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“SANGRE Gaditana en vena Vallecana.” This roughly translates as “Cadiz blood in Vallecas veins,” a strong statement of the bond between the leftist supporters of these two Spanish teams.
Vallecas is a tough and friendly neighbourhood in the south-east of Madrid, imagine Lewisham but with better wine. (Vallecas ultras prefer the spelling “Vallekas” to emphasise that it is both independent and different.)
The barrio has a long-standing leftist reputation; during the civil war it was an important and strategic Republican stronghold battered by Franco. Vallecas grew considerably due the Franco years and took in many immigrants from provincial Spain to Madrid – these were often people that had suffered from the vicissitudes of capitalism and the cruelty of fascism and the migration served to intensify the barrio’s leftist sentiments.
Rayo Vallecano, the local football team which began in 1924, is the beating heart of the barrio and the support reflects the neighbourhood’s politics.
The Bukaneros emerged as the top firm in the early part of this century; they are named after the “Batalla Naval” celebrated every year by the people of Vallecas in memory of the events of a very hot day in July 1981 in which Vallecanos, desperate for cold water, opened up the fire hydrants and began the campaign to have Vallecas declared a seaport despite being 300km (185 miles) from the nearest beach: Vallekas is different.
Rayo means lightning or thunderbolt. In the early 1950s Rayo adopted the diagonal red stripe across their white shirts in admiration of the Argentine side River Plate. River visited Madrid in 1953, the teams exchanged gifts and have been friendly ever since.
As a fan of both Rayo and Boca Juniors I see this as collaboration with the class enemy, so let’s move quickly on.
Famous former Rayo players include Diego Costa, the aggressive Brazilian who played successfully for Chelsea in between suspensions and Lawrie Cunningham, formerly of Leyton Orient, West Brom and Real Madrid; Rayo was his last club before his tragically early death in a car crash.
Wilfred Agbonavbare, the club’s Nigerian goalkeeper between 1990 and 1996, is the club’s most popular recent player: he died from cancer at 48 in 2015.
There is a mural on the stadium’s outer wall, the inscription reads: “Por tu defensa de la franja, y tu lucha contra el racism. El Rayismo nunca te olvidare.” It translates to: “For your defence of the stripe (a nickname for the club) and your struggle against racism, Rayismo will never forget you.” “Rayismo” represents the fans and spirit of Rayo Vallecano.
The Bukaneros are not gentlemen to be taken lightly, physically or politically. Using the terminology of football violence, they “can have a row.”
They had a massive confrontation with Barcelona’s notorious Boixos Nois (“Crazy boys” in Catalan, an increasingly right-wing firm) in 2018 which saw Vallecas closed down by riot police.
This ability extends to the political front and they are happy to take on their own club. In January 2017, the club signed Ukrainian forward Roman Zozulya on loan from Real Betis.
Zozulya was alleged to have hard-right sympathies which stood in direct opposition to the Vallecano support. The signing sparked outrage. On his first day of training at his new club, fans turned up with a banner reading “Vallekas no es lugar para Nazis – Vallekas is not the place for Nazis.”
The club subsequently cancelled his contract and Zozulya returned to Betis.
Zozulya rejected the allegations against him at the time and still does; he was supported by many at the time including ESPN which ran an aggressive apology for him.
However, the Bukaneros did a proper investigative job on Zozulya and published the evidence in an online document that included, inter alia: his support for the neonazi Azov Battalion, a Ukranian National Guard regiment; him holding up the Dnipro White Boys badge, a right-wing football firm; pictures of him posing next to a scarf of Stefan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the nazis, helping to kill over one million Ukrainian Jews.
Zozulya was a good player, but for the Bukaneros and most of the fans, Rayo is about much more than the game.
This is genuinely more than a football club: Rayo plays most of its football in the Spanish second-flight, these fans are no glory hunters and identity is more important than any scoreline.
One banner at the ground sums up their principles in just three words: “Poor, but proud.”
The case of Carmen Martinez Ayudo shows that the fans and some elements in the club care about the local community and don’t just make grand political statements.
Carmen was an 85-year-old widow who had been evicted from her home in Vallecas. Her son had used her flat as a guarantee on a loan which he was unable to repay. The lender, along with an aggressive and unnecessary police presence, put her on the streets.
News of this reached the club and the then manager Paco Jemez decided to do something about it. He later said: “We couldn’t just stand there; we will help her so that she can live somewhere with dignity and not feel alone.”
Obviously the fans were in full support and in their next match they unfurled a long banner saying: “The evictions of a sick state, the solidarity of a working-class neighbourhood.”
The club found her new premises and paid her rent.
We went to see Rayo play Celta Vigo in January 2019, when Rayo were still in La Liga Primera. We had had a few beers and wines in Vallecas first.
Vallecas sure as hell is not Knightsbridge but it’s not really Lewisham either: I’ve lived in and around Lewisham for over 30 years and can say definitely that Vallecas has a “kinder and gentler” culture, even on match-day there was no menace in the air at all … and the wine was much better and a lot cheaper.
Inside the ground was different as well, passionate but with none of the aggressive hatred or racist garbage that can make watching British football so dispiriting.
This was partly due to the good relationship between Rayo and Celta’s left-leaning fans. We were in the section below the Celta supporters, at half time a group of their boys were leaning over the front row and exchanging high-fives with the Rayo fans.
We stopped for a chat: a thoroughly pleasant bunch of young men, who spoke good English and were looking forward to visiting Derry later on that year, a good port of call for leftist “Pan-Celticists.”
Vigo is in Galicia and the people there see themselves as Celts, hence the name Celta Vigo. However, as you can see from the photo below, showing my co-writer of this series Vince Raison with our amigos from Celta, they don’t look like those of us from the pale fringes of northern Europe.
The game was terrific and Rayo won 4-2. We were lucky: great games and Rayo victories were not common in the 2018/2019 season and the club fell back to the second flight.
The 2019/2020 season began with the Bukaneros boycotting home games in protest at high ticket prices: the boycott ended but tensions remain between the fans and the club.
Cadiz are also in the Spanish second flight and the two teams were due to meet for the second time this year in late March in Cadiz; I was all booked up to go but the virus closed things down that very week.
I would love to see the same fixture next season but it probably will not happen: at the time of the league’s suspension Cadiz were in first place with Rayo sadly stuck in mid-table mediocrity.
The friendship between the supporters began in the mid 1990s when some Bukaneros met up with like-minded Cadiz fans in a pre-season summer tournament. These fans formed an affiliation with Rayo and later on joined up with the nucleus of the Brigadas Amarillas. More on them next week.
Vallecas is a great place for a visit in itself but definitely catch a game when you go there; I will be heading back there soon and hope one day to see the Rayo and Cadiz party in La Liga Primera. But it’s not really the football that matters, es el sentimiento, la lucha y la hermandad.
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