke with the people [at Real Betis] and they’re so nice and they have good ideas about football and how they see me as a player. It was an easy decision [to come here]. I had a chat with Kansas City, but I have a little boy and you don’t want to go far away. And also, a three-year contract, when you’re 32 normally you get two years, but [Betis] said, ‘no, three years’ and that gave me a lot of confidence.
“It’s also been one year since I played for the national team and [making the Netherlands’ squad] is a big wish, because [Euro 2016] is probably the last big tournament with the national team for me. You know that when you go to MLS you can’t play in the national team anymore, but it was also, like I said before, about the feeling: what is the best decision at that time in my career?”
For van der Vaart, the best decision was picking the place where he felt he could have the most fun, where he could re-find the swagger he lost at Hamburg. Throughout his career, especially during his time at Spurs, he’s developed a reputation as being an exceptionally gifted player, although it’s been suggested he’s been left in the slow lane as harder-working players, even if less talented, have swished past on the outside. Van der Vaart understands those accusations, but he doesn’t agree with them.
That means that despite being pigeon-holed as an advanced playmaker confined to a bygone era of soccer, he’s open to playing as a deeper position at Betis. What’s most important is that, in Pepe Mel, he’s encountered a manager in Seville who he feels he shares a wavelength with.
“We will not be a team that defends, we want to attack and score lot of goals,” he insists. “Attacking is what suits me.
“At Hamburg we played two years for relegation, just to stay in the league and it was totally different football. I hope that this year I can enjoy football again, playing with the ball and I can show what I can do.”
Pepe Mel and Dani Ceballos
At full-throttle, van der Vaart could prove quite the compilation for La Liga’s YouTube reviewers, but he’s not the only big character lurking around at the club’s training ground. Though club all-time leading scorer Rubén Castro’s domestic abuse (and Betis fans’ reaction to it) garnered the club’s biggest headlines last season, it’s the man cast as the manager, Pepe Mel, and the boy cast as the young prodigy, Dani Ceballos, who will have hipsters scrambling for their notebooks this season.
Mel, actually, may already be pretty big on that scene. He led Betis into the Europa League in 2013 but left the following season, tears pouring out of his eyes as the club tumbled towards Spain’s second tier. After a brief and unsuccessful spell in England with West Bromwich Albion, he returned last season; the bad times forgotten, and all thoughts fixed on securing a return to the top flight.
Mel’s more than just a soccer coach, too. He’s also a novelist who’s written two books and was forced to put a third title on hold when he completed his return to the Bentio Villamarín bench.
“The first one must have been good if there was a second one,” van der Vaart handily points out, noting that he’s not aware of any of the players investing their time in checking out Mel’s books. He has not been appointed as a potential Booker Prize-winner, though; rather Mel is back to keep Betis where they think they belong: in the top half of La Liga.
If the club can’t stay there, Ceballos almost certainly will. He’s spent the summer winning the Under-19 European Championships with Spain, where he, and Real Madrid newbie Marco Asensio, were the standout performers. If Mel’s exhilarating, forward-thinking tactics convinced van der Vaart to get on board, they also helped get the best out of the 18-year-old Ceballos last season. As a tricky attacking midfielder, Ceballos fits the clichés: the chicas in Seville want to be with him, and the chicos want his haircut.
The club’s press officer, Mercedes Torrecillas del Prado, describes him as a special player with fantastic character. She’s also keen to point out Sevilla somehow let him slip away from their academy several years ago.
La Liga’s best derby
“At Tottenham, there were always two games a year that you had to win [against Arsenal],” van der Vaart explains. “With Betis, it’s exactly the same. Here it is Sevilla, and I can already tell how big the rivalry is.”
Most people in Spain will have you believe that the biggest inter-city rivalry exists between Real Betis and Sevilla, which would explain why Mercedes takes so much glee in Ceballos standing on the verge of conquering the world dressed in green and white, rather than white and red. It’s a theory which has been in place long before the reemergence of Atlético Madrid as a genuine threat to the hegemony in the Spanish capital.
The charm of Seville’s derby is its parity; throughout the years, the two teams have been relatively evenly matched. Barcelona always beat Espanyol, and Real Madrid (used to) always beat Atlético. But Betis and Sevilla? Now that’s a derby.
Toing and froing, the two clubs’ existences have been defined by politics and class wars, with Betis supposedly representing the working class areas of the city, while Sevilla is said to draw its fan base from the middle classes. It’s a theory which perhaps doesn’t quite ring true in the modern day — it’s certainly one which nobody in the city is particularly pushing — but the divide between the clubs is evident. Even if you don’t like soccer, you have to have an opinion: Betis or Seville?
This season’s first derby will take place in December. Pick your colors.
Another new dawn
Real Betis’s season will be defined by more than its matches against Sevilla. In fact, it may even trade in derby glory for top flight stability. Having to yo-yo between the top two tiers is certainly not something it enjoys doing.
As for van der Vaart, the worry is that his career has already been defined. Despite making over 100 appearances for the Netherlands and playing for a club as big as Real Madrid, his trophy cabinet is unfairly bare. The only club titles he has won, two Eredivisie titles with Ajax, the most recent now over a decade ago, are covered in dust, while his appearance in a World Cup final ended with him wearing the captain’s armband as Andrés Iniesta’s goal downed the Dutch in South Africa.
Maybe that’s why, despite his years, he’s so desperate to be a part of next summer’s European Championships. “First I will have to play good here,” he acknowledges. If that can happen, supported by Ceballos and Castro, what’s good for Rafael van der Vaart becomes good for Real Betis. Dolores will be watching.