In footballing terms, Madrid is considered to be one of the most glamorous cities on earth; home to both the richest and most successful football club in the world, Real Madrid C.F, as well as the 2014 champions of Spain, Club Atlético de Madrid SAD. But nestled in the city suburbs is an unfashionable club that rarely garners publicity but can rightfully claim to be the best in the world.
Despite operating on a meagre annual budget of €7 million – 83 times less than Real Madrid’s €580 million – Rayo Vallecano SAD, from the tough working-class neighbourhood of Vallecas in the south of the city, has never shied away from helping those who need it most, but in November 2014 one particular act of kindness captured the world’s attention.
“I’ve spent my whole life working, getting up at 6am to earn a crust, just so at the last minute they come and take it all when the only thing I want is peace” sobbed Carmen Martínez Ayuso, an 85-year old Vallecas resident who had just joined the tens of thousands of Spaniards to be evicted from their homes since the economic collapse of 2008. Carmen was unaware that her son, Luis, had used her apartment as collateral on a private loan, but when he lost his job and was unable to make the repayment, the lender took him to court and an eviction notice was handed to Carmen.
Watching the heartbreaking story on the evening news, Paco Jémez, manager of Rayo Vallecano, knew he had to do something to help. After speaking with his players and staff, the club that is proud of its working-class roots and the community at it’s heart immediately flew into action to raise money and awareness for Carmen’s case.
Shortly after, the club announced that a permanent fund would be set up for Carmen and that 5% of the ticket sales from the following home game would also be made available. For a struggling club that has almost no money to give away in the first place, it was an admirable act of charity. “I’m very proud we can lend her a hand. I’d like to help more people, but unfortunately that’s impossible” Jémez said in a press conference. “We will do as much as we can to help this lady find a place where she can live with dignity and not feel alone”, he added.
This kind of direct action is not out of character for a club from a community that has been at the forefront of Spain’s seemingly endless economic crises, with most of the 1 million or so inhabitants falling into the ‘unemployed/minimum wage/working-class’ bracket. The majority of Vallecans are first or second generation immigrants, descendants of landless Andalusian peasants who migrated to the area in the 1950s in search of work, or more recent arrivals from Africa and South America. The continuous fight in the face of adversity has helped to make Vallecas stronger as a barrio however, with regular scenes of neighbours grouping together to forcibly block access to police and bailiffs to houses and flats of other victims of banking cruelty, regardless of their colour or creed.
The club’s players and staff haven’t been immune to economic hardship either; during the 2010/2011 season, serious financial problems within the club meant that the players and staff went unpaid for large portions of the season. There were several threats of strike action by the squad and before the situation was resolved the Rayo fans came to their team’s aid with numerous fundraisers and acts of solidarity. The socialist politics of the Vallecas area seems to permeate into the club. In fact, at the height of the recession, when general strikes had rocked Spain, the Rayo squad, eager to identify with their working class supporters rejected a pay offer from the board so that the club’s ground staff could be paid instead.
More recently, the players wore orange bootlaces to show their solidarity with the fans, who had been holding a Guantanamo Bay-style protest (by wearing orange shirts, scarves balloons etc.) against the perceived criminalization of football fans throughout Spain. On a separate occasion, they wore rainbow laces to show their support for the anti-homophobia campaign which has long been the focus of many of the Bukaneros (Rayo’s Ultra fan group) protests and tifos.
Thanks to this sociopolitical awareness, Rayo are steadily gaining followers from outside their tight-knit community as well. 25-year old Irishman Brian Fahey has been living and working in Madrid for over two years and can remember the exact date when he became acquainted with the club he has grown to love: “It was the 25th of October 2015. In the weeks and months leading up to that date I had become fascinated by this feisty underdog, so myself and a group of pals from the Madrid Emerald Celtic Supporters Club decided to see what all the fuss was about.” Little did he know that this unglamorous clash with fellow La Liga minnows Real Valladolid would become the most unforgettable footballing experience of his life.
“Upon arriving at Vallecas metro station, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill day out at the football. The Bukaneros, Rayo’s notoriously provocative and creative ultras, had planned to clear the terrace behind the goal to perform a funeral (complete with priest, coffin and mourners) to symbolize the death of football at the hands of the ‘suit and tie clad executioners’. As we waited anxiously at the turnstiles for the 24th minute to come around (Rayo was founded in 1924), the atmosphere was bubbling nicely and the beer was flowing.”
Despite the 3-0 drubbing that day, the fans spirits never wavered; “the camaraderie and warmth of the boisterous rayistas was something to behold and they welcomed us into their club with open arms from day one.”
Being a primarily immigrant barrio, the locals are well accustomed to having ‘outsiders’ in their midst and through supporting the club and attending home and away games, Brian has met fellow converts from Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, America and Poland, among others. “What seems to be a common feeling among all of us expats is that we haven’t been made to feel uncomfortable or different either inside the stadium or in the multitude of bars in the surrounding streets. The locals have shown a keen interest in their new foreign followers and there seems to be a certain amount of admiration and respect that these new international rayistas did not take up the much cosier option of heading to Concha Espina to sit in silence whilst watching Real’s multimillionaires or even the red and white of Atlético.”
Having followed Rayo to a number of away games over the past 2 seasons, Brian has noticed the esteem in which the club and its fans are held throughout Spain: “99% of other fans in Spain have a positive opinion of Rayo; there is a clear respect for the way in which a club with absolutely zero economic power, who must change their squad each summer, has managed to punch above it’s weight for so long. Travelling Rayo fans are generally welcomed with open arms when they hit the road and there is almost always a jovial atmosphere. Exceptions to this occur in matches involving teams with right-wing ultra groups, ie. Valencia, Betis, Atlético & Real Madrid. However, I have yet to see any violence between Rayo fans and those of opposing teams, just the usual banter you would see at any football ground.”
And he will have the opportunity to support the team in some more top-flight stadiums next season as, against all odds, Rayo finished comfortably in 11th place in La Liga this May. It is thanks mainly to the inspirational Paco Jémez, whose tactical approach of possession football and all-out attack may result in a few heavy defeats but seems to work out over the course of the season.
Competing in a league in which the top clubs think nothing of forking out €90 million on a new signing or paying their players €200,000 a week, Rayo Vallecano will carry on its focus on being a club of the people, and being as proud as punch for that.