A Rayo of Hope

As you trudge gamely up the gradual slope of Albuferas in the district of Vallecas, past chain shops, cheap shops, cell-phone accessory shops, boarded-up shops, gaming parlours and dozens of small bars and cafes, you pick up that narrower sense of what it really feels like to live in a capital city – in this case Madrid – as opposed to simply imagining from the outside that everything is the Castellana, or Sol, or the Parque del Retiro. Vallecas used to be a town, but is now an official district in the south of Madrid, with around 300,000 inhabitants.  Nevertheless, there’s an immediate and messy sense of community, something in the sticky autumn air that suggests that the place has its own identity.  It’s late afternoon, everyone and his grandmother is out, and everything seems to be pointing to the top of Albuferas where Rayo Vallecano’s little stadium is alleged to be.  I’ve walked up from my hotel on Avenida de Barcelona – a strange-sounding street in this district, and everyone I’ve asked has insisted that it really is there.

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Well, I know it’s there, of course – in this age of Google Maps and digital paraphernalia, but I’ve deliberately been asking for directions in order to sniff out the attitude of the community towards its team.  It always works, and here, in this unpretentious, multicultural and obviously working-class neighbourhood, the people I ask are all keen to help.  ‘Just keep going and you can’t miss it!’ an elderly couple enthuse, in stereo.  ‘We’re not going today because we’ve just been to a wedding!’ the wife adds, as if this is vital information.  ‘Ah!  Congratulations on tying the knot at last’ I quip, at which the tiny bow-legged husband, who has seen better days, lets out a spittle-infused guffaw.  ‘Muy bueno!’ (good one!) he cackles, and points me to the pilgrimage-site at the top of the hill.

The higher up the avenue I get, the more the strewn street cafes contain Rayo fans, with their distinctive white shirt and its thick red diagonal stripe, placed onto a previously white shirt in 1950 in homage to River Plate.  Some fans wear the posher-looking away strip, with its black background, but everyone wears the kit, in some shape or form. Fans of Real Sociedad, today’s visitors, wear blue and white stripes and mingle into the thicker mass of people who are gathered up at the traffic lights where the avenue narrows and the squat little walls of the stadium at last come into view.  The Estadio Teresa Rivero, named after the wife of the ex-president and cartoon-like villain Ruiz Mateos, is something of a legend among La Liga’s more appreciative band of ground-hoppers, and it is to my eternal regret that the place has somehow managed to ignore my own advances, after all these years of wandering around Spain in search of football’s holy grail.  My only excuse is that the schedules have never coincided, the runes have always failed to show.  It’s just one of those things, but today I‘ve nipped down on a quick flight from San Sebastián, sacrificing my own son’s game against Barakaldo to finally attend the legendary Rayo Vallecano gig.

I stop at the lights and look across. The east side of the stadium seems indistinct from the tight urban sprawl that surrounds it, like a semi-natural phenomenon that has grown up through the cracks in the road.  Chaos presides.  There are souvenir stalls, sweet stalls, vans selling churros, and higgledy-piggledy queues of folks waiting to get in.  I squeeze through the masses and enter the official shop to buy a club ‘monedero’ (wallet) for my son but devastatingly, the woman at the counter informs me that there has never been a Rayo wallet.  They have key-rings, mugs and what looks like a Che Guevara hat with a club badge on it, but no wallets.  I express my disappointment as my WhatsApp chirrups that the Barakaldo match back home has finished 0-0.

Excuse me for writing this phrase before, but the greatest moment for any football nerd is the moment when you finally emerge into the noise and colour of an unknown sporting arena.  And despite the creeping standardisation of the football experience, no stadium is ever remotely the same.  The second you emerge into Rayo’s peculiar arena, you’re getting the latest snapshot of 87 years of a particular neighbourhood’s emotional repository.  The ground is famously three-sided, with the southern goal simply a white wall, behind which two apartment blocks stand with the best views in town.  As I take in the initial scene, I can see that several of the apartments’ windows are open, and that the folks inside are settling down for the game.  The absence of Canal Plus satellite dishes on the building is therefore significant.

