Rarely has the relationship between owners of European football clubs and match going fans been so frosty. The sense of deep distrust is palpable at many clubs. Protests of some form have become the matchday norm in many of the continent’s biggest football cities as fans finally flock back into stadiums, having been denied any real outlet to vent their collective frustration for more than a year. Many have legitimate reason to feel disgruntled and ignored but in few places do those feelings run so deep as in one small corner of Madrid.
To say that followers of Rayo Vallecano are unhappy with the way their club is being run would be an extreme understatement. This is nothing new in truth, and loud chants calling for president Raúl Martín Presa to leave were the backdrop to Rayo matches long before anyone had even heard of a mysterious, deadly virus called COVID-19. In Vallecas though, the easing of restrictions allowing Rayo fans to finally attend matches once more, has only served to deepen the schism between the board room and terraces.
Rayo are the only one of LaLiga’s 20 clubs yet to issue season tickets and that combined with high prices led to a boycott of their first home game back in the Primera. Just 583 people watched their 4-0 victory over Granada on what should have been a joyous occasion for everyone connected with the club.
Three weeks roll by, still without any sign of season tickets, before Rayo’s second home game. This time, the club has the good sense to reduce prices, to as little as €10 in some areas. That combined with a bright start to the season on the pitch and some encouraging late transfer business including the surprise signing of Radamel Falcao helps appease many supporters and there is a clear increase in demand for tickets to potentially see the Colombian make his debut.
However there is a problem. Unlike most top level clubs, Rayo do not have any form of online booking system. Their ticket office consists of a small room under one of the dilapidated old stands with just three windows where tickets are sold. In the absence of season ticket holders, every Rayo fan must queue up and buy their tickets for the game in that manner.
Not helped by the bizarre decision to only start selling tickets two days before the game, the result is chaos. A technical problem on the day they go on sale adds to the delay as supporters form a long snake-like queue around the perimeter of the stadium. Some report having to wait for more than six hours before finally getting their hands on a ticket – not for a cup final, but a regular league match against Getafe.
This though is merely the latest in a seemingly endless string of incidents where the people running Rayo Vallecano have not only failed their own supporters, but at times almost appeared to intentionally antagonise them.
Rayo are no ordinary football club. Sometimes referred to as “the last of the barrio teams”, they strongly identify with the working class roots of the neighbourhood of Vallecas in the southeast of the Spanish capital. Many of their fans can simply step out of the buildings where they live and walk to the stadium in a matter of minutes.
Vallecas is a place known for its far-left political ideologies and that is strongly reflected in Rayo’s Ultra group – the Bukaneros. Needless to say it didn’t go down well when leaders of the far-right VOX party were invited to visit the stadium by President Presa in April. Images of the politicians, that many regard as fascists, inside the ground at a time when no Rayo fan had been able to visit in more than a year, clearly struck a nerve. Some Rayo supporters responded by washing the stadium after they’d gone.
The list of perceived failings goes on and on, with the poor state of the stadium the most obvious example for anyone who visits. It was forced to close for a period during the 2018/19 LaLiga season due to genuine safety concerns and unlike many of Spain’s smaller clubs, relatively regular top flight football over the past decade has not led to any real investment in the facilities at a ground which only has three stands.
It won’t stop them demanding change at the top, but there are no signs of imminent regime change in Vallecas. “The club is not for sale and it will not be sold” were the words of Raúl Martín Presa just last week, his timing impeccable as ever as he spoke during the presentation of Falcao whilst hundreds of Rayo fans were multiple hours into their long wait for tickets outside.
The board’s stance is that the blame for many of the club’s off-field issues, including to some extent the current ticketing fiasco, should be directed towards the local government – the Comunidad de Madrid which owns the stadium and leases it out to Rayo.
There may be fragments of truth to many of their claims but Presa has long been the obvious focal point for the fan’s anger. He seems to slot ever so naturally into a role that falls somewhere between a pantomime character and reclusive Bond villain. However little is known about the people who really hold the power behind the scenes, which inevitably adds to the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that something more sinister may be going on.
Fast-forward to match-day, one hour until kick-off. As has been the case for much of the last 48 hours, the queues curve away from the ticket office, around the stadium and up the hill towards the Avenida de la Albufera, the barrio’s main thoroughfare linking Vallecas to the centre of Madrid.
In the club’s defence, they had advised fans to arrive early in the morning to avoid long waits, but the situation still felt so easily avoidable with even the most basic level of organisation and forward planning. The line featured both home and away fans for this local derby clash, plus a few Colombians hoping for a glimpse of their legendary striker, as well as the odd visitor from elsewhere looking to sample the unique Vallecas experience. This probably wasn’t what they had in mind.
