When I was younger and still relatively new to this whole futbol thing, I read Phil Ball’s Morbo. It was January, we had the month off from college, and we were in Maine, staying at my roommate’s parents’ house next to a frozen lake. I would wake up early and read, curled up under a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate. As a late convert from my Midwestern roots in basketball and gridiron football, learning the history of the sport in Spain through the narrative arc of rivalries was a fascinating way to spend a chilly morning. It was an intoxicating read, a spotlight on a new and different landscape that would turn out to consume my sporting passions for at least the next decade and a half.
It wasn’t that there was violence, no, that wasn’t strange to me. The team I have supported since before my earliest memories, the University of Kansas men’s basketball team, has a rivalry with the University of Missouri that has historical roots dating back to before the American Civil War. While the Missouri team is known innocuously enough as the Tigers, Kansas’ mascot takes its name indirectly from the violence of the 1850s: the Jayhawkers (and now simply the Jayhawks for the sports team) were militant bands of guerrillas who led raids into Missouri during the time of Bleeding Kansas and the pro- and anti-slavery fight. There were summary executions on both sides and generations of enmity. For years the games between the Jayhawks and the Tigers were called the Border War and there was a deep-seated hatred from each side. But all of that was history aside from the modern day incarnation of the rivalry that seem to boil down to Kansas t-shirts that read Muck Fizzou and whatever Missouri’s equally clever rejoinder is.
The difference may simply be that the Spanish history in question is not six generations back, but merely 40 years ago. My father graduated from Kansas the year before Franco died—this was barely even history. The US was recovering from the Vietnam War here Spain was, figuring out democracy. Sure, I had spent time studying and living in Central America whose political and military upheaval was ongoing, but this felt more surprising. I expected the Berger administration in Guatemala to behave as they did; why were people throwing pigs heads at that Portuguese guy?
There was a chapter in the book where Phil writes something to the gist of the best way to get to know a city’s football culture is to ask a taxi driver. You’ll get a decent conversation and an immense amount of history, politics, and culture. In Sevilla, he compares the responses to his questions between two drivers, one a betico and one a sevillista. Having lived in New York City and seen how slightly variations in geography can align you with one team or another—Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets—it wasn’t absurd that a city could be riven in two, but el derbi sevillano seemed to offer up some extra spice. They were once the same team, the stadiums were minutes apart, there were social and economic lines in the sand. This wasn’t Kansas vs Missouri, this was Kansas vs Kansas in which everyone was a Missourian to the other side.
At 10am on September 20, 2015, we turned onto Avenida de Kansas City—of course—and off to the right, down a couple of blocks and hidden from view behind a few sand-colored buildings, was the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. I knew it was there, having previously scouted out its location. It was too early for the crowds, with kickoff against visiting Celta Vigo 2 hours away under what would be harsh conditions. I had looked into tickets, but kickoff was at noon on a Sunday, the exact moment our plane back home was scheduled to depart Sevilla airport. They had hosted Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League the day before my arrival, so I wouldn’t get to experience the rapturous crowds I’d heard about or the fervent loyalty that was obvious even on TV.
So I turned to our taxi driver and asked about the season. He spent the rest of the trip to the airport—only a few minutes in the Sunday morning traffic—complaining about ticket prices. He was adamant that they should be lower because the economy was rock bottom. He couldn’t afford to attend games anymore, he said, even the noon game. It didn’t matter that they had won the Europa League and it didn’t matter that they had just won their first Champions League match of the season—first of all, they were terrible anyway. The ticket prices were too high. The team was too bad. He gave me facts, figures, all sorts of cost comparisons, none of which I remember because they were a slew of numbers related to each other purely for show. The price of an 80 square meter apartment is this, but food for a family of 4 is that while the average salary is such-and-such, and can you believe a second tier season ticket is how much? We never even got to talk about Betis. He was never fiery, but he was into it, he had the sports paper in his lap and would gesture towards it anytime results were mentioned. I imagine it had the league table in it, showing Sevilla in 18th. They would be 20th by the end of the day, having earned just 2 out of a possible 12 points.
It wasn’t looking great and the taxi driver’s laments that if prices were so high, why was the team so bad were hard to dispute. But now, on the other end of a tumultuous season for the Andalucians, when they have beaten both Barcelona and Real Madrid at home, captured a third consecutive European title, and are 90 minutes from a double, it’s hard not to wonder what beticos would pay to have their team in such a position.
Barcelona fans don’t have to wonder. There’s a league title—the 6th in the last 8 seasons—and a possible double of their own. It would be the team’s 4th Copa victory in the last 8 years and they would be the first repeat champions since, well, Barcelona in 1998 (Atleti did it in 90/91 and 91/92). It would be Sevilla’s 6th ever Copa del Rey. The teams have never met in the CDR final before, but the last time they met in a one-off match for a trophy, things got a little nutty. It could be just as wild a ride the second time around, but without Pedro to score like he always did.
All you have to do is watch videos of the goal celebrations by sevillistas in Basel to see how much the fans care and by extension how much their team will care. A pair of teenagers, one male and one female, were in the front row by the corner flag where all 4 goals were celebrated. They were dressed in matching 06-07 home shirts and there’s no way they’ll have their voices back before next season begins. They were vulgar towards the Liverpool players, certainly, but in that way that teenagers are, with too much desire to prove their partisanship. But then Sevilla scored and they leaned towards their heroes as they went celebrated, hoping to touch them. When Sevilla scored again, they celebrated more wildly. And when Sevilla scored for the third time, all but ensuring victory, they both began to cry. Whatever the future brings for them, they’ll always be teenagers to me, in the crowd, tearfully realizing a dream of watching their team win a cup final.
Gerard Pique gave a press conference in which he pointed out that Sevilla is hardly a small team with no ambitions, but he did mention that if Barcelona plays how they are capable of playing, they will win. It’s obviously not as cut-and-dry as simply turning on the motors and overpowering an opponent, but Pique knows what he’s talking about. Sevilla is not the 3-time defending Europa League champion because they’re terrible, but they are the 3-time Europa League champion because they aren’t quite at the level of late-stage Champions League teams. Before 2005-06, Sevilla hadn’t won a top flight trophy since a 1947-48 Copa del Rey. In the resulting 11 years, they’ve won 2 Copa del Rey trophies, 5 UEFA Cup/Europa League titles, and a Spanish Supercopa while never finishing lower than 10th in the league standings. They also happened to capture a UEFA SuperCup back in 2006. Barcelona is hardly different, just on a larger scale: since that 2005-06 season, Barcelona has won 7 league titles, 3 Copa del Rey trophies, 4 Champions Leagues, 6 Spanish Supercopas, 3 UEFA Super Cups, and 3 Club World Cups.
Whichever team wins, it will be a magnificent achievement for them. I would be happy for Sevilla, for Monchi and his genius, as well as for the taxi driver who has certainly forgotten our conversation by now. Hopefully his economic woes have lessened and he can now afford a trip to the stadium from time-to-time or at least a night out to see his team play the Copa final. But Sunday is not the night that I lose my religion—instead, I will sit in my house watching the game and I will be the teenager in the crowd, pumping my fist at every good play and clutching my head at every misplaced pass. I will clutch the scarf superfluously draped around my neck on a warm night and I will remember the wrong lessons from Morbo. Always ask taxi drivers what they think, but you never have to listen.
Barcelona 3 – 1 Sevilla.