Between September and December of 2013 I spent three months living in Seville as part of the Leonardo Da Vinci programme, where I was selected for a work experience placement through by two social enterprises – Red Ochre, and Third Sector International. Now, as a huge football fan – the type that will watch a game even if he doesn’t care about it – I can’t believe it took me two and a half months to see a football match in a town that has not one, but two teams competing in La Liga, the Spanish equivalent of the Premier League – Sevilla and Real Betis. But I’m pleased to say that it was worth the wait, and looking back it’s an experience that I’m not likely to forget any time soon.
We arrived at Real Betis’ home ground, the Estadio Benito Villamarín, on a cold Thursday night. It was a Europa league game, so we assumed there’d be cut-price tickets, an easy-going atmosphere and a lot of laughs. Well, that expectation was dashed when the bus driver stopped two blocks from the stadium, citing that he “can’t go any further, the police have blocked the road”. So we walked the final two blocks, along with about thirty other Betis fans, until we arrived at the stadium.
Never have I seen so many police at a football match, let alone at a football match that meant very, very little. Then again Betis were playing HNK Rijeka, who were coming from the top tier of Croatian football. Even more explanatory, they were coming with nearly 200 supporters. We thought little of it, at first. After all, we lived in Seville. We were supporting Betis. My friend even had a Real Betis shirt on underneath his jacket. So, when we went to get our tickets from the box office, we thought very little of the security proceedings around us.
But then we asked for our tickets. Naturally, we asked for home stand seating. “I.D card,” the lady asked (in Spanish, obviously). “We live in Seville,” I replied. “We’re English, but we live in Seville.” She shook her head and explained to us that, tonight, only those with a national I.D card could buy tickets in the home stand. At this point we were getting a little worried, especially with all of the drunken Croatian supporters queuing behind us. Booming voices and aggressive shouting were all we could hear.
So, we bit the bullet and bought the bloody tickets, although now we were less excited, more fear-for-our-lives. It didn’t help matters that there were six armed police officers standing at the entrance, and that we were frisked on our way in. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened at the home supporters’ entrance. We took our seats, right in amongst the thicket of shaven heads. From the moment that they saw the pale blue of their team’s colours they were chanting. Loud, aggressive and, above all, passionate, and it wasn’t long before we were rumbled. Two English lads with hair not joining in Croatian chanting? We stuck out like a sore thumb. The two men to our right turned to us and asked us, in perfect English, “You’re Betis fans, aren’t you?” Tentatively we explained that we were English, and lived in Seville. They stared us down for a moment, and my heart stopped. After a few seconds, that admittedly felt like much longer, one of them opened their mouth and replied, deadly serious. “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’re safe with us.”
It turned out that they were really, really nice guys. They asked us which teams we supported in England, and it turned out that one of them was a Liverpool fan (much to my friend’s delight). They were also well aware of their reputation, as one of their friends in the row below us turned and asked who we were. When he heard we were supporting Betis, he shook his fist at us in mock-rage and then laughed before introducing himself. They even tried to teach us some of their chants, and to get us involved. Make us feel a little more included in the experience.
This might be a long-winded way of explaining it, but the point is that there are two sides to football ‘hooliganism’. Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, Eastern-Europe has a reputation for it. But if you look to any culture you’ll see the same. But, right now, Eastern-Europe is the scapegoat. The same rules apply in everyday life. The majority are perfectly pleasant, but there’ll always be those that take things that little bit too far and ruin things for everyone else and tar them with their actions. We were getting some snacks at half-time and no less than three people were kicked out by the security on the terraces for, from what we could see, literally no reason. I understand that hooliganism is a very relevant problem in football, but this kind of pre-empting is an even bigger problem. It ruins the atmosphere, ruins the game, and ruins the experience for a lot of people. I doubt we would have seen this kind of treatment of the visiting crowds at a domestic fixture.
So, for that evening, my friend and I were viewed as ‘football hooligans’: under constant watch from security just for being in the seats that we were, for talking to the people that we were talking to, treated as guilty until proven innocent. But it’s an experience I won’t forget, as it’s given me a new perspective on this very common topic of modern football. I’ll admit that, as the beginning of this anecdote will have suggested, I held similar views on football hooligans before this game. I was scared of these people, mistaking their passion for aggression and presuming that they were there to cause trouble instead of support the team that they love. But being there, in the thick of these travelling fans, I felt bad for them. They probably go to every game and get treated as criminals, when that’s far from the case. Sure, there will always be some who are out to cause trouble, but that’s the same with every fan base. But that doesn’t justify treating them as thugs without due cause.
It may not have been the night that I set out to enjoy, but instead I had an eye-opening experience that will change the way I view football. I don’t even care that the game ended 0-0.