“Two Cruzcampos and two large vodkas, darlin'”, asks a West Ham supporter with a heavy Essex accent. It’s confirmation, if anybody in Seville needed it, that the English are here.
And they’re starting early. It’s 10 o’clock on a gorgeous Thursday morning when a group of six West Ham fans, all North Face and pasty ankles, walk into the cafe where my parents and I are having breakfast.
More are dotted around the numerous tapas bars of Seville, amusing the wrapped-up locals with their commitment to wearing shorts.
It’s rumoured that 10,000 have made the trip from England for West Ham’s biggest game since the 2006 FA Cup final – a Europa League knockout tie with Sevilla.
Sevilla are second in La Liga and have won the Europa League four times in the last decade. West Ham have about 12 fit players and few fancy our chances of progression.
Possessing neither the stamina nor inclination for an all-day session, I return to my Pan con Tomate (toast smeared with tomato, garlic and olive oil), but with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning.
I’m here. And there’s nowhere on earth I’d rather be.
West Ham United are undoubtedly a big club, with a proud tradition and a large, loyal fanbase. They are also the definition of mediocre.
We haven’t won a trophy since 1980, have never finished higher than third in the league (and that was 35 years ago) but have never dropped below the second tier of English football either.
Every supporter has their tale of woe, the reasons why following their club is more painful than anybody else’s. It’s largely bullshit – every team has trials and tribulations – but, as I rise at 5 o’clock on Wednesday morning to catch an early flight to Malaga, it’s impossible not to reflect upon my own.
Having witnessed last-minute defeats from Sunderland to Southampton, allowing a crab-like Wayne Rooney to score a hat-trick in 2017 and more scoreless defeats than a hopeful teenager on his first lads’ holiday, the prospect of watching West Ham abroad appeared remote.
It wasn’t something that’d happen to us. Not until David Moyes cobbled together a team with sellotape, string and Ryan Fredericks that finished sixth in the Premier League in 2021.
West Ham hadn’t played in Europe since a disastrous dalliance with Romanian side Astra Giurgiu in 2016, but they negotiated the Europa League group stages with ease before landing this plum tie with Sevilla.
My flights were booked within half an hour of the draw. In the 10 days preceding the trip, I alternate between excitement and glee at what’s to come.
This is evidently shared by thousands of others.
What else could explain scores of fans in their replica shirts on my flight from Manchester?
Or, as our train from Malaga snakes through the rugged Spanish terrain full of lemon trees and possibility, how the ‘Ingleses’ serenade Moyes while knocking back tiny cans of San Miguel?
Or the chorus of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ on the platform at Sevilla Santa Justa station?
Football’s relevance in the grand scheme of things is often overstated but there’s an argument that it’s the most important of life’s unimportant things.
It’s a sentiment that rings true here.
It’s my first trip to Seville and the city appears to conform to every stereotype I’ve held about Spanish culture.
Oranges grow on the trees here. People, mainly tourists around the Plaza de Espana, are carried around on horse and cart. The Sevillanos are content to while away their morning sipping on their cafe con leche.
Seville comes alive as day turns into night. At a bar, just around the corner from our city-centre accommodation, dozens of people watch Real Madrid’s improbable win over PSG while nursing a rioja and munching on some jamon iberico.
They seem disappointed. Real Madrid have never been popular in Seville – unlike most of Spain – and most of the locals were supporting PSG.
It’s here that we learn of trouble involving West Ham fans elsewhere in the city. Thousands had congregated at O’Neills, an Irish pub overlooking the Río Guadalquivir, where spirits had been high before the evening was somewhat soured.
Footage emerges on social media of a group of Eintracht Frankfurt fans, also in Seville after their team played Real Betis on Wednesday night, marching aggressively towards West Ham supporters before bottles and chairs were thrown by both parties.
Keith Downie, reporting for Sky Sports News, claims that Frankfurt supporters were carrying weapons, chairs, bottles and sticks. It appears the West Ham supporters did little wrong.
