Big Time Betis: Why the Beticos Are Ready to Race for Europe

One line in particular stood out from Arnaldo Antonio Sanabria’s first official interview in the green and white of Real Betis:

“Being here is what I wanted from the beginning. When I received Betis’ proposal I knew this is the best place I can be.”

Now, it’s hardly a novel approach for a new signing to profess his undying love for those responsible for his weekly wage. Little tickles the fancy of a rapturous fan base than the old ‘one of their own’ spiel. Yet, Antonio Sanabria is no son of Seville. He has no geographical, emotional or professional ties to the emerald-dashed Andalusians, La Liga champions only once, 81 years ago.

Sanabria had other offers too. Better ones, guaranteeing Champions League football and a wage packet distinctly heftier than the one drawn up in the Betis boardroom. Barcelona were linked, the striker another La Masia graduate honing his talents elsewhere. And, if rumours are to be believed, Tottenham Hotspur coach Mauricio Pocchetino called the Paraguayan personally to secure his sought-after signature as early as January.

Yet, this strapping centre-forward, the fourth youngest hat-trick scorer in La Liga history, signed on the dotted line at a club relegated in disgrace and disarray just two summers ago, with three different managers averaging two wins apiece.

These days, Betis are rather used to big names, larger entrances, and rather jealous glances from those sharing the lower steps on La Liga’s steep financial pyramid. In the last 12 months, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, Martin Montoya, Juan Manuel Vargas, Leandro Damiao and prodigal son Joaquin all arrived at a club that have spent three of the last eight seasons in the second tier.

However, Sanabria is a different proposition entirely. With eleven goals in 29 games on loan at Sporting Gijon last season, Sanabria comfortably outscored former Spanish internationals Roberto Soldado, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo. Only Yanko Dancik, Giovanni Dos Santos and a certain Lionel Messi netted three in 90 earlier in their careers. No Sporting player had ever scored a hat-trick at a younger age than Sanabria’s 19 years and 277 days until the Paraguayan poached and plundered three away at Deportivo in September.

Clearly, he is no semi-retired ex-international looking for one last European jaunt before jet-setting off on an inevitable money-scooping cross-continent tour. He was not voted by his fellow pros as the biggest flop in the Bundesliga prior to his arrival like Van Der Vaart. He did not arrive with his career in tatters, his reputation in need of resuscitation a la Damiao or Van Wolfswinkel.

So, on to the inevitable: why Betis? Well, who better to explain than the man himself?

“This is the perfect club to keep growing as a player. There are a lot of young players here.”

Sanabria makes an intriguing point. For it was not the 109 caps of Van Der Vaart or the nostalgic wingplay of Joaquin that inspired only Betis’ second top half finish of the decade. The 19 goals of evergreen 35-year-old Ruben Castro helped, of course. Accounting for 55% of the goals scored by the league’s most profligate side usually does.

Yet, a squad reminiscent of Harry Redknapp’s FIFA 07-inspired QPR remained quietly reliant upon its core of talented youngsters, shielded from the limelight by their illustrious team-mates. Prodigious 19-year-old Dani Ceballos, star of Spain’s under-19 European Championship triumph, committed his future to the club this summer, turning a blind eye to the fluttering glances of Real Madrid. Charly Musonda, meanwhile, a revelation after arriving on loan from Chelsea in January, fought tooth and nail to return for a second season in Seville.

“It is good for my progression to play and learn here. Playing in a Liga team is very good and Betis is perfect for this,” Musonda said upon re-arrival, mirroring the words of his new team-mate ‘Tonny’.

“The mission for the club is very big next year and I am very happy to be part of this project.”

Project. It’s a fitting word. Betis have drawn up their hypothesis, with clear aims, ambitions, and a viable result.

Alongside Sanabria, highly rated right-back Aissa Mandi has joined from Reims this summer, Chilean international Felipe Gutierrez from FC Twente, and the prodigious Mathias Nahuel from Villarreal, an impressive coup even by Beticos’ standards. Ages: 24, 25, 19. They’ve done their market research.  

