1977: Real Betis and their first Copa del Rey

Real Betis Copa del Rey 1977

Real Betis Balompié has only won one league title in its history. The club’s greatest ever moment came in 1935 under Irishman Patrick O’Connell. The club were the surprise winner that season and was not expected to challenge but his hard-working side surprised the onlookers. O’Connell was never able to build on that achievement. On 17 July 1936, The Spanish Civil War started with Seville the first city to fall. Many of O’Connell’s side were Basque and fearing the Nationalists they fled to other parts of Spain or over the border to France. Many Basques had come to Andalucía looking for work. The title side was broken up and following the resumption of football after the civil war, Betis fell into a decline not establishing themselves in La Liga until the late 1950s. That title would be the only trophy the club would win until 1977 when Basques would play another huge role in their success.

Francisco Franco Bahamonde or more commonly known as General Franco died on 20 November 1975 bringing to an end his 39-year dictatorship following his victory in the Spanish Civil War. Spain looked to transfer to democracy following his death. Franco had intended his successor to be Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco but he was killed by an ETA bombing and so Franco turned to the exiled King Juan Carlos. Spain was to become a Constitutional Monarchy and this meant that the Spanish Cup which had for so long been known as the Copa del Generalísimo once again became the Copa del Rey. The first competition under the returned name and King would take place in 1977.

During the dictatorship, the people of the Basque Country suffered more than others. Castilian Spanish was the only language permitted to be spoken in Franco’s Spain and so the Basques were forbidden from speaking their mother tongue. An institution that is strongly attached to the Basque cause is Athletic Club of Bilbao. Athletic Club had to change their name during the dictatorship to Atlético Bilbao. It is quite common for their fans to chant ‘He flies he flies’ at Real Madrid fans during their meetings referring to the killing of Carrero Blanco. So their fans had more cause than most to celebrate the end of the regime and the liberation it brought them. In 1976 during a Basque derby, the captains of both Athletic Club and Real Sociedad entered the pitch holding the Basque flag. At the time it was banned but legalised soon after. It was Athletic Club that would face Betis in the final. Athletic Club at that time was the third most successful club in Spain behind Real Madrid and Barcelona with six league titles and 22 Spanish Cups. They last won the competition in 1973 and that year lost in the final of the UEFA Cup. They were clear favourites going into the final despite Betis’ very credible sixth-place league finish.

En route to the Final Betis eliminated Baracaldo, Sestao, Deportivo La Coruna, Valladolid, Hercules and Espanyol. Athletic defeated Elche, Sevilla and Salamanca. Athletic came into the competition at the quarter-final stage due to their participation in the aforementioned UEFA Cup and so had an easier route to the final.

Betis were looking to win the competition for the first time having lost their only previous final in 1931. The 3-1 defeat came against their 1977 opponents Athletic Club and was also played in Madrid, this time at Estadio Chamartín the home of Real Madrid. On this occasion, the final would be played at Estadio Vicente Calderón the home of Atlético de Madrid The stadium was full to the rafters for the final. A sea of red and white and green and white.

The final was played on 20th June deep into the sweltering Madrid summer. Despite the 9 pm kick-off, the air hung heavy with the heat. This was probably not the best conditions for a cup final and it showed with the match itself not exactly producing free-flowing football. Spanish football was different then and the idea of tika-taka was not yet formulated. The game was much more physical and bore more of a resemblance to the British game rather than the kind of football we associate with Spanish teams today. The Athletic Club sides of the period were adept at this kind of football and it brought them great success.

So it was perhaps not a surprise when they took the lead on the 14-minute mark. A free-kick was given on the edge of the box which looks soft even by the standards of today. The ball was played in and parried by Betis keeper José Ramón Esnaola Laburu and despite Betis having a player on the line was headed in on the rebound by Carlos Ruiz. The fans from Bilbao were swaying and jumping in the stands as a chant of ‘Athletic!!!’ reverberated around the Calderón, but Betis fans, as usual, were displaying Manque Pierda and despite being 1-0 sang to try and lift their team. It was just before half-time that the fans would be rewarded.