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My ticket says Row 4 Seat 20, but when I reach my place an entire family, clad in Rayo’s colours, is already installed there, all nibbling furiously on pipas (sunflower seeds) and smoking like industrial chimneys.  I indicate to the youngish mother that someone is in my place, but far from this causing a problem she immediately apologises and offers up her little daughter in a sort of sacrifice.  ‘You – out of there now!’ she chivvies the young girl, but I protest that it isn’t necessary, and that I can sit next to her (the mother) in the free seat that ends the row.  ‘Sure – fine’, the woman  nods, approving of this solution.  ‘Nobody ever sits there anyway’ and I settle down on the margins, as the new member of the family.

The low angle of the late afternoon sun stains the pitch with shadows, and it’s quite difficult not to squint, but the stadium seems tightly-packed and straining at the leash. The away supporters, in surprisingly large numbers considering that Real Sociedad played in Leverkusen in the Champions League three days previously, are over to my left, but over to the right, behind the goal where the Rayo Ultras gather, there appear to be no seats at all, an illusion created by the fact that the occupants of this famous section prefer to stand.  Dotted amongst them there are Real Sociedad supporters.  Here the Basques are made welcome, unlike some other grounds in Spain.

The place holds 14,000, and although there are only some 10,000 inside, it feels packed and noisy, as if it were a major social event.  Rayo were great last year, and almost made it into Europe, but this season, saddled by La Liga’s smallest annual budget of 7 million euros (which is half of Cristiano Ronaldo’s salary) and the usual book-balancing exodus of players (Leo Baptistao to Atlético, Javi Fuego to Valencia, Piti to Granada, José Casado to Malaga, Jordi Figueras to Betis and Jordi Amat to Swansea) the team lies bottom of the table, with three points from seven games – and those points coming from a 3-0 win against Elche on the opening day.  Amazingly, coach Paco Jemez took Rayo to 3rd in the European league table of ball possession last season (58 percent average), surpassed only by Bayern and Barcelona.  Now his new team is having difficulties settling down, but you wouldn’t know that there was any problem, once the game gets under way.  The fans’ identification with the team is total, and my adopted family hollers with excitement every time Rayo pass the half-way line. This is quite often, of course, because although it may be an optical illusion, the pitch seems tiny and Real Sociedad are having difficulties coping with it.  Preferring a high-line pressing midfield, the twin pivots are simply not in the game, annulled by Rayo’s defenders’ ability to knock longish balls into the limited space behind the centre-backs, eliminating any fussy midfield stuff.  It takes Sociedad’s technically more gifted players about 20 minutes, but then they work it out and begin to look the better side.

On 24 minutes the ‘Bukanero’ contingent of the Rayo fans behind the goal begin to bounce and chant, and basically continue until the end of the game. The noise is deafening, coming from such a relatively small bunch. The previous 23 minutes of silence is in protest at the Spanish federation’s timetabling of certain games at 23.00 hours, which included the Rayo v Levante game earlier this season.  The Bukaneros are a bit different, ‘ultras’ whose founding principles are ‘In defence of our team, our neighbourhood and always free from racism and fascism, values which we will never represent’.  The Rayo fans in general are seen as left-leaning, in contrast to some of the more thuggish far-right elements at Atlético, and the prawn-sandwich set at the Bernabéu.  The anarchist-vegan ska band (how’s that for a truck-load of principles?) from the 1990s known as ‘Ska-P’ were popular in Spain and of course supported Rayo, penning a popular song about them entitled ‘Como un rayo’ (Like a lightning flash).

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As the game trundles on, Real’s Imanol Agirretxe inexplicably heads the ball over the Bukanero crossbar when it was far easier to score, and my family collectively slump into their seats with relief.  ‘Lucky for you he’s rubbish today!’ I offer, like some vicar offering a calming cup of tea.  The mum laughs, exploding a cloud of smoke from her lungs into my eyes.  ‘So you’re supporting them eh?’ she says, winking.  ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone!’  But there is no threat, no suggestion of potential violence anywhere.  For example, a youth to my right is frothing with testosterone, and when Carlos Vela goes down rather too easily under a challenge, the youth springs up and shouts ‘Venga maricon!’ (Get up you poofter!), upon which his father calmly intercedes.  ‘Don’t say that’ he advises.  ‘You don’t say that kind of thing anymore at matches, and besides, you might hurt the player’s feelings.  He might be gay’, he says, all in a measured schoolmaster tone. He says this in front of his hairy working-class mates, as if such discourse were perfectly normal in such a context. I want to add that Vela is not gay, but decide to stay out of the conversation.  The boy mutters ‘cojones’ (bollocks) under his breath, but it’s an interesting moment.

