Protests, Presidents and Promotion: The Rayo Vallecano story

They're fighting for promotion on the pitch, but off it, they're barely staying afloat. Welcome to IBWM, Richard Martin.

Discounting Liverpool fans marching from a pub to the ground or Manchester United supporters wearing gold and green scarves to show their opposition to their owners, protest at football is not something we are used to in England. In Spain, public displays of disaffection by fans are a bit more common.

In 2009, tens of thousands of Real Betis fans marched through the streets of Seville to demand the resignation of then president José León Gomez. Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad fans (and sometimes players) have long been known for publicly supporting the cause of Basque independence, while the same goes for Catalan self-determination at Barcelona.

Another club synonymous with protest is Madrid’s lesser known club, Rayo Vallecano, located in the ultra-proud, working class neighbourhood of Vallecas. Rayo’s fans are as political as they come, and they certainly aren’t shy of a bit of protest. Last season, their Ultras, the Bukaneros, voiced their concern about having matches on Friday evenings for the purpose of television by boycotting both of their games which were played on a Friday night. The usually packed stand behind the goal was notably empty, except for a banner reading ‘Say No to Football on Friday’. Similarly to St Pauli in Hamburg, their fans are also aligned to the local anti-fascist movement and have organized special ‘Anti-racism match days’.

This isn’t even mentioning the giant Che Guevara flag waved at each game, the absence of modern Spanish national flags in favour of the old Republican flags in the stadium, or the left-wing and general anti-authoritarian sentiments in many of their chants. Bearing in mind all this and the fact that a large number of their fans look like punks or hippies, a first time visitor outside a Rayo game would be forgiven for thinking they going to a political rally instead of a football match.

But recently, it hasn’t just been the fans that have been getting their banners out. The players have too. In extraordinary scenes before their away game at Huesca on February 27th, the team’s players entered the pitch wearing t-shirts saying ‘Rayo players and Rayo fans, united by a feeling’, then lined up on the centre-circle and displayed a banner saying ‘Fix the problem – pay the players’.

Because, quite simply, the players (and many members of staff) haven’t been paid. Just over two weeks ago the directors of Nueva Rumasa - the company that owns Rayo, along with a number of other companies, mainly specializing in dairy products – called a press conference to announce that it has a debt of over 700 million Euros, and is on the verge of bankruptcy. The ramifications for Rayo were that the staff won’t be paid for the month of February, while several players complained they haven’t been paid at all for several months. To make the situation worse, Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos, the head of Nueva Rumasa and main share-holder admitted that he didn’t know when they would be paid.

Understandably, the players weren’t too happy with the news. Although captain Michel assured the press after the announcement that the club ‘would continue fighting on the pitch’, not everyone seemed to share the sentiment. The day after the announcement was made, six key players didn’t attend training. Veteran midfielder José María Movilla spoke on radio station SER to air his grievances about the situation, stating that he had only received seven of the last eighteen months of pay and that there were a few players who ‘couldn’t even afford car repairs’ at the moment due to not receiving their salaries. Although he said that the team would carry on playing as best as they could, because ‘the dream of promotion is worth more than money’, he added ‘We also have limits’.

Movilla’s appearance was later condemned on the same radio station by club President Teresa Rivero, also Mateos’ wife. Rivero refuted the claim that players hadn’t been paid for a year and at half-time during the match at Huesca, after seeing the players’ protest, she told TV cameras of her disappointment in the team for not trusting her husband, who, she added, ‘is the nicest person in the world’ and declared that he ‘would never do anything to hurt anyone’. This, of course, is the same husband, who, when appearing in court for financial irregularities, punched the man (who was the then Economics Minister) who was bringing the charges against him.

Before the fateful news was announced, Rivero had enjoyed a harmonious relationship with the club since she became President of in 1994. A mother of no less than thirteen children and a housewife until she became President, she presided over the most successful period in the club’s history, enjoying top- flight football for four consecutive seasons between 1999-2003, and reaching the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup (in 1999/00). Captain Michel has said ‘she is like a mother to all of us’, and the fans took to her too, passing a referendum in 2004 to re-name the stadium ‘El Estádio Teresa Rivero’.

However, with news of the financial situation, coupled with Rivero’s comments in Huesca, the relationship appears to be in tatters. At Wednesday night’s 1-0 home win against fellow madrileño side Alcorcón, large sections of the crowd were chanting obscenities at the Presidential box where she was sitting. Many banners were displayed against Rivero, her husband and his corporation, with messages including “Rumasa No, Rayo Si”, “87 Years of History Deserves More Respect Than This”, and to top it all “Teresa: May God Forgive You, Because The Fans Won’t.” Before the game, her name had been ripped off the stadium’s main sign, while another sign, above the door to the players’ entrance, showed her name had been crossed out in black pen.

