Words by Hal Norman

When you think of football in Madrid one club comes to mind. 

The home of glam football. A global emblem of sporting and financial success. The star-studded, billion-dollar club that is regarded by FIFA as the greatest of the 20th Century. 

It is, of course, Real Madrid.

Yet on a windy Monday night in a forgotten suburb of the city, Real were faced by a club few around the world would have heard of before: Rayo Vallecano. 

It is a club with an identity that differs wildly from its uber-successful neighbours. And the two clubs present a history of Spain that most Spaniards, politicians and their institutions would prefer you to forget. 

Rayo Vallecano (or ‘lightening Vallecano’ in English) is a club based in Vallecas, a barrio in south-west Madrid. Vallecas has its own unique character. It’s a proud working class and immigrant neighbourhood with an identity that feels separate from the capital.

Vallecas has an aura of rebelliousness to it. The particularly disobedient inhabitants of this place refer it as ‘Vallekas. Its spelling with a ‘k’ (of rare use in the Spanish language) designed to provoke the ire of Madrid’s local bureaucracy.

Synonymous with this rebellious community is its football club, and a matchday is where this spirit is on full display. 

At the Estadio de Vallecas, amid marijuana smoke and the crunching sound of pipas (sunflower seeds – they are the go-to snack for any self-respecting Spanish football fan), flags of the Second Spanish Republic are proudly hung from each stand. In the fondo section behind the goal Rayo’s ultras group, Los Bukaneros, wave anarchist banners to the thud of the in-house drummer. The Marseillaise and the Internationale are sung around the ground.

Nostalgia for the Republic is strong here. Vallecas has been a stronghold for republicanism ever since Franco’s forces tore up its streets during their three year-long siege of Madrid. The war photographer Robert Capa took his famous shot of children playing outside their bombed-out home in nearby Entrevías – only a few streets away from the stadium. The image, entitled ‘Children in Madrid’, inspired thousands to pick up arms for the Republic after being published across the world’s newspapers in 1937 (the house in the photo, Peironcely 10, has maintained its original form, despite attempts to demolish it, and will soon be converted into a cultural centre).

In terms of football, the Rayistas I meet don’t particularly hold high expectations for their team – a result of being historic underachievers. They do, however, hold high expectations for the values they want to see at their club: anti-fascism, anti-racism, feminism, anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation to name but a few. 

Conversely, Real Madrid embodies an identity that is completely different.

As a club that established its success during the years of Franco’s dictatorship, it has adopted an identity that is familiar with the old regime. Spanish nationalism, sporting excellence and business acumen are inherent qualities of the club. 

Real’s stadium is located at the heart of Madrid’s financial district surrounded by skyscrapers and ministry buildings along the Paseo de Castellana. The area has a particularly soulless feel even on matchdays: the community here being not much else but empty office buildings and men in suits. 

Franco’s legacy lingers at Real. The stadium’s namesake, Santiago Bernebéu, fought alongside the nationalists before being elected club president in 1943. Real’s ultras, Ultras Sur, are known to fly the old Franco-era flag at matches and for performing the Francoist salute. Among the regular faithful there is certainly no weed or republican chanting. 

The consumption of Pipas, however, remains ever-present.

I should make it clear that most Real fans are not fascist. There are 450 million of them after all. Indeed, the club has made efforts to curtail the fascist element: Real’s current president Florentino Pérez banned Ultras Sur from matches in 2013. 

The club also has its own republican history. Its president between 1937-38 was a communist, Lieutenant Antonio Ortega, who was killed along with the club’s hierarchy by Franco’s forces. Notably, this episode is excluded from Real’s online history and club museum. 

In football and politics, Real Madrid is a club which embodies all that Rayo fans resent about contemporary Spain. But the origin of this resentment is woven deep into the fabric of the nation itself.

The civil war is a taboo subject here. To re-open the old wounds from the 30s means risking the basis on which democracy was granted to Spain after the death of Franco. Contemporary Spanish academics talk of their country as suffering from ‘sociological Francoism’ due to the resistance of its people to open a dialogue on the civil war and the dictatorship. Efforts to dig up mass graves in many rural towns and villages has been met with resistance from local authorities, and there has been little justice served to the families of victims.

It’s no wonder that tensions remain. 400,000 Spaniards died during the Civil War and under Franco. That’s 1 in 30 of all Spanish men at the time. The Spanish were so desperate for democracy at the end of Franco’s regime they felt able to let 400,000 grievances slip. El Pacto de Olivido – ‘The Pact of Forgetting’ – was the result: a decision by both the right and the left to avoid a process of national reconciliation and move on after Franco’s death in 1975.

In Vallecas, a neighbourhood gutted by Nazi bombs, the community found its solace and voice in a football club. Perhaps their radical identity is a rejection of the so-called ‘sociological Francoism’ found in modern Spain – of which Real Madrid may be the epitome. The link can be made. 

What is certain though, in the age of the Super League and massive commercial excess in football, these clubs represent completely different values.

Rayo’s identity is special. The beliefs and attitudes of the fans are unique and important for football. In a landscape where multi-million TV-deals and flashy billion-dollar stadiums are all too common it is refreshing to see a club where such radical opposition is in the fans’ DNA. Just search ‘Rayo protests’ on your internet browser as proof. Their inventiveness puts British fans’ efforts to shame.

During the match I was not surprised to hear chants of ‘Ni somos putos madrileños’ – ‘We are not fucking Madrilenians’ – coming from the terraces. As Rayo and Real went head-to-head it felt as if a civil war, of sorts, was taking place on the pitch. 

Rayo won 3-2.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Categories: Features

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