Another free-kick was awarded, again on the edge of the box but this time the box of the basques following a trip. Julio Cardeñosa bent the ball over the wall with his left foot but hit the post. Luckily for Los Verdiblancos centre-back Jaume Sabaté was on hand to bury the rebound. The Betis fans had barely enough time to celebrate before the whistle was blown for half-time straight after kick-off.

The second half continued much as the first with a lack of real quality football in evidence. This was a time before the back-pass rule came into the game where players could pass back to the goalkeeper to pick up the ball. There were plenty of those and lots of balls into space to chase. The heat was surely affecting the game and also the fans it would seem. When Betis went to take a corner objects including a seat cushion were thrown down from the stands. The second half concluded with no further goals. Both sets of players looked shattered after the 90 minutes, collapsing to the ground and drinking copious amounts of water.

It was seven minutes into extra time until the Basques once again took the lead. A dreadful back pass was intercepted by Dani Ruiz who rounded Esnaola and tapped the ball into the net, Betis’ basque coach Rafael Iriondo put his head in his hands. Betis were again behind in the final. Betis player who gifted Athletic the goal was still visibly shaken as Betis kicked off once again looking to get back into the game. The players were now tiring severely. One athletic player went down clutching his leg and soon vomited onto the pitch. He may have wished to stay there as not long after Betis grabbed the equalizer they had been hoping for. Betis player was fouled at the side of the box on the right hand side. The resultant free kick was whipped into the back post where Lopez had a free header and scored again. That was to be the last of the goals in extra time and unlike in the FA Cup of the time there was to be no replay. The match would be decided on penalties.

As the penalty takers were being decided one of the Betis players sat down on the turf to smoke a cigarette. These were different times indeed. Betis were to start the shootout so perhaps he needed to calm his nerves. As Garcia Soriano stepped up to take the first penalty for Betis coach Iriondo lay down on the pitch. Was he relaxed or was this a sign of nerves? Perhaps he felt this was the best vantage point. It was certainly an eccentric move.

All four of the penalties were scored for both sides and it wasn’t until Betis took their fifth that this changed. Julio Cardeñosa hitting his wide of the goal. He looked heartbroken as Athletic only needed to score their next kick. The pitchside reporter crouched down and stuck a microphone in Iriondo’s face presumably looking for comment on their impending defeat. He needn’t have bothered as Dani the scorer of Athletic’s second goal of the match could put his penalty away. He approached with a stuttering run-up as the Betis players sat with their heads in their hands and Esnaola saved his tame effort. A huge smile came across the face of Iriondo as the coach got up off the floor. His team were still in it. Dani was led back to the touchline where he sat down and just stared at the floor as teammates and coaches tried to console him.

The first two penalties of sudden death were dispatched but there was more drama to come. Sebastián Alabanda saw his kick saved. It was a poor penalty and perfect height for the keeper. Iriondo muttered something to himself most probably referring to the quality of the spot kick. Betis looked down and out again but Ángel María Villar’s penalty was almost identical to Alabanda’s.  Betis striker Alfredo Megido put his hands on his huge mop of curly hair before jumping for joy. How many times had Betis been behind but had managed to cling on? This was epic stuff.

The eighth penalty went in again for both sides but Txetxu Rojo of Athletic saw his effort saved. Betis started to celebrate but as is so often the case with Los Verdeblancos it was a false dawn. Esnaola was adjudged to have moved before the ball was struck. Despite the huge protests from Betis referee  José Luis García was unmoved.

The penalty was re-taken and scored. Right-back Francisco Bizcocho scored the tenth penalty of a long long evening of football. Surely soon something had to give? It did. Goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar took his side’s tenth kick but it was saved. Betis had won the Copa Del Rey for the first time in their history!