Seb Cuevas of Punk DIY Travel Blog Between Distances walks this Earth writing intimately about the places and people he encounters. In this guest post, the Tommy Iommi of Travel and the Michael Palin of Metal shares his experiences of the contemporary soul of Madrid’s Football scene, Rayo Vallecano, and its promotion back to La Liga.
I could hear the crowd from the kitchen in my apartment in Madrid’s neighborhood of Vallecas while hurriedly finishing my beer. The loud crescendo grew rapidly, and my anticipation increased accordingly. I downed the last bit of my beer, took one final drag of my cigarette and stormed out the door to join the mass in their jubilant procession up the Avenida de la Albufera.
The mood was intoxicatingly festive: Throngs of singing people draped in flags and scarves were heading to the stadium. The game hadn’t started yet but one could have thought that these fans had just seen their team win the Champions League—just like Real Madrid a few days before. I stood on the sidewalk and watched the red and white stream pass by. The most noticeable element here was a red lightning—the emblem of Rayo Vallecano.
When asked to mention one club from Madrid, the likeliest answer would be Real Madrid; Atlético Madrid would probably follow. Only the fewer would say Rayo Vallecano, but this club, founded in 1924, is the anchor of the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas in the Spanish capital. That day they were playing to secure promotion back to La Liga after two seasons in the Segunda División.
I cannot think of a better word to describe Rayo Vallecano than the German Kultclub- a term applied to FC St. Pauli. Both clubs have a lot in common, as they have both embraced the left-wing, progressive attitudes of their fans. But while St. Pauli has become more of a brand, Rayo Vallecano has remained underground, with no fan clubs in New York City or deals with Levi’s. Rayo Vallecano attracts Punks and (left-wing) Skinheads, and the club ended up embracing the politics of their fans and internalizing it to the point of incorporating them into the club’s identity. Rayo Vallecano’s Utras, Bukaneros, try to combat racism and homophobia, and the club has followed suit, even adding a rainbow to their official kit.
I had been aware of Rayo for a while due to my sympathy for alternative clubs, and experiencing Rayo Vallecano in their home ground was one of the things I felt like I needed to do during my time in Madrid—with or without a ticket.
There was chaos outside the stadium and in the pubs across the street from it. The Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas is a small stadium with a capacity of barely 15,000 spectators. The rival that day was CD Lugo, from Spain’s northwestern-most region Galicia. Games famously don’t sell out there, but that day there was not a single seat left in the house. Like many hoping to find a scalper outside, I didn’t have a ticket, but being the lucky dog that I am I just so happened to come across probably the last ticket on sale—and immediately snagged it.
Ticket in hand, I rapidly ran up the stairs all the way to the top of the tribune to find my seat—almost as though it were a matter of life or death. The atmosphere inside was electric. I sat down, rolled myself a smoke and stopped for a moment to thank my luck. However, I was quickly overcome with the contagious energy of the people around me and found myself absorbed into the game.
Dark clouds heralding a storm had rolled over Madrid’s skies and by now hovered over the stadium, creating an ominous but majestic background—which, combined with the thunderous signing and clapping of the fans, made the game take up almost epic proportions.
“RAYITOOOOO!” An ear-splitting shriek pierced through my skull. All the people sitting in front of me turned their heads in my direction, but looked past me at the guy sitting right behind me. I also turned, as I had heard him speak English, and asked him where he was from. “England, mate! And you’re American, right?” I usually get the same reaction whenever I meet people from the Isles. “You did good in coming here today, mate. Fuck Real Madrid. Fuck Atlético. Rayo is the true heart of this city. Rayo is my home.”
It was pretty much certain that Rayo would get promoted, as a tie would have been sufficient. The game was entertaining, but all hell broke lose when Alex Moreno hammered the ball mercilessly into the net on the 40th minute. There were a few scenes until roughly the 80th minute, but at that point it became clear to everyone that that would be the final score, that Rayo would ascend back to Primera División, that Vallecas was going to party that night. Right after the match ended, people jumped onto the pitch en masse; I obviously joined them. They took selfies and cut fragments of the net to take home as souvenirs.
Though I wouldn’t say I had witnessed history, it was something remarkable. History was made by Huesca, who got promoted for the first time in their history, while Rayo had merely made it back. “They’ll stick around for a few years and then go back down,” where the ominous words of the Englishman I had talked to at the stadium. But in the face of Rayo’s history, his prediction becomes a little less pessimistic and rather realistic: Rayo has spent most of its history going up and down the leagues—even spending a stint in the country’s third division in the mid-2000’s.
Nevertheless, Rayo Vallecano is still, like Barcelona, mès que un club. It is the Spanish equivalent to what St. Pauli was before becoming a brand. It is a club for the defenders of the faith in romantic football, and a standard-bearer in its uphill battle against commercialization. But while the club itself doesn’t have much to show for in terms of silverware, its importance for the people of Vallecas is beyond question. Furthermore, Rayo Vallecano is important due to the visibility it creates for just causes.
Football needs more clubs like Rayo Vallecano. Having experienced it, I can positively say that the club now has one more fan.
For alternative global travel tips, outstanding photography and more Football away day stories, be sure to take a look at Between Distances, also active on Instagram. Thank you for the guest post Seb!