LLE on the road in Santander – A resurgent Racing

A resurgent Racing?

44. That’s how many seasons Real Racing Club de Santander have spent in Spain’s top flight. It’s more than 11 of the 20 current inhabitants of the Primera Division, yet younger fans of LaLiga would be forgiven for knowing little of this historic team based on the country’s blustery northern shores.

sunny santander

Between 1993 and 2012, Racing Club were ever present in the top flight with the exception of a one-season dip into the second tier in the early 2000’s.

While they were rarely more than a mid-table outfit and survived plenty of close brushes with relegation, that was a period of genuine stability for the Cantabrian club. They even qualified for Europe for the first time in 2008, beating Manchester City 3-1 at El Sardinero and drawing away to PSG in a Europa League group that, with the passing of time, is hard to believe ever really existed.

City had only months earlier been bought by Sheikh Mansour while the Parisians would also come into state money a few years later with both rising to become two of the dominant European powers in the 2010’s.

For Racing though, the decade would be the most miserable in their entire history. They were relegated from the top flight with just four victories in 2012 and worse was to follow as the club plunged into chaos in their centenary year, suffering the indignity of back-to-back relegations.

It was a sadly familiar tale of financial mismanagement and at times corruption, as a famous old Spanish club sunk into a deep financial abyss. 

Things got so bad at one point, that Racing’s players refused to play the Second Leg of a Copa del Rey quarter final against Real Sociedad in January 2014, citing unpaid wages and demanding the resignation of the club’s board and president.

After months without pay, the Racing squad, then plying their trade in the Segunda B, used the spotlight of an unexpected cup run to make a very public stand. While their actions resulted in the forfeit of the tie and a ban from the following season’s competition, it helped shine a light on the deep issues at the club and arguably acted as a rock bottom for Racing Club during the dark years and the start of the long road back.

That’s not to say that things immediately got better. Racing would spend most of the following decade in the regionalised third tier, attempting to gradually pay off debts and get themselves on an even footing again and it’s only really been over the past year or two that a genuine sense of optimism has returned.

Santander promenade

Cantabria is a curious place. It’s the smallest, least populated and least known of the four regions that hug Spain’s incredibly picturesque northern coastline.

Sandwiched between Asturias and the Basque Country, Cantabria boasts rolling green landscapes and stunning bays, but it’s culturally a very different place, particularly when compared to its eastern neighbour.

While the Basque Country thrives on its unique identity and a sense that it is different to Spain (and in the eyes of many, not part of Spain at all), Cantabria moves to a very different beat and could even be seen as part of the traditional heartland of Spanish conservatism.

At the time of our visit, just 100 kilometres up the road in Bilbao, they are busy celebrating ending a 40 year wait to win one of Spain’s two major trophies having triumphed on penalties in the weekend’s Copa del Rey Final against Mallorca.

In Santander though, it’s the possibility of ending 12 years without top flight football, the longest stay outside the Primera in the club’s history, that is the talk of the town ahead of Racing’s Monday night home game against struggling Alcorcon.

el sardinero beach

There are various ways you can approach their 22,000 capacity home whilst taking in the sights and sounds of Santander.

Leaving its busy ferry port and main transport hubs behind, you can opt to follow the coast and pass by the distinctive Centro Botin, an art and cultural venue, before making your way to the oceanfront Palacio de la Magdalena, a former summer residence for the Spanish royal family looking to escape the searing heat of Madrid.

Following the bay around, you eventually reach El Sardinero, the city’s best known beach which shares its name with the football stadium only a few blocks away. In the light drizzle and mild temperatures of early April, the beach is almost deserted, bar a few surfers who are patiently trying to catch a wave in the Cantabrian Sea and the odd game of frisbee on the vast golden sands.

Alternatively, you can take the more direct route through the city, admiring the elegant streets and buildings of an old town that was partially destroyed during the great fire of 1941. The centre soon makes way for leafier suburbs that perch above the historic centre and look down on the football stadium and beach on the eastern edge of Santander.

Santander city street

In truth, the exterior of the Campos de Sport de El Sardinero initially feels like little more than an eyesore in contrast to the elegant old hotels and grand casino that look out onto the sea.

It’s a grey bowl with little to distinguish one stand from the next. Even the large letters on the main stand that should spell out “Real Racing Club de Santander SAD” are badly faded and barely legible.

A late 1980’s construction, it’s resemblant of many other stadiums of its size and era in Spain whose incumbents have stumbled upon tough financial times outside of the relative riches of the Primera Division. It’s a stark reminder that this is a club that is still on the road back from the brink and one that still has a way to go before it can contemplate returning to its former standing in the Spanish game.

El Sardinero

Inside though, El Sardinero is far more charming and soulful than you’d imagine. As the teams come out for a big game against Alcorcon that serves up the opportunity for Racing to climb to the lofty heights of third in the Segunda Division, green and white scarves are aloft and more than 15,000 home fans are in good voice, with reason at last to confidently believe the dark days are behind them.

The northern section, home to the most vocal displays of Racinguismo, a loose term that is used to describe the club’s identity and fanbase, is packed to the rafters and expectant of another home victory.

Having initially struggled to adapt to life back in the second tier, Racing appointed Asturian coach Jose Alberto in December 2022. They were languishing in the relegation zone at the time, but the former Sporting, Mirandes and Malaga boss helped steady the ship and guided the the Cantabrians to a comfortable 12th place finish in their first season back in the second tier.

A takeover by local entity Sebman Sports International last summer added to the growing feel good factor in Santander heading into the 2023/24 season and that has very much spilled over onto the pitch and the terraces of El Sardinero.

