Real Betis aren’t just having their best season for years, they’re already planning for the long term. Adam Boyle reports on the Seville club’s recently announced plan for self-sufficiency
You can blame the national economic crisis, or you can put it down to the unfair distribution of television revenues, but there’s no getting away from the fact that all but two of Spain’s football clubs need to sell their best players to survive. The English Premier League has woken up to this and had been taking advantage gratefully – hola David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, Michu etc, etc – and there’s no sign that the exodus of Spanish footballing talent is going to end soon. If you’re a Spanish player not wanted by Barcelona or Real Madrid, the most lucrative second-best option is to leave for England or Germany.
The trick for La Liga clubs themselves is to acknowledge this as the new reality and adapt, which in practice means either developing your own players or hiring psychic scouts to find them elsewhere (and being ready to sell them when the time is right). Either method requires long-term commitment and common sense, not qualities much in evidence in the management of football teams anywhere, let alone Spain.
So hats off to Real Betis, who recently unveiled Project Heliópolis – named after the surprisingly well-to-do suburb of Seville well the club’s stadium can be found – with the stated commitment of ensuring that within ten years at least 70 per cent of the first team squad are coming from the cantera (youth system). The club is already able to house a number of youngsters in specially built accommodation and the plan is now to significantly increase investment in the youth set-up and try to instil a unified model of play across all age levels. As first-team coach Pepe Mel put it, “The only bad thing is that it means more work for me and my No. 2 Roberto Rios.”
This may all come as a surprise to you if you still associate Betis with bizarre and extravagant management style of former president Manuel Ruíz de Lopera. In December 2010, a local judge who had accused him of fraud on a grand scale put the club in the hands of Jose Antonio Bosch, a business studies academic who, by his own admission, had very little interest in football – something that turned out to be a total blessing. Almost instantly the club began to be run as something resembling a modern company, a process helped along by the arrival six months later of Miguel Guillén, a Bético businessman with an American MBA. On and off the field, Betis were soon buzzing.
Some of the new team’s moves were no-brainers: revamp the club website, introduce internet ticket sales, renegotiate an embarrassingly poor kit deal. Others, like the decision not to sack Pepe Mel a year ago after his team one just one point from 10 games, were simply inspired; Mel is now the highest-placed Spanish coach in La Liga, and you can’t help feeling it needed a board of directors from “outside” football to be shrewd enough to see he was the best man for the job despite the previous eight weeks’ results.
And so it is with Project Heliopolis. Investing in the youth system was not a strategy favoured by Lopera, who liked to pose with a big-name, big-money signing from abroad (world record-breaking signing Denilson obviously springs to mind). But as Guillén said at that launch of Project Héliopolis, “It’s a question of identity. Betis have always been popular within Andalucía, but we want to make this regional link even stronger.” It’s about strengthening the Betis brand, getting long-term value for money and making decent footballers for the first-team.
The good news for Betis fans is that they’re already getting a glimpse of what the future might look like. The current first-choice starting 11 includes four former Betis B players in goalkeeper Adrián, left-back Álex Martínez, and midfielders Cañas and Beñat, while a number of promising home-grown youngsters are available as impact substitutes, including 18-year-old winger Álvaro Vadillo, Spain Under-19 central midfielder Nono and skilful 20-year-old mediapunta Pozuelo. Injuries permitting, it’s more than likely that all seven will be on the pitch together at some point this season.
And the fans love it. Seville-born Adrián, who’s been with the club since he was 10 and broke into the first-team almost by accident this season, was quickly forgiven a disastrous performance in the November derby (when he was directly responsible for at least two of Sevilla’s five goals), whereas Portuguese right-back Nelson is still in the doghouse for his misdemeanours in the same game.
Of those seven home-grown names, it’s Beñat who is the most high-profile (as well as the least “home-grown”, strictly speaking) and his immediate future will provide something of a test case for the Betis cantera. The Basque wizard was picked up on a free transfer from Third Division club Conquense four years ago (after being released by Athletic Bilbao) and has developed into one of the best passing midfielders in Europe, even breaking into the Spanish squad last summer, when he performed brilliantly alongside players who earn as much in a week as he does in a whole year with Betis. Half-hearted talks to extend his contract have come to nothing, and he is almost certain to be sold for €15million-plus in the off-season if not before. But far from being a disaster, this is the sort of business that Betis will be trying to replicate again and again over the next few years. In the current climate, for a mid-grade club like Betis, getting three or four good seasons and an eight-figure transfer fee out of a home-produced player will never be bad news.
Of course, Real Betis are not the only Spanish club working hard to make their cantera produce results. Barcelona’s La Masia is the gold standard, and other clubs such as Celta de Vigo have also linked the development of home-grown players with the importance of guaranteeing long-term job security to the first-team coach. But Betis’s transformation from the sick man of Spanish football to energetic boy racer has been so extraordinary that it’s not surprising the rest of the country is starting to take notice. The next three or four years are already looking exciting for the green-and-white half of Seville – and beyond that, who knows? As stoic pessimism is such a key tenet of Beticismo – the club’s official motto is “Even if we lose” after all – perhaps it wouldn’t be right to get too carried away.
-Adam Boyle (foreverbetis.com)