Rayo Vallecano demonstrate why they're different from the rest
At the end of Rayo Vallecano's home game against Celta de Vigo last weekend, fans gave their players a huge ovation as they headed off the field and into the cramped dressing room under the stand at the one end of the Estadio Vallecas that actually is an end, not just a wall. "Poor but proud," a familiar banner declared. "The pride of a neighbourhood," ran another. Round the three sides of the ground, boxed in by blocks of flats, supporters stood and applauded.
As they left, a TV reporter was waiting for them. A microphone was thrust under the nose of fans. One by one, they expressed how they felt, and one by one, they said the said thing: "proud." Not because Rayo had won, although they had, and not because they had played particularly well, which they hadn't, but because their players and their manager, Paco Jemez, had done something special. "It's what we had to do," Jemez said.
A few days before, a few streets away, a crowd had gathered. On Calle Sierra de Palomeras in the working-class neighbourhood of Vallecas, dozens of policemen had turned up, pushing through the crowd of protesters to evict Carmen Martinez Ayudo from her home. The court order had come in, and Carmen was kicked out of her home, the locks changed. Carmen is 85, a widow, and had lived in the house she was evicted from for 50 years. "Start again?" she asked, summing it up. "At my age?"
Unbeknownst to her, Carmen's son had used her flat as a guarantee on a loan that had risen from the original 40,000 euros to 70,000. The lender -- an individual, not a bank or company -- had demanded the property after Carmen's son had been unable to pay back the loan. The pictures that depicted the eviction were powerful. Ranks of police, lines of protesters, and a small, old lady, now homeless. One portrait was particularly powerful, taken on her last night. Carmen sat, walking stick in hand, a sad look on her face. "The only thing you have, they take away from you," she said.
The story reached Rayo, whose ground stands not far from the flat. "Of all the things that can happen to a person, the hardest is to end up homeless," Jemez said. "When we saw the photographs, we all saw our own grandparents." So Jemez and his players decided they would find Carmen another flat and pay the rent for her. The club also have set up a fund to help other people in need. "We couldn't just stand there; we will help her so that she can live somewhere with dignity and not feel alone," Jemez said.
The following day was Rayo's match against Celta. Banners carried Carmen's name; she had become their cause. At the end, a tarpaulin was unfurled, the length of the stand. "The evictions of a sick state, the solidarity of a working-class neighbourhood," it said. After the game, Carmen's grandson was waiting outside the ground to personally thank the players as they departed. "There are still good people left," he said. "Something like this really touches you." The full-back Tito came out and shook hands. "That's what we're here for," he said.
Only it's not, not really. Not normally. What Rayo did was far from common. Even though many clubs have charitable foundations and promote various causes, this was different. But then, so are Rayo; for them to have done this felt right somehow. This kind of gesture was fitting.
One former manager, Jose Ramon Sandoval, described Rayo Vallecano as "the last of the neighbourhood teams," and they are the only club in Spain's top divisions named after a specific neighbourhood. Vallecas, to the east of Madrid, has always been a neighbourhood apart and once was considered separate from Madrid. Some like to refer to it still as the Independent Republic of Vallekas, the "k" symbolically replacing the "c."
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A neighbourhood where cheap flats are packed in close together and washing hangs across narrow streets, Vallecas has long been proud of an explicitly working-class identity, embracing immigration -- first from the rest of Spain, then from the rest of the world -- and the ground is part of that community both physically and emotionally, squeezed in among the blocks. The identity of the neighbourhood is the club's identity, too, at least at the supporters' level. There is a sense of community that largely has been lost elsewhere.
Few players are so aware of their supporters and what they symbolise as Rayo's are, and few fans have as clear a sense of being different, of resisting, as Rayo's do. None protest quite like Rayo's fans do; banners criticising the commercialisation of football are common, particularly when it comes to the exploitation, as they see it, of the supporters themselves. There is a sense of them trying to stand against the tide.
They have protested against kick-off times and Monday night football, and the protests are invariably imaginative and provocative, from paying for tickets with bags of one-cent coins to a catalogue of sometimes ingenious pastiches.
"If this is the football that [league president Javier] Tebas wants, let his f---ing mother cheer them on," one banner ran. During a late night game, a mocked-up bedroom scene was erected at the end, with another banner declaring it time to sleep, not watch football. Recently, they ran through a repertoire of scenes from "The Simpsons" attacking the league's decision to place games on Monday nights with slogans from the show. "Won't someone please think of the children," cried a cartoon Helen Lovejoy. Kang and Kodos asked: "And this is the best league on earth? Hahahaha!"
Protest can mean politics, of course. Rayo's identity is self-consciously working class and left-wing. Republican flags are common. Che Guevara images, too. The Marseillaise gets bellowed out, adapted, of course. And supporters jump up and down to chants of "Whoever doesn't bounce is a fascist."
The behaviour of some of their radical fans has not always been perfect, of course. Nor have they always been right when it comes to the target and the tone of their protests, tending as they do to a blanket rejection of all authority and anything that smells of "modern football." At times that open political position is problematic, and it has been criticised, too. "Politics should not be brought into sport" is a familiar lament.
That lament has become a truism, but is it true? Politics is an inescapable reality. Sport is political, like it or not. And that political agenda reflects the fact that Rayo's supporters see in football something deeper than just what happens on the pitch; that they take a stand and want to do what they believe to be right, even if they can be mistaken. They recognise football's power and they want it to mean something. And it does mean something. Share their stance or reject it, or even if it just leaves you feeling ambivalent, it does give greater depth to their identity.
There is a social dimension that makes Rayo different. The line between a social awareness, or responsibility, and politics can be a fine one. Identities are more powerful when there is more to them than just the game itself; that fosters greater allegiance from some even as it can foster greater rejection from others. The immense majority of Rayo's supporters are proud of what they claim to represent and
That was expressed when they came to the aid of Carmen, and if their supporters are proud of them, this weekend so were supporters in the rest of Spain. The former manager Jose Ramon Sandoval once said that Rayo have "soul." The current manager Paco Jemez and his players showed why.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.