In January this year, on my 43rd birthday, my wife gave me my first ever replica football shirt. It has green and white stripes.
This being Betis (did you guess?), it was surprisingly difficult to get hold of, she told me. The club shop had run out of shirts in my difficult size – Medium – and the items had become as rarely sighted and highly prized as truffles. Eventually, however, she sniffed one out in the El Corte Inglés department store (which I realise makes her the pig in this metaphor – sorry, hon).
While my new shirt and I were immediately very comfortable with each other, it wasn’t long before I realised there was something more I needed to do to make it really mine. The big blank patch of green on the back was crying out for a player’s name and number like the top of a jar of instant coffee begging to be stabbed with a spoon.
But which player? Which number? I’m pleased to say I have taken a rigorously scientific approach to this important question.
First, I waited till the transfer window was closed. While all of this summer’s discards were fairly predictable – and you’d probably have to be related to, say, Rodri to want his name on the back of your Betis shirt – there was always a chance that a last-minute deal would render the shirt embarrassingly out-of-date. At different times over the summer there were rumours about other clubs wanting Jorge Molina, Rubén Castro, Ezequiel, Beñat, Dorado, etc. It was hard to be 100 per cent certain that any of them would still be around at the beginning of the season.
Next, I ruled out any new signings. It’s true that Mario and Javi Chica have made excellent starts in defence and Jefferson Montero already looks like a star on the left wing, but the man I’ve seen in a “Sunny” shirt (in honour of the midfielder who arrived on loan from Valencia and started exactly four games before being put permanently aside by successive coaches) is a one-man cautionary tale. Roque Santa Cruz looks particularly dangerous on that score. 6,000 Béticos may have turned out to greet him, but his reputation in England could hardly be lower after three injury-hit seasons, so he has a lot to prove before his name comes anywhere near my shoulders.
Defenders and goalkeepers were next to be discounted. I’m a fan of Casto – and I think his part in Betis’s promotion last season has probably been underestimated – but I can’t hide the fact that mine is an outfielder’s shirt (and, anyway, he might well lose his place to new signing Fabricio in the winter). Left-back Nacho is another underappreciated player, but someone in the building where I live has beaten me to his No. 23 shirt (which he’s entitled to, because he’s nine years old and is called Nacho himself). Dorado? Not a bad choice, one for the short-list definitely, but not very exciting (which might be exactly why he’s such a good defender).
While the defence is generally underrepresented on the shirts you see at the Villamarín, I decided quite soon that the forward line – Rubén Castro, Jorge Molina and Jonathan Pereira – didn’t need any more help from me. All are admirable players, but most fans – even Béticos, who have more imagination than most – pick strikers’ names to put on their shirts. If I was to chose one of those players, it might just be Pereira, who I think has a lot more to offer the side than he was able to show last year, but I also have a lot of faith in Jorge Molina, who I’m willing to bet you now plays more minutes and scores more goals than Roque Santa Cruz this season.
So, it’s got to be a midfielder. Ezequiel? Maybe if I was a 14-year-old girl. Salva Sevilla? Getting warmer, especially as he was officially my Player of the Year last season, but it just goes against the grain to get the S-word printed on anything you’re going to wear.
So, we’re down to two – and it was pretty much a toss-up. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pull on a shirt bearing the name of Iriney, Pepe Mel’s captain marvellous and the blood-pumping heart of this Betis team?
But he didn’t win. No, when I got off the No. 6 bus, pulled my shirt out of my rucksack and put it on the counter of the stadium shop, the name I asked for, just above a big number 10, was that of Beñat.
To me, the 24-year-old Basque midfielder symbolises Pepe Mel’s Betis as much as anyone. Youth, passing and selflessness, all in one beardy little package. I remember his first start – against Salamanca in the Copa del Rey – and which he got more by accident than design. He was brilliant right from the first moment, scored a sensational goal and left the pitch to a standing ovation. And that was just the start of an amazing season; it was as if he’d arrived in the first team ready-made. He always seems to chose the right pass, whether long or short, safe or defence-splitting. He runs his heart out. He takes wicked corners and free-kicks. He got a bit tipsy at the promotion celebrations. Who wouldn’t love him?
The lady in the shop didn’t bat an eyelid. She just went to the shelf in the corner where transfers of the players’ names are stacked neatly and took out a BEÑAT, added a 1 and an 0 and put them and my shirt on this industrial-sized Corby Trouser Press. 20 seconds and €14 later, hey presto – the deed was done.
A friend rather cruelly said that whenever I wear it to a game the shirt will go off after 70 minutes and I’ll have to change it for a new one, but I’m not listening to him. My shirt and I have faith: Beñat won’t let us down.
You can follow Adam in his wonderful blog www.oohbetis.typepad.com