Real Betis have an outside shot of finishing in La Liga’s top four, a place in the Champions League still within their grasp, but for Nabil Fekir nothing would beat a victory on Saturday.
Betis have won three trophies in their 115-year history, the last of them coming in the Copa del Rey in 2005, when a 12-year-old Fekir was just joining the youth academy at Lyon, the club that released him two years later for not being strong enough.
In the Copa del Rey final between Betis and Valencia on Saturday, Fekir will be perhaps the toughest player on the pitch, a brooding, muscular attacking midfielder, who has suffered more fouls per game this season than any other player in La Liga.
He has been a driving force for Betis too. With five games left in the league, Betis are fifth, four points adrift of the top four, and if that proves a gap too wide to close, lifting the cup would be more than just a consolation.
“It would be amazing to play in the Champions League, it’s a prestigious competition, everyone wants to play in it, to taste it," Fekir says, in an exclusive interview with AFP at the club’s Luis del Sol training ground.
“But we have one game left in the cup, it’s a do-or-die match. We’re honoured to be in the final and we will give everything to try to win.
“It would be beautiful, something incredibly special. The most important thing is to win trophies, especially here, with the spirit we have at this club, and the supporters. That doesn’t happen every day.
“It’s for everyone. For the people who work at the club, for the supporters. Seville is a city that lives to the rhythm of football. We want to win this for them."
- ‘Make you mature’ -
Over the past decade, Betis have twice needed promotion to return from the second tier while lower mid-table finishes have been more common than anything close to the top six.
But Manuel Pellegrini’s arrival as coach in 2020 prompted an upturn, with the team finishing sixth in his first season and currently on track to better that in his second.
Pellegrini is renowned for his ability to exude calm but, like Fekir, he has an explosive side as well.
“I have a very good relationship with him," says Fekir.
“He trusts me and I try to repay that trust on the pitch.
“That’s what it is, trust. When we think something isn’t right, we say so, and then everything is fine."
Fekir says Pellegrini is held in the highest regard at Betis.
“He is highly-respected, especially here at this club," Fekir says.
“What people think outside, I don’t know, but to me the most important thing is to be respected in the place where you work every day. Here, everyone knows what he is. He is loved by everyone."
Fekir’s temperament will likely be tested by Valencia, who sit 10th in La Liga and have committed more fouls and picked up more yellow cards in Spain this season than any other.
For his part, Fekir has been shown 10 yellows and two reds, the latest coming last month against Athletic Bilbao, when he teased Athletic by doing kick-ups and then kicked out at Iker Muniain.
“I expect contact, I am a player who likes contact, I need it when I’m on the pitch, to feel my opponent," he says.
“And when you get close to an opponent, you always expose yourself to those things, to fouls and friction. No problem, we adapt, that’s my game.
“But referees also have to protect players with quality."
As well as his quality, Fekir’s physicality was what, for a while, put him in the eye of Europe’s top clubs, including, in 2018, Liverpool. Fekir has said the move broke down due to problems with his agent.
“Ordeals like that make you mature," Fekir says.
“In life, nothing is guaranteed. You have to keep working, moving forward. I spoke to Jurgen Klopp, I met him. It was close. But for reasons not to do with football, it never went through."
The disappointment is obvious but Fekir has continued to flourish and still hopes he could play for France at the World Cup later this year.
“It’s my best season here," Fekir says. “I will always give everything and I never hide. That’s what they want from me."