The year is 2007, and Real Betis Balompie are now officially 100 years old. Unfortunately for the Seville-based club and their dedicated followers, a year that should have sparked such celebrations has started with their team deep in the relegation mire, way down in 18th place in Spain's 20-team Primera Liga .
Spirits were lifted last night by the claiming of Real Madrid's scalp in the Copa del Rey, a 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu seeing Betis through to the quarter-finals after a goalless first leg. But no-one is able to forget how the club's 2006/07 campaign got off to the most wretched start. The loyal Beticos were stung by the loss of their favourite son Joaquin to fellow Spaniards Valencia, and before long another key player was leaving the shores of the city's Guadalquivir river to try his luck elsewhere. Prolific Brazilian front-man Ricardo Oliveira made the switch to Serie A giants AC Milan after a disagreement with the club's owner.
"It's a serious setback," admitted then coach Javier Irureta, who had seen his side lose two of its leading lights just days before the start of the season. What started badly continued in the same vein, as the well-respected Basque coach proved unable to get the struggling Verdiblancos back on track.
As the pressure built on both coach and team, Irureta resigned his post prior to the Christmas break, a move which would give his successor valuable time to prepare ahead of a fixture-packed January schedule.
Taking up the challenge was voluble French coach Luis Fernandez , and the former Athletic Bilbao boss got off to a winning start against fellow underachievers Celta Vigo. The Beticos' joy was short-lived however, with Fernandez's new charges on the receiving end of a 5-1 humbling from Osasuna in their next league outing.
Of particular concern to all those with Betis' interests at heart is the team's dreadful form away from the Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera. In nine matches on their travels thus far, the Verdiblancos have recorded just one win and two draws. In the process they have conceded a hefty 18 goals, one more than the team have scored home and away in the league this season.
For coach Fernandez, the task before his side is clear: "The league is our priority. From now on the most important thing is to win, without worrying too much whether we do it in style or not. We need to put the flashy stuff to one side and roll up our sleeves."
Having just passed the halfway point of this season's Primera Liga campaign, the Betis supporters, widely acknowledged to be amongst the most fun-loving and good-natured in Spain, know that there is still plenty of time to turn things around and celebrate their centenary in style.
100 years of football
The Betis story began way back in 1907, when a group of friends decided to set up a team called Sevilla Balompie to challenge the already-established Sevilla FC. The club's founders decided on a strip based on the green and white of the Andalusian flag, a region where the colour olive green has a near-spiritual significance.
After breaking into the Primera Division in 1932, the Verdiblancos took just three years to win the league title. However, the post-civil war years hit the club hard, with the Beticos going on to languish in Spanish football's third tier for seven years, where they teetered on the brink of financial ruin.
The arrival of Benito Villamarin as President in 1955 signalled the start of a new era for the Andalusian outfit. Villamarin's ten-year spell in charge transformed the underlying mentality of the club, bringing in much-needed core business values and tidying up the club's accounts. During his reign the team made it back into the top flight, celebrated their 50th birthday in style and made the sound financial move of purchasing the Estadio Heliopolis outright.
Even more was to follow in the 1963/64 campaign, as the club finished in third place to guarantee their involvement in the following season's Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, their first experience of European competition. The euphoria would not last however, with Betis suffering the ignominy of relegation just two years later.
The fans would have to wait until the 1970s to celebrate their next piece of silverware, this time coming in the shape of the 1977 Copa del Rey. All the while, bubbling away in the background, the tremendous rivalry between the two Seville sides continued apace.
Fast forward to the 2004/05 season, when experienced coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer led his side to a dream finish to the campaign, sealing a lucrative UEFA Champions League place and adding another Copa del Rey crown to their trophy cabinet. The level of expectation generated by the team's exploits would gradually dissipate the following year though, as Betis struggled to compete on two fronts, eventually finishing in 14th place in the league.
In Europe, the might of English heavyweights Liverpool and Chelsea prevented Betis from progressing from Group G of the Champions League , the Beticos having to make do with a place in the UEFA Cup. Then, after dropping out of that particular competition at the last 16 stage, the club and their ever-loyal fans looked on in agony as eternal rivals Sevilla went on to lift the trophy on a balmy night in Eindhoven.
The rivalry between Sevillistas and Beticos is of epic proportions, with games between the two sides forcing the city to a standstill while the rest of Spain looks on in eager anticipation.
The people of Andalusia are known across the world for their sense of fun and joie de vivre, and the days leading up to each derby see the streets of Seville filled with the raucous chanting of fans of both clubs, desperate to get one over their age-old rivals.
The sheer passion that runs through the terraces of the Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera every matchday has earned Betis fans the respect and admiration of supporters across the country. The famous war cry of 'Viva er Beti manque pierda!' (Long live Betis, even when they lose), exemplifies the unconditional support and never-say-die attitude that make the fans the lifeblood of the club.
This is something that the man charged with saving the Verdiblancos from the drop clearly understands. "I noticed that the stadium is still full and the fans deserve great credit for that - they always rise to the challenge," underlined coach Fernandez. "They deserve to be in the Primera Division and that's what we're aiming to achieve. The team needs to join forces with them (the fans), prove they have the right attitude, battle hard and win games. My goal is to save Betis."