Although this sudden outpouring of discontent was unexpected a few weeks ago, there’s always been a bizarre paradox between the President, her husband and the club’s fans. Both Rivero and Mateos are from Xerez in Andalucía, and have no historical ties to Madrid, least of all to Vallecas, whose citizens' humble, working class identity greatly contrasts with the couple’s immense wealth. What’s more, they are both members of the infamous Catholic institution Opus Dei and whilst not being very political, are more aligned to the right wing, while Rayo’s fans have always fiercely identified themselves as being left-wing.

After the game, Rivero said she was deeply hurt by the hostile atmosphere, and said that she wanted to remind the fans that her the family had spent a lot of money on the club and invested a lot of emotion. However, she added, “If the fans want us to leave the club, we will, although it will be difficult and complicated to do so”.

The main worry for the fans amongst all this is that this fall-out will affect the club’s promotion ambitions. Since coming back up to the Segunda A in 2008 after four years in the wilderness in Segunda B, Rayo have been promotion candidates. In 2008/09 they were in the promotion places until late March, but finished 5th. The following season, they were 3rd at Christmas before entering a disastrous run of form where they flirted with relegation, but eventually finished 11th.

This term they have performed better than in previous seasons. Under new manager and former B team coach José Ramón Sandoval the team have a freshness about them, benefitting from the addition of several exciting new players in the summer, as well as holding onto the spine of last year’s team. This includes the more experienced heads such as Movilla and Michel, the latter playing for the club on and off for fifteen seasons, debuting for the B team way back in 1992.

Of the new recruits, the one that stands out most is forward Emilio Armenteros. The Argentine joined Rayo on loan from Sevilla in the summer and has had instant success, scoring fifteen league goals so far. Other notable mentions should go to midfielders Javi Fuego and Borja García, the latter graduating to the first team after several seasons with the B team, where he played under Sandoval.

One of Sandoval’s best achievements so far has been to organize the defence. Last season, Rayo finished the year as the joint highest scoring team, but finished where they did due to their leaky defence, which had a particular fear of dealing with crosses. This resulted in amazing score lines such as 4-4 with Hercules and 3-3 with Real Sociedad, both who achieved promotion. This year they have managed to tighten things up at the back, conceding thirty-one goals in twenty-eight games, a huge improvement on last year. Fortunately, they haven’t turned into a cautious team that just hopes to grind out 1-0s either, hitting forty-eight goals, the fourth highest in the league.

All this good news on the pitch meant that the last thing they needed was bad news off it. Two days after that press conference, Rayo hosted the relegation threatened Gimnastic Tarragona, a game they would have expected to win comfortably. They only scraped a draw thanks to a last minute goal. The following week was that fateful day in Huesca, also near the drop-zone and a game that normally wouldn’t have had Sandoval and co. concerned. They lost 4-1. With last year’s post-Chrismas collapse prevalent in the minds of everyone, people began to worry. Rayo have been in this situation in the last two seasons and failed to go up, and a sense of déjà vu was beginning to creep in to everyone concerned with the club’s minds.

But while at first the players seemed dejected by their situation, the last two results suggest that it may have made them stronger. With the players repeating the ritual of holding the same banner from the Huesca game before the game with Alcorcón, a better side than Gimnastic and Huesca, they won 1-0. Then came the hardest trip in recent games, away to Villarreal B. Again the players displayed the banner on the pitch before the game, and again they took the three points home after it. When striker Aganzo’s header put them 1-0 up, the whole team ran to the bench to embrace Sandoval, his staff and the substitutes in an amazing display of club unity. When they conceded an equalizer with just twelve minutes to go, many teams would have dropped their heads. But four minutes later a volley from Piti got them back in front and won them the game.

At the moment, Rayo sit top of La Segunda, three points clear of Real Betis in third place. Due to last year’s changes in the league’s structure, they have to finish first or second to achieve automatic promotion to La Liga, while finishing between third and sixth will put them into the play-off rounds. Only a true pessimist would predict they won’t get into the play-offs, but in the position they are in, automatic promotion must be the objective. Given their dire financial situation, it might be the only thing that saves them.

Richard is a regular contributor to Spanish Football Info, IBWM's favourite site for all things La Liga.