There was one polite and apologetic steward marshalling the slow-moving queue. An hour went by and before long the first roars of the supporters who had made it in were audible as the game kicked off inside the Estadio de Vallecas. It took less than a minute for the first chants of “Presa Vete Ya!” (Presa, get out!) to be audible from the Fondo Sur – the small, uncovered, end stand where Rayo’s ultras and noisiest supporters gather.
A few oohh’s and aahh’s follow before one big cheer, soon followed by an even louder one. The playing of the intro to the popular 80’s song “The Final Countdown” over the club’s tannoy system confirms that Rayo have indeed scored a goal with Óscar Trejo converting a 9th minute penalty for the hosts.
Once inside, it became clear that despite all the queuing people had done over two days, the stadium still wasn’t anywhere near the increased 60% limit recently introduced at LaLiga stadiums. The official attendance was ultimately listed at just 3,280, less than a quarter of the capacity and that presumably included those that were still trickling in towards the end of the First Half.
On the pitch, a typically scrappy derby match was developing. The early afternoon kick-off and warm September weather made it a better day for watching rather than playing football but the players were getting plenty of opportunities to catch their breath in a half full of stoppages. No fewer than seven players were booked before the interval with the frequent interruptions preventing the game from developing any real flow.
There was precious little more in the way of goalmouth action as Rayo went in at Half-Time leading by a goal against a Getafe side that had lost all of their opening four matches. That suited the hosts just fine as they targeted their second win since returning to the top flight via the play-offs in June.
In purely footballing terms, Rayo fans have plenty to be positive about. Pre-season suggestions that they’d be the worst team in the league by some distance were already looking wide of the mark. Rayo had not only cruised past Granada but taken a point from their subsequent fixture at Levante in a game they probably should have won having had 22 shots, more than any other side in LaLiga on matchday 4.
This should have been a celebratory occasion with what was still by far the largest crowd in Vallecas since before the pandemic and in the Second Half, it started to feel like one. Rayo increasingly seemed to be winning the 50/50 battles as they began to press for a second goal and the decibel levels upped a notch as Falcao came on from his much anticipated debut, replacing Randy Nteka in the 71st minute.
Rayo had looked a threat from set-pieces for much of the game and with 12 minutes to play they landed what felt like a killer blow on a decidedly uninspired Getafe team that seldom looked like creating a chance, let alone scoring a goal. Unai Lopez’s corner was headed back across goal by Alejandro Catena to find the unmarked Pathe Ciss who had simplest of headed finishes from close range.
Just three minutes later and only ten minutes after his arrival, Falcao then made it a dream debut with a thumping strike that flew past David Soria in the Getafe goal to the delight of the home fans. The Colombian striker wheeled away to celebrate, kissing the Rayo badge as he went and for a brief few seconds everyone inside the stadium was united in joy and celebration at what was undoubtedly one of the moments of the 2021/22 Spanish football season so far.
Presa and the Rayo hierarchy may point to the club’s ability to make a marquee signing such as Falcao and some shrewd footballing decisions over the past year or so – most notably the appointment of Andoni Iraola, one of Spain’s most promising young coaches, as evidence that they are doing a good job of running this club and that much of the criticism is unwarranted.
Rayo Vallecano supporters will beg to differ and many will be quick to explain that being a football fan, particularly a Rayo fan, is about much more than merely what happens on the pitch. They will almost certainly never be the best football team in Spain and even the excitement of a convincing top flight derby win wasn’t enough for the focus to solely be on matters on the pitch.
As we reached the latter stages of a game that would end 3-0 with Getafe missing a late penalty, we got another reminder of how this is far from your average football club. Despite the lack of numbers, sections of the Fondo Sur broke out into song to the tune of “Bella Ciao”, an anti-fascist resistance anthem most recently popularised by the Madrid-based TV series “La Casa de Papel”, a worldwide hit on Netflix.
Full-Time also brought an unfamiliar ritual, at least to anyone unfamiliar with Vallecas. Most of the Rayo players, who have had their own recent run-ins with Presa and the club, came back out from the tunnel and stood motionless and silent in front of the Fondo Sur.
The fans followed suit with the two parties staring back at each other as is the tradition post Full-Time in these parts. After what to an outsider feels like an almost uncomfortably long pause, fans and players alike eventually break out into applause and appreciation for one another.
This is a football club that makes special bonds and isn’t afraid to go against the grain. This should be an exciting time to be a Rayo supporter but the overriding emotion remains one of anger. There are no amount of victories which will fix the broken relationships that exist at this club and the protests, jeers and whistles will continue until the day that Raúl Martín Presa and the current Rayo board is replaced. It’s anyone’s guess how long they’ll have to wait.