To cut to the chase, Sociedad or Agirretxe) spurn a host of chances and then Rayo get themselves a penalty, in the 88th minute, when Jonathan Viera goes down under a challenge from keeper Claudio Bravo.  Under the shadow of the Bukaneros, the referee decides not to risk anarchist revolution and points to the spot.  My family (and the rest of the Rayo-clad stadium) go completely wild.  ‘Calm down’ I joke.  ‘You haven’t scored yet’.  At this, the mother lets go another smoke-fuelled gem that basically sums up the whole Rayo thing. ‘I know!’ she screams above the din. ‘That’s why we’re celebrating now.  He’ll probably miss!’

Rayo

But he doesn’t miss, and the folks go home happy. For once, I don’t mind that my team has lost.  Walking down Albuferas with the crowd, I get into conversation with three Madrid-living Brits, who all profess themselves die-hard Rayo fans.  One of them (a Blackburn fan) offers his own simple conclusion. ‘It’s a real football stadium, a place where the cameras would prefer not to go.  But once you’ve been there, why the hell would you ever want to go to the Bernabéu?’   Why indeed?

Phil Ball 

The King’s Cup runneth over

They’re black-and-white memories, sepia smudged, of toddling down the street to the corner shop opposite the grey-tide promenade of my home town, buying a quarter bag of sweets of my choice for the English FA Cup Final and hurrying them back home to guzzle with my dad whilst we watched the game on TV – the annual Saturday afternoon event of my childhood, and the day when I seemed closer to him –, a man wary of outward displays of emotion or of wanting to spend a great deal of time with his children.  But the FA Cup Final seemed a momentous event in the calendar, the feast of the BBC build-up from 11 0’clock onward an impossibly lavish treat for a young nerd such as myself – no matter the teams.  When you supported a local side that occupied the nether regions of the English league, the FA Cup Final was something weighty and pivotal. I loved it, and I remember (in embarrassing detail) every one that I saw. Continue reading “The King’s Cup runneth over”

We need to talk about Martin

I was brought up on the Siberian terraces of Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park, an ancient stadium whose eastern Main Stand backed onto the grey skies and sluggish tides of the River Humber. Beyond, the cold North Sea and the windswept wastes of Europe lurked, whence the tempests howled onto our football flatlands, dissuading the meek and testing the strong.  It was desperate stuff at times, and it taught me never to expect too much.  It taught me that in the 89th minute of any good day, some schmuck could come along and bloody your nose – which is usually what occurred in the script. Nobody cared about us, nobody saw us on the TV.  There were occasional moments of euphoria whose dates and images I remember and treasure (we once beat Everton in the cup – it was wonderful), and these moments burned a faint light down the darker corridors of a low-expectation future.  Football’s like that. If you let it get to you, it can affect your whole existence. Continue reading “We need to talk about Martin”

Malteaser (or ‘A Tale of Two Goalies’)

’twas a wild Friday night in the north of Spain, or ‘una noche de perros’ as they call it here, with the rain pelting pitilessly and the temperature hovering around a miserly 3 degrees. A three-dog night indeed, and so what better place to spend it than with your mates, tucked up in a warm restaurant with a couple of HD screens showing Spain v Malta in the European qualifiers.  Then again, not all of your mates are as obsessed with football as you, and so with experience borne of previous encounters you place yourself in a position at the table that enables you to watch proceedings above a friend’s head – from time to time, discreetly.

I was mostly interested in watching the goals rack up, as surely they would, and although this failed to happen in the first period (2-0 at half time) on each occasion that I glanced above my mate’s head Spain were in possession.  At no point in the first half did I glance up and see a white shirt of Malta with the ball, nor at any point did I observe a white shirt in the Spanish half.  In early conclusion, Malta has a lot going for it (tourism, history, passports for sale) and interestingly, the falcon that the Knights of Malta famously possessed was actually a gift for the King of Spain, nicked by pirates in transit.  Oh well, there was no Amazon Prime in those days.

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Morata gets the first of seven

Voilà the connection, because despite Malta’s historically consistent ineptitude on the field of play (their 2-1 victory over the Faroe Islands last March was their first home win in 13 years) they loom large in the history of Spain due to the infamous 12-1 defeat they suffered in Betis’ stadium way back in 1983, a bizarre result that enabled Spain to reach the final of the 1984 European Championships in France, only to lose to the Platini-inspired hosts in Paris in another goalkeeper-related event, namely Arconada’s famous and out-of-character fumble from Platini’s free-kick. Poor Arconada, forever associated with a mistake as opposed to his other defect-free years as one of Europe’s finest ever keepers. Such is life.