“They were fantastic no trouble at all. All they did was defend themselves,” Michael Melia, the owner of O’Neills said afterwards.
“It was the German fans who attacked them, the English were just in here singing having a drink, having a good time.”
There’s some evidence of glass and debris when I walk past the bar the following day. But most of the West Ham fans I encounter are in high spirits, with news of Chelsea’s imminent demise adding to the positive vibes.
The Spanish are shit hot on wearing face masks. It’s difficult to comprehend coming from a country where health policy is centred around Boris Johnson’s insecurities, but I’m caught out numerous times in my three days here.
Luckily, I have one stuffed in my pocket as my dad and I approach the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan – but he doesn’t. Neither do hundreds of others. All are refused entry until a local Aldi cashier takes pity on them and hands out masks for free.
The matchday experience is different, too. Walking to the ground, which is tucked away between buildings in the leafy Nervion district, almost every Sevilla fan is wearing a scarf. Sweets and bottles of pop are on sale everywhere.
And the Spanish police make their presence felt. A row of them on horseback patrol the entrance to the away section. One of the mules spooks, scattering West Ham fans everywhere before its occupant steers the horse to safety.
They aren’t shy of using physical restraint either. Towards the end of the first half, one fan in the lower tier is escorted away after his girlfriend repeatedly tries to pin a Ukraine flag to an exit gate.
One policeman administers a slap before grabbing his throat. Only the intervention of his colleague prevents things from escalating further.
It’s a scene I almost don’t witness. Just after kick-off, an inebriated fan tries to hang a huge flag on the netting in front of us. It blocks our vision of half the pitch and my dad tells him where to go.
An attempt to hang it elsewhere is met with the same response. He leaves with his tail firmly between his legs but the whole incident is thoughtless, rather than malicious.
Cruzcampo and vodka can do that to you.
The game itself almost passes in a blur. West Ham acquit themselves well against their illustrious opponents, breaking up play and creating a number of half-chances.
Nikola Vlasic should have scored with a close-range header early on and it instantly feels like a pivotal moment.
But Sevilla have the experience and European nous. Their players are technically superior and aren’t shy of indulging in acts of
One defender goes down holding his head before the physio applies some magic spray to his knee. The swiftness of his recovery should ensure his place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
And the Sevilla goal is brilliantly taken. West Ham switch off from a set-piece and Munir El Haddadi sweeps home an excellent half-volley. The noise from the home supporters, unrelenting throughout, goes up a few decibels in celebration.
The first goal in Seville goes to the home team.
Great technique from Munir puts Sevilla ahead against #WHUFC.
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) March 10, 2022
One fan, obviously unaware of Green Street, gives the visiting Hammers the middle finger. The atmosphere isn’t aggressive in the slightest, but it’s not hard to see why Sevilla win here so often.
Mark Noble makes a late appearance.
This is the stadium where the great Brazil team started their 1982 World Cup campaign, the venue where Toni Schumacher became notorious three weeks later.
It’s now the stadium where West Ham’s greatest servant of the modern era struts his stuff. Noble makes a few good passes but can’t influence the score and the game peters out into a 1-0 victory for Sevilla.
We are held back for half an hour afterwards, where it emerges Hammers legend Ian Bishop is among our number. Bishop is lovingly acclaimed as he conducts the crowd with his hands.
As I leave the stadium, treading on sand that you can’t quite imagine at Turf Moor, it feels surreal that I’ve just watched West Ham in a major European knockout match.
And we could have won. There’s certainly reason for optimism before Thursday’s second leg in London, especially if the brilliant Jarrod Bowen returns from injury.
But the result was only a tiny fraction of my experience in Spain. Spending time in this intoxicating city, where life feels so laid-back that the locals appear horizontal, is an eye-opener. I want to do this again. One taste simply isn’t enough.
No pressure then, Moysesy. Get us back into Europe next year. We want more days like this.
By Michael Lee