La Liga Lowdown
Wild Presidents: Manuel Ruiz de Lopera at Real Betis
Written by Hasan Karim
Denilson was attempting to escape through a window, another player was wondering if it was the whisky - after receiving a tip-off from his private investigator, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera stormed a player party. Such anecdotes were not surprising about the then-Real Betis president, who was in his own right, quite the character.
The Seville-born businessman started his entrepreneurial journey selling second-hand TVs, before entering the world of real estate - owning 40% of the most expensive land in his home city. “Don Manué”, as it’s said in an Andalusian accent, started his tenure at Betis as vice-president in 1991, but barely a year later he would pay over one million pesetas to become the majority shareholder, after which he assumed the role of president at Los Verdiblancos.
Throughout his time in the top job, Lopera wanted to feel the adulation of his supporters - so much so, in fact, that he was known to drive around the city collecting stray dogs, as a means of boosting his image. But there was reverse psychology too - he would often threaten the fans by stating he was looking to leave, in hope that they would beg for him to stay. Don Manué loved the attention, so it was perhaps no surprise that Betis’ stadium carried his name.
During his initial years, béticos were content with the progress made. The early 1990s proved to be fruitful years - under then-coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, the club flirted with a return to the top flight before finally making it count in 1994. The momentum carried over into the following campaign - a superb third place earned them European football for the first time in 11 years.
As we headed towards the turn of the millennium, Lopera had built an exciting team that was headlined by stars such as Finidi George and Denilson. The signing of the Brazilian from São Paulo for a then-world record fee of 5,620 million pesetas (around €30 million) was a clear sign of intent.
But Denilson would be the centre of one of the most surreal stories during Don Manué’s tenure. After being tipped off by the private investigators he had watching over the team, the president stormed a party attended by many first-team players. Few could believe he was there, with one player being quoted saying: "I don't know if it's the whisky, but I'm seeing the president.”
Denilson, eager to avoid the wrath of his employer, was seen attempting to escape through the window. The terrified Brazilian was quoted as saying he feared not being paid if he was caught by Lopera.
There was the odd positive moment in his madness. It was widely known that Lopera shared a special relationship with club legend, Joaquín. The president famously showed up to Joaquín’s wedding, Copa Del Rey in hand, and it remained at the altar with the player and his bride.
But Joaquín wasn’t flavour of the month forever. Feeling that he needed to move on to fulfil his potential, he brought it up with his president. In true Lopera fashion, the president laid down the law. Joaquín had an offer from Valencia on the table - Don Manué baulked at this, telling the player: “You want to play in white? You can go play in white, but it will be the white of Albacete.”
As his relationship with his stars deteriorated, so it did with the fans. The 2000s proved to be a back-and-forth decade for the club. Relegated for the 2000/01 campaign, the club bounced back at the first attempt with two games to spare, and remained top half in LaLiga for the next four seasons. In that time, they played in Europe too, exiting the UEFA Cup twice in the third round.
But despite lifting the Copa del Rey and finishing fourth in LaLiga in 2005, key players departed (Joaquín and Ricardo Oliveira in 2007) as that memorable side was dismantled, and the years that followed would be fallow ones with disappointing league placings. To make matters worse, another relationship got worse - Lopera’s with the Sevilla president José María del Nido.
Del Nido is no angel, let’s be clear about that, with his own scandals and stories, but even so, four meetings in a season would have an inflammatory effect on one of the most childish relationships ever known in football. The second of those was a league encounter at Betis’ ground, but del Nido refused to accept a small bust of Lopera as a gift, and then refused to sit next to an even bigger bust of Lopera in the presidential box, and so things got a little heated... And the fourth meeting, the Copa quarter-final second leg back at Betis, had to be abandoned just before the hour - Sevilla scored a crucial goal, but then coach Juande Ramos was hit by an object thrown from the crowd, and had to be stretchered off unconscious. The remainder of the game would be played later behind closed doors at Getafe, and Betis lost. They were also ordered to play their next three home fixtures away from the Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.
But we hadn’t yet hit the nadir. 2009 was the worst year of the lot: the club replaced Paco Chaparro with B-team coach José María Nogués whose team lay 10th in mid-late April, but then Betis plummeted alarmingly and went down on the final day. Osasuna came from behind to beat Real Madrid, so Betis’ 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid simply wasn’t enough. Relegated. By this point, understandably, patience had worn very thin among the supporters. David Whitworth, who currently works for Radio Betis, the club’s in-house radio station, explains how the views of the fans on Lopera changed: “At the start, fans were happy with him. He had built a very good team under Lorenzo Serra Ferrer in the 90s. After the Copa del Rey victory in 2005, fans grew tired of his brash speeches and his organisation of the club.”
Fingers were pointed particularly at the constant changes of head coach. In three years after Serra Ferrer’s departure, Lopera saw Javier Irureta, Luis Fernández, Héctor Cúper, Chaparro and Nogués come and go. None of them lasted even six months in the job.
Those feelings of discontent grew stronger and there were regular protests from fans to have the president sell his 54% shares, but he still wasn’t taking the hint. Then on June 15th 2009, 65-thousand fans marched through Seville demanding the departure of Lopera. The crowd even included icons of the club such as Rafael Gordillo, Hipólito Rincón and Julio Cardeñosa. Finally the pressure was starting to tell and Lopera’s days appeared to be numbered.
The final nail in the coffin would come in 2010. A Seville judge revealed links between the club and Ruiz de Lopera-owned companies, which ultimately saw him charged with fraud and given a suspended jail sentence. This in turn led to Lopera selling his shares, Gordillo would be the next man in and he was out. An abrupt end, the descent almost as rapid as the ascent, all over.
“From the outside looking in, he was a colourful, larger than life character who played up to the cameras. However, his controversy will overshadow what the club achieved during his tenure,” opines David Whitworth of Lopera’s stint in charge at Betis, a rollercoaster ride lasting almost two decades, featuring two promotions, two relegations and that lone Copa success in 2005.
Perhaps there may have been happier and more settled times, had he not wanted so desperately to be loved by the fans, and not behaved in such a Jekyll and Hyde way to achieve that aim. A quote from Sid Lowe perfectly sums up the former Betis president: “Lopera spent the time parading around Sevilla on an open-topped bus, one hand on the cup, another reaching out for any mangy mutts passing by.” A bonkers president at arguably LaLiga’s craziest club.
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