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Nevertheless, the 12-1 result in the qualifiers meant that there was precious sympathy for Spain before and after that final.  For Spain itself, the tournament was the first concrete evidence that the eternal dark horses could actually make it all the way to a major final, and the events that summer went some way to healing the wounds of the 1982 World Cup farce, which Spain pre-hosted like a bull on amphetamines and exited like a flea-bitten stray, tail tucked between its skinny legs.

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1984 and the infamous goal

Six months before Platini had got to strike that rather weedy free-kick, Malta’s goalkeeper John Bonello had written himself just as firmly into Spanish history by conceding the 12 goals that Spain needed to qualify for that tournament at the Netherlands’ expense.  The game is still the most famous in Spain’s history, superseding the 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup and even the Iniesta moment against the Netherlands in 2010, a fact that tells you something about the nation’s brittle and rather quirky view of itself, heroic in otherwise non-heroic circumstances, like a fully-grown adult loudly celebrating a tiddlywinks victory over a bemused child.

Spain needed to win by eleven clear goals, and the infamous Bonello did himself no favours by declaring before the game that Spain could not even score eleven against a team of schoolchildren.  Despite the lack of wisdom Bonello’s declaration revealed, it had some basis in fact.  Spain had only managed a total of twelve goals up to that stage of the qualifiers, rendering the notion of their qualification as improbable. The subsequent theories have of course included the usual ones of conspiracy, although the longer and harder you look at the game, one of the most extraordinary in the history of international football, it’s hard to see anything other than collective ineptitude as the reason for the result.

If Malta were throwing the game, it’s hard to explain why Mike Degiorgio (great name that) decided to score a rather good goal in the first half to bring the score to 1-1 and sink Spanish hearts even further, that rainy night in Seville, four days before Christmas.  With the score 3-1 at half-time, it was almost inconceivable that it would happen, and yet happen it did – and the guy who scored the twelfth, Juan Señor from Zaragoza, only managed another four for the national team from his 40 caps total.

Bonello himself bizarrely raised the issue of whether the lemons at half-time had been spiked with a tranquilising drug, and of course there were rumours that he had been paid off, along with a couple of his co-conspiracy defenders.  And yet watching the highlights on Youtube you can’t help but admire how good most of the goals are, and that Bonello was probably innocent.  Some of the non-tackling from the Maltese is in evidence, but it was similarly on evidence on Friday night too in Cádiz – not quite Seville but close to the place of the original sin.  Of course, as you might already know, a 31 year-old Henry Bonello was between the sticks, hoping to better his dad’s performance, at the very least. He was also in goal against Spain for the home leg (0-2) but the fact that the game was played in Malta reduced the relative significance of his appearance.  For this game, the Spanish press went predictably to town, and when I glanced over my mate’s head to see the 7th goal go in last night – a rather good one from the evergreen Navas on 85 minutes – I decided to put them all in the picture.  Another five goals by the end would have surpassed the 1983 result, but six would have been more poetic for the Bonello story.   Alas, the son avenged the alleged sins of his father and walked off with his head relatively high.

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Avenging the sins of the father

The original Bonello has remained in gainful employment by coaching the goalies for the national side, including his son.  Malta’s coach on Friday night – Ray Farrugia – was in the midfield that night in 1983 but waved away the press impatiently when any mention of the game came up last week, in the team’s Andaluz camp.  Bonello Jr was also moved to tetchily inform the press that they should ‘get over it’, an understandable sentiment but one which misunderstands the Spanish psyche.  Here you feed the legend, relentlessly.  Any other behaviour is deemed unpatriotic.

Bonello senior is of course a legendary figure in Spanish culture, hoist like Claudius with his own petard and pursued not by Hamlet but by the media ever since.  The Dutch firm Amstel produced an advertisement for the Spanish market in 2006 whose irony Bonello seemingly missed out on (but not the payment offered), in which he is described in relation to the beer as ‘el amigo perfecto’ (the perfect friend), depicting him returning to Spain and welcomed to the airport by cheering well-wishers, like the Beatles return to America. At one point he waves from an open-top car like Kennedy in Dallas, but Lee Harvey Oswald fails to make an appearance.  Like the beer, Bonello was described as the man who made ‘all Spaniards happy on the same day’ which was true, perhaps only surpassed four years later by Iniesta’s strike, interestingly against the old orange victim.

