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Rayo juega con cojones

Submitted by on March 13, 2012 – 8:59 amNo Comment

By our man in Vallekas, Dave Bergin:

Rumblings of discontent reverberated around Spain this summer, with revolution in the air as many took to the streets in protest.

You may have heard about the mass descent on Madrid, but you probably haven’t. I’m not talking about the one million people who set up camp in the main squares and streets surrounding Puerto del Sol in the centre, I’m talking about the hardy group of 50 who plotted up outside the Estadio de Vallekas.

Fans, players and employees of Rayo Vallecano have had it tough over the last year or eight, but especially in the last 18 months. Players, backroom staff and club employees weren’t paid until a few months ago and despite a return to La Liga for the first time in eight years this season, supporters didn’t know if they would have a club to follow during a tumultuous summer.

It should have been one of celebration following almost a decade floating around the second division and the semi-professional Segunda B. Yet the club has been on the verge of going bust since the end of the 2009-10 campaign.

Previous owners, the infamous Ruiz-Mateos family, had racked up around 700 million euros worth of debt throughout their multitude of businesses and with many of their companies liquidated or seized by the government, Rayo was up for sale.

But with a debt of around £30million on a second division side, there wouldn’t be too many businessmen looking to take over a failing company. A few came forward and the club ended up in the hands of Martin Presa, a 33-year-old ‘businessman’ with an estimated wealth of just £30million. Good for me, you, or FC United, but a pittance for anyone wanting to own their own top-flight European football club.

Luckily, Rayo are blessed with their own Karl Marginson and if it wasn’t for Jose Ramon Sandoval, the club would probably be bust by now.

Sandoval inspired the miracle of all miracles when he took charge of a side who only survived relegation to the third tier on the final day of 2009-10, leading them to an unexpected promotion during his first season in May.

Sandoval’s a local lad and understands Vallekas – the left-wing suburb south of Madrid which is home to Rayo. His family runs one of the most revered restaurants in Madrid and Sandoval led the club’s B team from the amateur Tercera Division with a last-second play-off success in 2009-10.

Due to supporter demand, he was installed as first-team boss at the start of last season and instantly discarded a number of the club’s older players in favour of home-produced and young talent.

They made a great start to the season and were among the pacesetters by the Christmas break. For the first time in years there was a real optimism around the club, yet the rug was about to be pulled.

Players were living off false promises of future payments before the true murky depth of the owner’s problems came to the fore and government action was taken. Hundreds of workers were made unemployed and players, fans and staff joined a national workers’ strike as they converged on the entrance of the club’s training ground in March, with Rayo in administration.

And since March, it has been one protest after another, culminating in around 50 fans plotting up outside the club’s offices for three days and three nights. They weren’t happy with the extortionate price increases imposed for this season and were threatening a boycott of season tickets if prices weren’t reduced. These were subsequently cut to a more affordable £150 for those who have had a season ticket behind the goal for more than a year. Job done.

My own personal attachment started back in 2001 when I travelled via Madrid to watch Manchester United take on Valencia in the Champions League. Out of curiosity, three of our group decided to take in the UEFA Cup match between Rayo and Bordeaux – the club’s first and last campaign on the European stage. I’d never even heard of Rayo Vallecano but that night was to leave a lasting impression.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lJs7QoowvU
Dave on the pitch meeting the team prior to their home game against some team called Real Madrid.

Instantly drawn to the three-sided stadium, the Peru-style kit with a garish bee sponsor, crazy punk-clad fans bearing a bohemian collection of flags and a huge ‘Working Class’ banner draped over the fences, I pledged to one day return to a place the tourist guides always ignore.

Rayo won that game 4-1 on what was the most famous night in their 87-year history and went on to the quarter-finals before succumbing to Jordi Cruyff’s Alaves. Yet two seasons later, relegation to the Segunda Division followed and, disastrously, their first season in the second tier brought another descent into the semi-professional Segunda B.

