El Centrocampista

Welcome to the People’s Republic of Vallekas

Late March last year as I was walking up the steps at Portazgo metro in Madrid, a number of skinny, black-clad teenagers ran past me, yelling obscenities at some unseen target above. Nearing the street I heard the sound of horses and saw smoke in the distance. At the top of the stairs were half a dozen mounted police, batons drawn, and a burning cop car at the end of the road. Welcome to the People’s Republic of Vallekas [sic].

Watchers of live football in Spain will know that, unless your visit is to San Mames, El Riazor or El Villamarin, then the atmosphere is pretty tame. In the capital for example, Madridistas generally come to applaud and Colchoneros to complain. But in 2008, on a budget and in search of football to watch on a Sunday afternoon, I found something different. Instead of seated supporters politely applauding, there, behind a massive pirate banner bearing the legend BUKANEROS 1992, was a mass of shirtless punk ultras, waving a variety of banners: Republican, anti-fascist and anti-modern football. During the match, all these varied interests appeared in song and even dance.

Football in Vallecas isn’t for everyone. The stadium is scruffy and unimpressive, the pitch is invariably called a “potato patch” and the players are all cast-offs. Yet, whether it’s the neighbourhood (pure “la movida”) or being the city’s underdog team, Rayo offers something to a certain type of football fan. “Odio eterno al futbol moderno” (eternal hate for modern football) runs the slogan; hatred for the arrogant overhyped players, the showbiz, the armchair fans, the expensive tickets, the ridiculous kick-off times, the sanitised, sit-down, shut-up and applaud culture of modern football. The renamed Campo de Futbol de Vallecas is a place for football fans whose nightmare is eternity in The Emirates Stadium.

Unfortunately for all their die-hard revolutionary followers, and their songs about explosives, pirates and anarchism, the reality of modern football is never far away. Saved from extinction in 1991 by former jailbird Jose-Maria Ruiz-Mateos, Rayo plunged into the abyss as his Rumasa empire went into administration last year. Massive debts were announced, and most commentators predicted bankruptcy. Despite a fan fundraising campaign, the team would play out the season unpaid.

Amid angry protests, the club passed mysteriously into the hands of unknown businessman Raul Martin Presa in May. The takeover secured the existence of the club, but it was Jose Ramon Sandoval and his players who really saved it. Taking over from the popular Pepe Mel, Sandoval junked most of the team and took just one summer to make another out of youth teamers, loanees, veterans and free transfers. When financial disaster struck in February the team was in the promotion places and their hastily assembled squad had to see out the season and win promotion unpaid.

That summer saw administration, the disappearance of key players and likely humiliation in La Liga. Sandoval promptly brought in another new team, again for nothing, adding Figueras, Michu, Trashorras and the legendary Raul Tamudo, while promoting Lass and Tito from the reserves. Rayo were surprisingly good, if not particularly spectacular. Cue the January transfer window and more miraculous improvements.

Diego Costa stepped out of Atleti’s reserves and into bugging the hell out of Sergio Ramos as Rayo very nearly pulled Madrid’s pants down in Vallecas, the return of Armenteros added pace and drive on the left and the additions of Pulido and Joel shored up a backline that had looked shaky in January. Rayo now sit on the verge of the European places largely thanks to the Sandoval’s capacity to find and instantly incorporate new players.

Now Rayo are confronted by two dangers, both stemming from their precarious finances. Firstly ticket prices have rocketed up to 70€ in a recession-hit working-class neighbourhood and, despite promises to the contrary, a 30€ surcharge was introduced for season ticket holders who wanted to see the Real Madrid game. Paying off the creditors in La Liga may mean profiteering and the club cashing in on popularity at the expense of locals.

On the pitch, everything seems to depend on Sandoval. Costa, Armenteros, Pulido and Joel are unlikely to stay, and if suitors come calling for Michu, Arribas, Casado and Lass, the club will be pretty powerless to resist. Whilst the transfer fees might ease the pain, if Sandoval gets a better offer then Rayo could be in big trouble. In their perilous situation relegation would spell disaster.

Rayo’s future hangs in the balance, as it always has. However, you get the feeling that some ultras, sick of the invasion of “futbol moderno”, might even prefer going under. As they’ll tell you themselves, they were there in Segunda B, and when the TV cameras are gone and it’s just them again, they’ll say “good riddance”.


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