Spain have now qualified for the Euros, with seven different players scoring the goals in Friday’s game.  The post-Luis Enrique coach, Robert Moreno, 42 years of age but looking like a rather nervous student on the margins of a party in Freshers’ Week, remains unmolested by the press in what is clearly a transitional period for the national team.  The chassis of Spain’s glory years is beginning to rust, with Piqué gone in a huff, Busquets looking increasingly knackered, the great Silva retired from national duty and Captain Ramos seemingly more intent on breaking appearance records than standing in the right places in the defensive zone.  The back-slapping that accompanied Friday night’s slaughter of the innocents might not last unless the nations young ‘uns can gel into a recognisable unit.  The talent is there in abundance with Oyarzabal, Rodrigo, Gerardo, Saúl and the wondrous Fabian, pursued by all and sundry – not to mention the interesting Dani Olmo, playing over in Croatia.

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Everybody’s after Fabian, but mainly Klopp & Zidane.

On Friday the young things were bolstered by the older presence of Jesus Navas and Santi Cazorla, everyone’s favourite Lazarus even at 34 years of age.  Morata seems to be scoring again too but there is reason to doubt that Spain will make that final at Wembley on July 12th.  The Maltese talisman is unlikely to be repeated this time around, but anyway, never let the future get in the way of a good yarn from the past.

@PhilBallTweets

Granada Armada

Before this weekend, Granada had only been top of LaLiga once before, coinciding more or less with the overthrow of Allende’s Chilean government in September 1973 by Pinochet’s cronies. The coincidence is of no relevance whatsoever, but I thought I’d drop it in anyway.  It seems like a long time ago, in a season when they eventually finished in 6th place, two places above Real Madrid and two points shy of qualifying for the old UEFA Cup.  It was their 6th of eight consecutive seasons in the top flight, their best run yet since their relatively late foundation in 1931, and probably their best season to date, if you ignore 1959 when they lost to Barcelona 4-1 in the Generalísimo’s Cup Final. Continue reading “Granada Armada”

Give us a mention!

In military theory, after a defeat, an excess of self-reflection and analysis of exactly what went wrong is seen as healthy, but only up to a point. This is because there was an adversary, and the adversary prevailed.  You lost the battle – but it wasn’t all down to you.  In psychology this is called ‘chronic analysis’ and it tends to be so self-absorbed that you fail to see the other factors – perhaps you know where this is going.   If you just lost 0-3 to Barcelona, as Eibar did on Saturday, you probably wouldn’t need to spend the rest of the week self-flagellating.  Eibar played okay, but Barcelona simply took advantage of their different level of quality.  Analysis over, and move on.  Real Madrid, however, were drowning in chronic analysis over the weekend, or at least their friends in the Spanish mainstream press were.  Maybe the squad flew home from Mallorca after their 1-0 defeat thoroughly aware of what went wrong – and what did go wrong? Continue reading “Give us a mention!”

Three weeks fasting in the wild

The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once observed that ‘A week is a long time in politics’.  Eduardo Alvarez more recently remarked that ‘three weeks is a long time in football’, and so here’s Liga Fever again, just as you were beginning to think that you could no longer stand the silence of the international break.  It’s tough out there, I know.   During a fortnight in league-less space, nobody can hear you scream. Continue reading “Three weeks fasting in the wild”

Almost over, bar the shouting

‘twas the penultimate game of the season, with everyone kicking off at 18.30 on Sunday – and ‘twas fun for some, less for others.  This particular week of the league season is always the toughest, because at the nether end of the table there is usually a single side left who can still escape relegation and two sides who can be sucked into it, whilst up top the 4th Champions League spot tends to be the main focus.  The trap-door opens or the dreams are quashed. Continue reading “Almost over, bar the shouting”

Sandwich week

It’s one of those sandwich weeks, stuffed between the two chewy pieces of Champions League bread, Iker Casillas’ heart-attack, Xavi’s retirement and Messi’s official deification by the international press – to which the aficionados and sages of LaLiga respond ‘Eh?  He does that every week, and actually he didn’t play particularly well against Liverpool’ – not forgetting Valencia of course, their defeat at Arsenal and the bad behaviour of some of their numbskull followers – please note the use of the quantifier ‘some’.

Continue reading “Sandwich week”