In a notoriously cautious league, Jose Alberto has got his team playing quite an enterprising brand of football with their average of 1.64 goals per game the best in the league heading into Monday’s game against the lowest scoring team in the division.

LLE on the Road in Santander

As if on cue, the first whistle was almost immediately followed by a fresh downpour from the dark skies that towered over the apartment buildings in the distance.

They’re no strangers to a bit of rain in this part of Spain though and it did little to dampen the spirits of the home fans whose patience was quickly tested by some fairly blatant delaying tactics from their struggling opponents.

Led by 45 year old coach Mehdi Nafti, who spent five years as a Racing player in the early 2000’s, Alcorcon enjoyed a surprisingly large share of the play in the opening stages of the game, winning a number of set pieces in opposition territory that they were in no rush to take.

Racing 0-0 Alcorcon

They even came the closest to scoring in an uneventful opening half hour, with centre back Oscar Rivas forcing a really good low diving save from Racing keeper Jokin Ezkieta.

That proved the wake-up call that Racing needed as the hosts finally came out of their shell and began to boss proceedings.

Just moments later, forward Juan Carlos Arana found a turn of pace to beat his man and stare down on the Alcorcon goal but he was well denied by the outstretched boot of visiting keeper Jesus Ruiz.

Tricky winger Iñigo Vicente, one of the stars of the Segunda Division season with a league high 11 assists, was also trying to weave his magic but Alcorcon were doing a decent job of defending in numbers to restrict their opponents to few clear sights at goal as the first period wound down to a goalless conclusion.

Racing vs Alcorcon

Despite their position in the drop-zone, Alcorcon were testament to what a tricky and unpredictable league the Spanish second tier can be at times. Within their previous four games alone, they’d held second placed Espanyol and defeated fifth placed Real Oviedo and were clearly in the mood to inflict further damage on one of the promotion contenders.

The teams returned to even more torrential rain and it wouldn’t be until past the hour mark that the game finally exploded into life with two corners, one at each end of the pitch.

Spanish Segunda Division - Racing Santander

The first was for Racing and was cleverly worked to the edge of the box where full back Dani Fernandez unleashed a fierce drive towards goal that was acrobatically kept out by Ruiz. 

The Alcorcon keeper immediately went down with cramp to draw further ire from the home fans as the physios strolled on. The break at least enabled somebody to come on to remove a large plastic bag that had been swirling around the pitch for a number of minutes on a blustery Cantabrian night.

The second corner was curled in from the Alcorcon right into a crowded six yard box. It was expertly flicked on by midfielder Victor Garcia at the near post and looped into the far corner of the goal to the delight of what was quite literally a handful of Alcorcon fans who had made the long trip north, but the despair of everyone else.

The singing continued almost uninterrupted behind the goal that had just been breached and the prospect of a quick response from the home team was given a rapid boost only a few minutes later as the Alcorcon goalscorer received his marching orders for a late tackle on Racing’s young left back Mario Garcia.

That was the catalyst for a late siege on the visiting goal as Alcorcon dropped deeper and deeper. Substitute Marco Sangalli rattled the post on 77 minutes for the hosts and moments later they were awarded a penalty as Javi Perez was adjudged to have tripped Jeremy Arevalo, another of the recent introductions, just inside the area.

santander penalty

Up stepped Racing’s top scorer Peque Fernandez with the chance to level the scores. The 21 year old’s run-up was slow but he failed to deceive Ruiz and a poor penalty was comfortably saved by the Alcorcon number one who was subsequently mobbed by a number of his teammates.

That was far from the end of the matter though and the visiting keeper was beaten with Racing’s very next attack, but was this time spared by a goal line clearance from experienced defender Chema in a wild sequence of play that saw Racing ultimately fire wide from close range at the end of a mad goalmouth scramble.

Chema was himself sent off almost immediately after that for a relatively innocuous challenge, a decision that incensed the visiting bench with Alcorcon boss Mehdi Nafti also the recipient of a red card in the protests that followed.

resurgent racing santander against Alcorcon

It already felt like a miracle that Alcorcon had not conceded and they still had six more minutes of regulation time and what would be nine minutes of added time to hold out with just nine men.

Racing briefly thought they had their leveller in the final minute of the 90 as Peque latched on to a ball over the top and appeared to make amends for his penalty miss, only for the goal to be rightly ruled offside.

Into Stoppage Time we went and try as they might, Racing could not find another way through the nine men of Alcorcon who celebrated wildly at the Full Time with three hard fought points that saw them climb out of the relegation zone.

racing santander fans at full time

For Racinguistas, there was little left to do but draw a line under a bad night at El Sardinero and the end of a four game home winning sequence.

They piled out in their droves to board buses or brave the rain and at least head for the shelter of the 700 metre long Tetuan Tunnel that connects El Sardinero with the artsy Puertochico neighbourhood close to the centre of the city.

santander tunnel

A setback, but by no means game over for Racing Club’s promotion ambitions. They remain in a play-off place with just eight games to go and at the very least are on course for their best finish since relegation from the top flight in 2012.

Whatever comes to pass at the end of what’s sure to be another tight and tense finale to another Spanish Segunda Division season, Racing fans can at least enjoy their summer in the knowledge that they have their club back after more than a decade of uncertainty off the pitch and under-performance on it.

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About Mark Sochon 2070 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has been writing about Spanish football since 2014 and regularly attends and covers matches across Spain. His work has also been published by various newspapers and websites including These Football Times, World Soccer and Guardian Sport. Available for freelance work: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk

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