In a league where financial equality remains a dream of the pipe variety despite the LFP’s valiant attempts to redress a considerable inbalance, those without a worldwide brand or Qatari sponsorship face the harsh realities of the ‘real world’. Yet, the likes of Villarreal, Malaga, Sevilla and Celta have survived, even thrived by embracing reality, making do and mending on an annual basis. In crude terms, buying low, selling high.

So how have Betis, La Liga’s ‘yo-yo’ club with three different presidents in 2014 alone, injected a dash of method into their relentless madness? Simple. To carry out the project, Betis needed an expert eye to put the blueprint into practice. And now they have one. Miguel Torrecilla.

Trademark Torrecilla

In this celebritised age of sporting directors, it’s strange that Torrecilla is yet receive the attention, the respect, his work deserves. After all, if you’re well versed in the rapid rise of Celta Vigo, then you’ve at one stage marvelled at the 47-year-old’s golden touch, whether knowingly or not.

If Monchi is the brains behind Sevilla’s well-oiled operation, then Torrecilla was Celta’s string-puller, orchestrating a rapid rise from Segunda to Europa via shrewd scouting and an invaluable knack of replacing departing diamonds with rough-edged gems; an invaluable skill in the lint-lined-pockets of La Liga’s lesser lights.

Fabien Orellana, Augusto Fernandez, Pablo Hernandez, Gustavo Cabral, Sergi Gomez, Iago Aspas, Daniel Wass and John Guidetti all contributed to Celta’s highest league finish in a decade last season. All arrived under Torrecilla. The combined fee? Around £10million. Valencia, six places and sixteen points behind Celta at the campaign’s end, splurged a similar fee on Aderlan Santos alone.

And that’s without mentioning Nolito, arguably the finest player outside the ‘big three’ last season. 39 league goals in 100 appearances over three seasons; signed for £2.2million and sold for over six times that. You can imagine the despair, then, when Celta’s bespectacled director bid farewell to Balaidos this summer.

After all, since their return to the top flight in 2012, Celta finished 17th, 9th, 8th and 6th under the positive, progressive outlook of first Luis Enrique and then Eduardo Berizzo, all the while breaking even in the transfer market by developing and selling their wares to clients higher up the financial food chain. Krohn-Dehli left for Sevilla last summer, Augusto to Atletico in the winter, now Nolito to Pep’s Manchester plot.

Suddenly, Betis are following a similar strategy. There’s worse clubs than Celta to take inspiration from. Alfred N’Diaye’s recent departure to Villarreal for around £6m, and Gutierrez’s arrival for half that, was surely signed off with Torrecilla’s signature.

And, if there’s any doubt remaining about Betis’ long-term plan, the rather complex deal to sign Sanabria ‘permanently’ from Roma offers something of a giveaway. The Giallorossi have the option of repurchasing the Paraguayan for €11million next summer, €14.5million in 2018. Profit is guaranteed.

Pilloried in England as meddling cronies, breaking up the monopoly of the manager in all his omnipotence, the sporting director in Spain has never been under more focus, especially in this golden era of Monchi-ism. After all, the kid-in-a-sweet shop splurging of Franco Baldini at Tottenham coupled with Sunderland’s madcap Roberto Di Fanto-Paolo Di Canio hardly helps glorify these behind-the-scenes pencil-pushers.

But Betis, like Malaga, Sevilla, Villarreal, Eibar and more, are not imbued with broadcasting deals in the billions like their ritzy British cousins. Money, to Betis, is an object. And now, under the guidance of Torrecilla, they’re intelligently prioritising raw talent with a potentially huge resale value. The future’s bright at Betis. And the present isn’t too shabby either.

“The objective for Betis is to be among the top 10 and anything else would be considered a failure for everyone involved at the club,” said President Angel Haro this month.

It’s a sign of the times. This new-look Betis are ambitious, aspirational but refreshingly self-aware. In Spain, that usually works out quite well.