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Rayo Vallecano's new kit earns praise but also triggers debate in Spain

The majority of Rayo Vallecano's fans have praised the club's new kits.

Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue. I can sing a Rayo, sing a Rayo, sing a Rayo too!

The club from the Vallecas, the working class neighbourhood out to the east of Madrid, unveiled their kits for the new season this week and on their second shirt the rayo, or lightning bolt, had been replaced by a rainbow stretching from shoulder to waist, each colour representing the club's support for what they described as society's "anonymous heroes."

The red represents those fighting against cancer, while the orange is for those fighting for the integration of people with disabilities and the yellow is for those who "never lose hope." Green is for those protecting the environment, blue is against child abuse, indigo is for those fighting against domestic abuse, and violet is to support the fight against discrimination for sexual orientation. Together the rainbow symbolises the same fight against homophobia -- this week Madrid's Gay Pride festival took place.

The club's third shirt, meanwhile, features a pink stripe that symbolises the fight against cancer. For every one that is sold, five euros will be donated to the cause. For every rainbow shirt sold, seven euros will be donated. The shirt had a huge, immediate impact and was universally applauded. It's actually quite nice, too, and certainly unique, a shirt to be proud of. "I'm a Rayo fan, I'm solidario," the slogan runs.

It is an idea that was not just plucked from nowhere. Last season, Rayo players wore rainbow laces. Vallecas, where the washing hangs from blocks of flats across narrow streets, has long been proud of its working class, campaigning and left-wing identity. Not so much plain old Vallecas as the "people's republic of Vallekas" and not so much a club as a cause. One former manager described Rayo as the "last of the neighbourhood teams" playing in a cramped ground with only three sides wedged in among the blocks of flats.

Out on the pitch, the team are the poorest in primera but they have consistently upset the odds in recent years. In the stands, some fans carry Republican flags, while there are also images of Che Guevara and banners asking for cannabis to be legalised. Not just banners, either; the smell is distinctive in the ground. Those are the ones that have got past the authorities and no one does protests quite like these fans, either -- right down to the orange boiler suits to complain at what they saw as the unjust criminalisation of football fans. And no one has taken on the league's president Javier Tebas like them, with protests that are imaginative and very pointed.

Last season, Rayo came to the rescue of Carmen Martínez Ayudo, an 85-year-old widow who had been evicted from her small flat on Calle Sierra de Palomeras, where she had lived for 50 years. The players and the coach, Paco Jemez, found her a new home, paid her rent and paid her regular visits. "We couldn't just stand there," Jemez said. Not in Vallecas, they could not; the truth is that players live in different parts of town and in different worlds but there is something about Rayo that remains linked to its surroundings.

It is not unusual to see politically-themed and cause-supporting banners in the stands at the Estadio de Vallecas.

It's not just Carmen now; it's many others too. An entire spectrum of society, "the anonymous heroes."

Widely applauded, including by this correspondent, one group were less impressed with the new shirts: the Bukaneros, Rayo's most active fan group, who are consciously left-wing, anti-establishment committed campaigners, and in conflict with the club's board and its president.

Rainbow flags are common in the stands in Vallecas and on the face of it this is the kind of measure that the Bukaneros should embrace, something that fits with a clear social and political identity that they share, something that should bring supporters and club together. But a Bukaneros statement accused Rayo -- the club -- of being cynical and of "supporting" a series of causes that they don't truly believe in and of doing so belatedly. Some of them see this as mere marketing. It lacks the substance to make it real.

That reaction raises two questions that don't have simple answers and still less "right" ones, but often appear to be dealt with simply and with the certainty of being "right." First: What is a club? Who is the club? Who really represents it? The fans? The players? The manager? The president?

On one level, it is tempting to see Rayo fans' complaints as a reflection of them feeling like their causes have been co-opted, no longer in their hands, their agency and identity usurped. For some Rayo fans, this proposal might have been more welcome from a board of directors with more credibility.

The second, and particularly pertinent question at the moment, is this: Where does campaigning cross the line? When does it become political and when does it become a problem? Which causes can you support and which can you not?

When Rayo's more radical fans backed the players and their manager in helping out Carmen, an act that everybody else applauded too, many of them saw it as more than just an act of solidarity; it was a statement. Not only charity, a cause -- one that was necessarily political. At the following game, banners were hung. "Carmen Stays," read one. "The pride of a neighbourhood," said another. At the end, another declared: "The evictions of a sick state / the solidarity of a working-class neighbourhood."

Rayo's new shirt goes hand-in-hand with a particular socio-political perspective: Rayo's identity, even if that identity is contested. Yet while this has been embraced wholeheartedly, when it is overtly political, it is not. This shirt is applauded, Rayo's fans are not always. The same goes for other supporters or clubs when they step beyond the boundaries purely of sport. What, though, is "political" and where are those boundaries? Who sets the limits? It is messy indeed. Mores shift, attitudes too, and so do definitions. As does acceptability.

In Spain, this is a particularly live and thorny issue, a recurring one too. This week, UEFA said that they would investigate Barcelona, with sanctions likely, because so many supporters carried Catalan flags with the star on at the Champions League final -- flags that express support for independence. UEFA's position is that any political expression is to be prevented. A Gazprom natural gas advert is fine, though. As if that was nothing whatsoever to do with politics. If money is your identity, that's okay; if identity is your identity, it's not. 

The head of Spain's supreme sports council, effectively the secretary of state for sport, described the investigation as "logical, fair and pertinent ... a warning to stop using sport for political ends." At every Barcelona game now, there are chants of Independence on 17:14 of each half. To suggest that Catalanism is not, or should not, be part of Barcelona's make up is to ignore the club's history, whether you agree with it or not. Or, rather than "ignore" should that read "suppress"?

The discourse talks of a kind of blanket ban on all things political but on one level all things are political. And who decides what's political and what's not? UEFA? The league? The federation? The politicians? What's acceptable? Is it only political if it expresses opposition or a challenge? Politics and solidarity or morality are not the same thing, of course, but is it so easy to divorce making a stand socially from any political meaning?

How do you truly avoid politics in sport when politics are everywhere? In Spain, especially. The symbolism is strong and the myths matter even when they are myths. Spanish fans will often define rivalries by left or right, rich or poor, or by "nation"; they'll tell you that their team -- and others -- don't just play, they mean something.

How do you avoid politics in Spain, where the Cup is called the King's Cup and where the national anthem is whistled by Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona fans before the final? When the president of the league says he would postpone the final if there are whistles -- the same president, once active in Fuerza Nueva, who took on UEFA president Michel Platini over Gibraltar -- and Catalonia becomes a central part of presidential elections at Barcelona.

How do you avoid politics when teams are identified with their communities? When there are clubs who owe money to the Inland Revenue and other clubs that are effectively owned by local government? When politicians fill directors boxes in municipal stadiums? Where celebrations involve local and national government and when protests do too. And when a collective TV deal is not just business but effectively a new constitution for Spanish football drawn up by the government and enshrined in law?

"Sport and politics should not mix," said Spain's secretary of state for sport.

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.


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