Sevilla Real Betis Preview
There won't be fans on Thursday, but the Sevilla derby means more than ever as La Liga returns from coronavirus lockdown. Raul Caro/EPA.

Ask most casual fans to identity Spanish soccer’s fiercest rivalry and there will be a common answer. El Clásico is the biggest single fixture in the club game and it’s true that the discord between Barcelona and Real Madrid runs deep along ideological and political lines. When these two teams meet, the world stops to watch.

El Clásico is not Spanish soccer’s fiercest rivalry, though. When it comes to intensity and passion, Sevilla’s El Gran Derbi has it beaten. This is a contest forged in the Andalusian heat, a rivalry that doesn’t pit two cities against each other like so many other Spanish soccer rivalries, but splits one city right down the middle.

The 2019/20 La Liga season will finally resume on Thursday after a three-month hiatus due to the global coronavirus pandemic and it will resume with a meeting between Sevilla and Real Betis. For those casual fans who see the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid as fierce, this will be something else.

Of course, Thursday’s Gran Derbi won’t be as fierce as usual. There will be no fans in the stands at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan due to the current coronavirus climate. That will rob this fixture of a large part of its spectacle. There will be no TIFOs, no singing. This is a game that frequently boils over on the pitch, but will that still happen when no heat is being transmitted from the stands?

Sevilla, perhaps more than any other club in La Liga, are renowned for the passion of their fans. The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan is a true coliseum of the game, not just architecturally, but because of the people who fill the stands. It’s a big part of the reason the Spanish national team choose to play so many matches there. Home advantage means a little more in Seville.

It’s a similar story for Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin, a stadium with stands so steep only the Mestalla can compare. It is one of the toughest places in La Liga to visit, as Real Madrid experienced back in March, suffering a 2-1 defeat in their last match before the coronavirus shutdown. Barcelona also struggled there in February, only just scraping a 3-2 win after having trailed twice.

The history of the Sevilla rivalry

Traditionally, Real Betis are the club of Seville’s working class. Sevilla, on the other hand, were formed by British employees of the companies that ran the region’s mines. Betis were founded because of a revolt that came from one Sevilla director’s refusal to sign a working class player, with two dissidents establishing Los Verdiblancos in revolt.

Sevilla would still argue, at least in a sporting context, that they are underdogs. Their record over the last two decades of finding and giving a platform to young players can be compared to that of any club across the continent, but market forces mean that whenever a Dani Alves or Sergio Ramos or Ivan Rakitic surfaces, they are forced to sell them on.

Monchi and Lopetegui have made the most with Sevilla

Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo–or Monchi, as he’s better known–is the mastermind behind this transfer market trickery. He is the legendary director of football who has managed to game the system in order to keep Sevilla at the top of the Spanish and even European game despite consistently selling their best player every season or two.

For all that divides Real Betis and Sevilla, for all that has come to define their rivalry over the decides, Monchi is perhaps the source of the greatest difference the two clubs right now. Even after two years at Roma, he has returned to push Sevilla back up La Liga, with Julen Lopetegui’s side currently sitting third ahead of Thursday’s resumption. Smart signings and shrewd hires, like Lopetegui, have gotten them there.

Indeed, Lopetegui has restored his reputation somewhat this season after edging perilously close to becoming Spanish soccer’s very own David Moyes, fired as national team head coach and Real Madrid within just a few months in 2018. Entrusted by Monchi, he has quickly forged one of La Liga’s most dynamic sides, with Lucas Ocampos, Sergio Reguilon and Ever Banega all particularly impressive this season.

Real Betis are not without equality either. Nabil Fekir completed one of last summer’s most surprising moves by signing for the Verdiblancos from Lyon. The French international embodies the strengths and weaknesses of his team as a whole in that he lacks consistency and sometimes focus, but is among La Liga’s very best when he turns it on.

Thursday’s clash will be without much of what makes this fixture special, but the historical context remains. El Gran Derbi might not come with the political fault lines of El Clásico–and it certainly doesn’t boast the talent or mainstream appeal–but the contest between Real Betis and Sevilla can still be a little bit more passionate, and a little bit louder, even if this week’s derby is played in silence.

And with the rivalry marking the first match since coronavirus sent Spain into lockdown, El Gran Derbi will mean a little bit more for everyone across the country.