There will be an atmosphere for the Derbi Sevillano on Thursday like never before when Sevilla and Real Betis take to the field at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán to mark the long-awaited return of La Liga.
It is a fixture in the Spanish football calendar that traditionally reverberates around the Andalusia region, but this particular chapter in the history of the derby will be quite unique.
There will be no fans in attendance for what is the most-anticipated match on the La Liga fixture list for the supporters of the respective clubs. While the situation will be mirrored in stadiums across Europe and the world in the coming weeks and months, it has a particular significance given the terrace passion associated with this match.
A key fixture in La Liga
The fans of Sevilla and Real Betis will need to accept that they will not be there to witness this latest instalment of El Gran Derbi. But they can find solace in the fact that the two veteran captains share the same passion as the Andalusians that worship them. While the focus for both teams will be on the result, both captains will lead with their heads and their hearts.
Jesús Navas returned to Sevilla for a second spell in 2017 having spent the previous four years in the English Premier League with Manchester City, winning the league title in his first season. Prior to his English adventure, Navas had emerged through the Sevilla youth ranks, and had made almost 400 appearances during a decade of service.
He was a natural choice to captain the side on his return. The experienced figure has been a key part of the project that has pushed Julen Lopetegui's side up to third place in the La Liga table ahead of the re-start. Now 34, Navas knows that his time with the club closest to his heart is slowly coming to an end, and these are the derby games he will embrace now more than ever before.
Likewise, Real Betis boast a similar leader in Joaquín. Also a youth team product, Joaquín made 240 senior appearances between 2000 and 2006 before heading to La Liga sides Valencia and Málaga, as well as Italian outfit Fiorentina. In 2015, the hero returned for his second spell at the club that brought him to professional prominence during his formative years.
Since his return to the Estadio Benito Villamarín, Joaquín has been a regular in the La Liga side over the course of the last five seasons, and has now represented Real Betis on more than 400 occasions in total.
He will turn 39 next month, and the fact that this could be his last derby will ensure he brings with him the passion of each and every verdiblanco fan who is unable to be there.
It is extremely rare at the highest-level of the modern game to find two captains with such close and emotional attachments to their respective clubs.
The fact that they come together for one of the biggest derbies in the Spanish game in a fixture to mark the return of La Liga, on a night when no other matches are taking place, is a situation that should be celebrated by those with a passion for football purism.
How the football world has changed
Over 52,000 fans were in attendance for this La Liga fixture last November as Sevilla claimed a 2-1 victory at the home of their closest rivals.
Goals from Lucas Ocampos and Luuk de Jong earned a memorable win for Lopetegui's team. For Real Betis manager Rubi, the target now is not just revenge, but also the opportunity to build on the shock 2-1 win over Real Madrid in La Liga prior to lockdown in March.
On Thursday night, there will be 52,000 fans less at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán than there were for the same La Liga fixture just a few short months ago. That is how the world around us has changed, and how the football that we once took for granted has had to adapt. The fact that the game is being played at all is enough of a reason to celebrate, regardless of the result.
The defining images of each and every La Liga season inevitably involve Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the El Clasico fixtures that project the Spanish game to a global audience. But Spain is a country of culture and tradition, and importance of the Derbi Sevillano to La Liga is a well-kept secret that deserves more interest than it organically generates.
Now it has that opportunity. While the colour and noise of the Andalusian crowd will be a vital element missing from the proceedings, there will be enough passion on the pitch.
Navas and Joaquín will fight for regional supremacy with their respective fans behind them in spirit, if not in person. The situation is far from perfect, but La Liga's return is another major step forward in restoring the sporting landscape.
Published 11 Jun 2020, 00:03 IST