Not for them a letter, messageboard rant or call to a radio station, the Real Betis ultras wanted to deal with their issue face to face. So they turned up at training on Tuesday, climbed over a barrier, ignored the minimum wage security man and made their way to confront the boss and several senior players. The two groups talked. They had little option not to.
Many European clubs often have an unholy alliance with their ultra fans. They’d rather not deal with them, but they do. That’s because the ultras are often the more hardcore supporters who travel everywhere. They have influence. Real Madrid had 400 fans at Camp Nou on Saturday night, almost all of them ultras.
Ultras are visible. They’re not armchair supporters who never go to games, nor keyboard warriors. They exist in real life, they’re often the most vocal supporters of a club and they are respected in their cities. The same age as the players, they’re known about town, ingrained into the community from where the club draw their support. Players are better getting on with them than not. Often they become friends.
Players can often brush off supporters or live in a bubble where their only contact with them leads them to think that fans are weirdos who stand outside stadium entrances wearing a team shirt and holding a notepad and pen. The ultras don’t fit that stereotype. They share the same interests as players. They dress well. They just don’t play football well. There wasn’t a team shirt among the Betis ultras, who demanded – and got – a meeting with Betis players, however informal.
No threats were made, but then 20 men turning up at your place of work could be constituted as more than a veiled threat. The tension has been rising. There were recriminations between fans and players at Madrid’s Atocha station on Sunday night after the hammering by Atletico. Players and fans shared the same AVE train back to Seville. At least it’s the fastest train in Europe.
Betis had been destroyed by the most impressive side in Spain this season. It was no surprise for no side has a worse record than Betis on the road this season, with four defeats and a draw from their five games.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that Betis boss Pepe Mel – an accomplished and published crime novelist – might be able to use it as a plotline in a future book. Mel, a wonderful character who is popular with Beticos, has been in charge since 2010, leading them to promotion in 2011, a 13th place and then a 7th place finish last season.
Mel’s popularity has risen alongside the club’s league placings, especially as Betis, who are in administration, have to sell their best players. They have 14 new faces in the squad for this season and nine of them played against Atletico. Even by the customary wholesale-change standard of Spanish football during these tough economic times, Betis' ‘alterations’ are excessive. The changes for this season haven’t worked so far.Diego Costa scored in the win over Betis
Despite their terrible start, Betis remain the fifth best supported team in Spain with average crowds of 33,716 last season (3,000 more than despised neighbours Sevilla) and only trailing Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico and Valencia. Mel hasn’t shied away. He called a press conference on Monday when he said it would be cowardly to resign.
“It was necessary for me to speak today,” he said as he sat alone and faced the media. “I had to show my face. We’re letting the fans down, who have never let us down. I’ve been here three years, we’ve had many obstacles, but we’ve always kept growing. I need not say where we’ve come from to get where we are.”
He asked for support, he got hardcore supporters. Do fans have a right to intimidate players? In their eyes, no intimidation was meant, but it is at best naïve to maintain that it wouldn’t have that effect. It’s also not unheard of on the continent for ultras to turn up at the training ground.
They want straight answers, not reports filtered through a media who may have an agenda of their own. No PR advisors telling players to deliver bland answers about the world being round and being happy when they score a goal.
Roberto Di Matteo got a visit from Lazio’s ultras before he moved to Chelsea. It spooked him. He spoke to them face to face and resolved some, but not all, differences.
At Manchester United, Rio Ferdinand was confronted by a group of hardcore supporters unhappy that he was playing hardball over a new contract when he’d been on full pay during an eight-month ban for missing a drug test. He went out and spoke to them, and they respected that. Wayne Rooney had a similar visit, though there was no communication between him and his unwanted visitors.
And while all may seem happy at Sunday’s victors Atletico, it wasn’t long ago when an angry group of their fans turned up at the training ground to confront their players, including an Atleti supporting lawyer dressed in a suit - and a balaclava.
Betis, who currently languish in a relegation spot, play Levante at home on Thursday. They’ll be hoping it’s not a Halloween nightmare which results in another training ground 'delegation’.