By Jim Tanner/NPSL.com
The Chattanooga Football Club put on a strong performance against one of the top soccer teams in the world in the NPSL side’s 4-3 exhibition loss to Real Betis of Spain’s La Liga on Saturday night at Finley Stadium.
But after the final whistle had sounded, the CFC players became fans eagerly seeking a signed jersey or selfie photo with some of the top soccer players in the world on the team they’d just played so tough on a muggy night in front of more than 6,000 fans.
“This is big time to play against a high-level team from the first division in Spain,” Chattanooga forward Joao Costa said after the match. “It’s something unreal for us. We usually play these guys on the video games, so this is a dream come true.”
Costa gave his team the chance to dream of a victory in the 12th minute of play when he took a pass from Juan Hernandez and put a shot past Real Betis goalkeeper Joel for an early 1-0 lead against a team coming off road wins over La Liga rival Real Madrid and MLS side D.C. United.
“We started dreaming about competing, and that’s what they did,” Chattanooga FC coach Bill Elliott. “We knew they were good and were going to turn in on and put some pressure on us. But we got three goals tonight against a team that went into D.C. and beat a good MLS team 5-2. For us to get a 4-3 result, I couldn’t be more proud of our guys tonight.”
Despite constant pressure, Real Betis couldn’t find the goal as the first half wound down with CFC goalkeeper Phil D’Amico making several spectacular saves. Finally in extra time at the end of the half, Sergio Leon got the ball just to the left of the goal and scored the equalizer for Los Verdiblancos to send the game to halftime tied 1-1.
“Even in a friendly game, it’s not really friendly,” Real Betis captain Joaquin said through an interpreter. “Everyone wants to win. When we let a first goal like that go in, we knew we had to step it up to get the win.”
After the break, Real Betis put in several subs from their development team who were more used to playing on an artificial surface like the one at Finley Stadium. Reserve Jesé put Real Betis ahead in the 68th minute and scored again in the 72nd minute for a 3-1 lead.
Rodri added a goal in the 80th minute to put the Béticos ahead 4-1, but CFC showed fight late in the match. A goal from the penalty spot by Alun Webb in the 84th minute made it a 4-2 game, and Jose “Zeca” Ferraz scored in extra time to give CFC a very respectable scoreline against one of the top teams in world soccer in front of 6,115 fans.
“It’s great. It was awesome and the fans were excited,” Joaquin said. “Although soccer may not be the most popular sport here, you can tell there are a lot of people excited about it. It’s great to be a part of that and contribute to that.”
Both Chattanooga FC and Real Betis use a supporter-ownership model when fans can purchase a share of the club and have a direct impact on its success on and off the field. Joaquin noted the large group of green-clad Verderones fans in the stands alongside the CFC Chattahooligans as testament for how important fan involvement is for athletic teams at all levels.
“It’s crucial to the DNA of the club to have fans who buy in,” he said. “That’s what makes Real Betis such a special club. You can see even here there are is a strong group of our fans here tonight, and that happens because they are deeply rooted in the club itself.”
Chattanooga FC returns to NPSL play next Saturday when Georgia Revolution FC will visit Finley Stadium. CFC will go from being the scrappy underdog back to their usual position as a perennial contender in their league.
“We learned that we can play up to a high level of competition,” Elliott said. “When we get back into league play, everybody is chasing us. Sometimes it’s hard to be the hunted. We know it’s going to be a grind and be tough. We’re going to get back to work this week and try to do something next Saturday.”
Photo Credit: Ray Soldano/NPSL.com