Rayo Vallecano are Madrid’s third team behind Real and Atletico, but it is a football club with an incredible story and extraordinary supporters.
Founded in 1924, Rayo Vallecano finished ninth in La Liga at the start of the millennium and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup the following season, but their story is certainly not one of great success. Indeed, by 2004 they had been relegated not once but twice.
They are currently fifth in the Segunda División, if you were wondering, and third favourites to be promoted back to La Liga this season. Online bookmakers like the operator of the Stan James betting app have already taken these predictions into consideration, of course, but we’ll no doubt be backing our new favourite second team on plenty of occasions this season.
Their back-to-back relegations was an outcome wholly in keeping with the historical ups and downs of the club, but Rayo’s trials and tribulations on the pitch are only a small part of the club’s make-up.
Madrid is a city overwhelmed by the existence of Real and Atlético, but out in Vallecas, just a short metro ride from the city centre, Rayo are the only team for the local people.
While they accept their role as Madrid’s third team, they wear their fandom like a badge of honour, and the bulk of the club’s fans pride themselves on being anti-fascist. Working Class Heroes is the story of a writer who followed Los Franjirrojos around for a year, learning from the fans about the football club and its chequered past.
Full of interesting characters, the book contains several legendary stories, including details of protests against the club ownership, and when Rayo made international news for rejecting the signing of Ukrainian footballer and reported neo-Nazi Roman Zozulya.
It explains how the Bukaneros, Rayo’s Ultras, feel about how they are viewed and their fight against modern football, and delves into Vallecas, a barrio in Madrid that has become known for radical left-wing thought both historically and in the present.
Author Robbie Dunne has kindly provided us with the stories behind some of our favourite images from the book.
“I’m going to hit you, fucker,” said Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos. He stood outside the courthouse dressed up as Superman. “I had to call my friend, Clark Kent, to sort out the injustice,” he continued in protest of how his company, Rumasa, was being taken off his hands and how he was being chased for several illegalities.
The former owner of Rayo Vallecano played a huge role in the history of the club at a time when ultras culture was kicking into gear in Spain and the fans were starting to take an active role in their club.
It was seen as a vanity project for the man from Cadiz, who was advised to buy a club so he could become more famous. He eventually got bored and handed the reins to his wife, but not before he could make a few headlines and enemies in the terraces.
Rayo Vallecano and the fans would be nothing without their principles. There was a time when the back wall at Vallecas had a couple of rows before Juande Ramos, the manager at the time, arrived and said to get rid of the shoddy looking bleachers and make the pitch a few metres longer.
The people of Vallecas are ‘poor but proud’, and in every game the fans asked not that they win but that the players wear the jersey with pride. “Bravery, courage and nobility,” is what it says.
A prominent Spanish journalist told me that Rayo are the only club where the fans don’t mind what division they play in – but pride matters, and having the cojones to wear the franja – strip – with bravery, courage and nobility is the most important thing.
You don’t just sign a playing contract when you sign with Rayo, there’s a social contract too and these values are at the core of what you’re signing up for.
“Vallecas is no place for nazis,” was the sign the Bukaneros brought to the training ground on the day after Rayo had signed Roman Zozulya.
On a Wednesday in the suburbs of Madrid, the Bukaneros descended on the ciudad deportivo and made it clear where they stood on the idea of having Roman Zozulya, a Ukrainian nationalist, donning the Rayo jersey.
It would almost become a geopolitical issue with ESPN airing a segment on “fake news” and how Rayo’s fans were duped into believing the stories about Zozulya’s ideology.
The Bukaneros had done their research though and handed out “Zozulya – NOT WELCOME” sheets before Rayo played Almeria. They handed out a well-researched and well presented booklet with all the evidence pointing towards Zozulya, maybe not being a fascist, but sitting too close to that line of political belief for fans of Rayo.
If the Bukaneros didn’t have their principles, they’d have nothing and if they didn’t defend those principles, they might as well cease to exist.
It was an act of pure defiance. The big boys were coming to town and everyone was expected to gather and fawn over them. Obviously, someone had other plans. “Footballing terrorism,” was how it was explained as Raul Martin Presa said that “cables don’t just cut themselves.”
It was an inside job too because whoever did it knew exactly where to cut the cables to ensure the lights could not be fixed with some insulating tape.
It was another way for Rayo Vallecano’s fans to let the world know that they do things on their terms, and during a period when most fans were not happy with the ownership and the direction they were leading the club, it was two fingers waving proudly in the air at the status quo.
Another form of protest, another disturbance to their plans and another instance of Rayo fans trying to wrestle back control of their environment.
Historically, fans of El Rayo have never had much to sing about, but that has never stopped them.
The source of Rayo Vallecano’s carnival atmosphere can be traced to the Fondo. The Bukaneros come in their droves every week to watch their team play and there has been many an infamous protest in the Fondo too.
The stand behind the goals has been renamed the Willy Agbonavbare stand after their Nigerian goalkeeper, who passed away in 2015.
He became a symbol of Rayismo, and outside the ground is a homage to the big, gregarious man. What better place to come and celebrate anti-racist, tolerant beliefs than the Willy Agbonavbare stand.
Robbie Dunne is a freelance journalist currently living and working in Madrid. He wrote Working Class Heroes while learning the language and embedding himself into the culture of the Spanish capital. Robbie works in the English department at Diario AS, where several top journalists have helped him with the book – along with the club itself. It is available on Amazon, priced at £9.99.
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