I witnessed four painful years in the graveyard of Spanish football. I experienced the relegation – a strange experience for a United fan in his 20s – then saw them lose a play-off semi-final days after Malcolm Glazer stole my first love. This club was starting to get to me and with the next two years seeing Rayo miss out on the play-offs and suffer an agonising final defeat, I was attached.

Thankfully, promotion finally came in 2008 but in 2010, a last-day success was needed to secure their status in the professional leagues.

And then came last season where, despite not receiving any payment, the players motivated themselves to a number of United-esque fightbacks, stunning away wins and some beautiful football. Camaraderie between the players and supporters remains as strong as ever, with 11 first-teamers and Sandoval himself joining another protest at the stadium calling for a new owner. For the promotion-clinching match back in May, one player – clad in his vest and thunderpants – joined the ultras behind the goal, grabbed a megaphone and led numerous chants for the emphatic hordes.

Not to be outdone, Sandoval gave a rallying speech to the capacity 12,000 crowd before breaking into a rendition of the club’s unofficial anthem, ‘La Vida Pirata’ – The Pirate Life. There was no trophy but we didn’t need one as the boss had the entire stadium rocking. “The pirate life is the only life. Without education. Without work. With a bottle of rum”. That night, we spotted Sandoval leaving the ground as a passenger in his friend’s beaten-up old Corsa, hanging out of the window singing to the skies and with his arms aloft, one hand wrapped in a bandage from what I presume was a restaurant accident.

So, with a £30million debt still hanging over the club and a transfer embargo only lifted weeks before the season, my urge for a move to Vallekas was increasing.

I nearly lost another club over the summer. I’d thought I’d never experience another day like that dark afternoon in 2005 when the Gimps took over. But waiting for your team to potentially go bust was up there
and I don’t want to go through that again. It was like watching a loved one on their deathbed.

I had to be in VK. I had to cheer the same players who we followed around the regional leagues, often just me and Nas making up the away contingent in a crowd of barely 200. Now we have visited Bilbao, the Bernabeu (going 1-0 up after 15 seconds, holding the lead until the 39th minute before Ronaldo turned on his magic on and we fell 6-2) and have trips to Barcelona and Atletico looming.

It’s been one hell of a journey over the past decade, where almost 50 games must have been clocked up, and I’d been intending to quit work since March to join the Rayo revolution. I finally quit a month before the season and moved to Vallekas the day before the first game kicked off against Athletic at the end of August, following a player strike which delayed the kick-off by a week. I’ve relied on the love and hospitality of the many great friends I’ve met over the years, kipping in my friend’s spare room just two streets away from the ground, and they haven’t let me down.

I’ve been flogging a few t-shirts, living off limited savings which have now run dry and desperately need to find work teaching English. But for now I’ll be living La Vida Pirata, and if the temporary campsite returns to the club offices at any point in the near future then I’ll be more than happy to spend starry Spanish nights under canvas and help kick the money-grabbing capitalist Presa out of football and my club.

It is going to be some year and we couldn’t have asked for a better start. The players have again maintained a strong nucleus, unbelievable team spirit and even the new lads appear to get what the club is about, embracing the fans at almost every goalscoring opportunity. Supporters are jokingly dreaming of a return to Europe. It’s nice to dream but on the evidence so far, hopefully the stay in Spain’s top division won’t just be for the solitary season many predicted.

If anyone wants to take a game in and experience the love, warmth and humility of those crazy punks from Vallekas, then send me an email at davidbergin99@hotmail.com. And now I’m here in Spain, with my limited use of the language and after another summer in turmoil, it’s been great getting back to the bread and butter, or ham bocadillo, of a football match. The players keep responding, and still we sing…

Nunca fuimos los mejores
Allez Allez
No seremos campeones
Solo te pido una cosa
Allez Allez
Rayo juega con cojones

(We will never be the best, we will never be champions, but all we ask of you is, Rayo, play with balls)

- This article featured in issue seven of A Fine Lung. Click ‘Buy issues of A Fine Lung’ in the menu bar at the top of the page to purchase a copy. Issue eight will be out in early April, barring disasters.

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