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The Rayo aficionado - with Carl Harper (4th January, 2018)

The Rayo aficionado series was intended to interviewing Rayo fans from various backgrounds, and so far this blog has been privileged to feature fans who are born and bred in Vallekas. But the international reach that this small club has had is amazing - Finland and Oslo were surprising, but Washington DC might be the hardest to beat.

Nevertheless, given the number of Rayo fans in the UK - and given that a Newcastle and Lancashire based fan have already contributed to this series - it's with great delight that I can announce that I'm joining forces with Carl Harper in setting up a UK based Rayo Vallecano supporters group.

We are in our infancy, and you can find more details on social media below. Moreover, we will try and give some English coverage of Rayo Vallecano as well - I'll try my best to increase my coverage on this blog too, but forgive me if I go back to writing about a Segunda B player no one has heard of. I'll resist that temptation - sometimes.

Finally, this series has always been in an interview format. However, Carl's story for his search of a club that fits his political identity doesn't require the limits of an interview. And if you find his story fascinating, as I'm sure you will, do follow him on Twitter: @carlharper_rvm.

Take it away Carl.

My love for Rayo Vallecano started with an article in The Guardian newspaper. It began “A football club has vowed to pay the rent for an 85-year-old woman evicted from her home”.

As soon as I finished reading the piece I got to finding out as much as I could about the team from “a working-class area of Madrid”. I was hooked instantly. The story of Carmen Martínez Ayudo was just the tip of the iceberg. From then on I’ve be supporting Rayo Vallecano.

I knew about other football clubs with left-leaning fan bases through being a socialist myself - more accurately a communist, but that term has become synonymous with all sorts of mangled and downright inaccurate connotations in the minds of the ignorant and brainwashed.

Like many people, I knew of St Pauli from Germany who are probably the most renowned, becoming adopted by so-called ‘hipsters’ around the world for their anti-fascist position and ‘ultra’ fans. There’s also Livorno in Italy; the capital of Italian communism and Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus; who were formed following a political split from the right-wing APOEL club. Closer to home, Dulwich Hamlet from South London, who ply their trade in the 7th tier of English football, have become associated with brilliant anti-racist and anti-homophobic campaigning.

Rayo, though, seemed special, and set themselves apart from all of these. The left-wing ideology stemmed from a class-based politicization of social issues and the issues capitalism created for football. Their fans unashamedly linked the two things together.

All my life up to that point I’ve been an Evertonian, despite living in Peterborough in the East Midlands. My Mum and her family are from Liverpool and all support the Blue side. My Dad, also an Everton fan, was actually born in Malta. Like him, I do try to keep an eye on Maltese football too, particularly Sliema Wanderers who represent the city of Sliema where he was born. When asked though, I prefer to say I follow Melita, a team representing the town of San Ġiljan where I like to stay on holiday, who are lingering towards the bottom of the second-tier.

The only connection I have with Peterborough United, my local team, is that I played for them for a while as a teenager. They boast a few facts of footballing interest - never losing at Wembley, beating Liverpool in the 90’s and being successful in a law-suit brought by Victoria Beckham over their nickname “The Posh” - but very little by way of a real identity.

Rayo have real identity. The fans are actively involved in Left-wing political movements including challenging capitalism’s role in football. This is where my love for the lightning reaches astronomical heights. The combination of football and social issues.

Hater of all things working class, Margaret Thatcher arguably introduced the capitalist slime into football’s core which started the rot. Nearly all that is left is a corporate carcass. She seemed to see football, and those who watched it, as other "enemies within" to join those on the picket lines and on the left. She and her ministers often described the game as a "law and order issue". The battle-lines were drawn but the real law and order injustices were committed by her government and the arm of the state, the police.

Her attitude to football, inevitably colored by the reaction of most football fans to her, was bound up in the web of social and cultural upheaval that she helped create – particularly in the sport's great northern strongholds.

Her notable ‘involvements’ in football include her governments’ role in the Hillsborough disaster cover-up, where she and the police blamed working-class people for their own deaths. Heysel, where she feared for Britain’s international reputation and took it out on the fans by withdrawing clubs from international competitions (negatively affecting the great Everton team of the mid-80’s). It could be argued this went some-way in fueling the growth of right-wing tribalism in some of the fans groups or ultras in the UK and across the continent as other leagues adopted the capitalist model.

Most disastrous for football as a whole was undeniably her parties’ promotion of capitalism in all aspects of life. Those tentacles eventually made their way into football, most prominently by effectively privatizing the top division.

The formation of the Premier League has been like year zero; previous football history did not happen. The new owners and media would like to forget football’s working-class roots as it grows its corporate cash-cow at the expense of the fans.

Rayo fans get all that. They have a history of fighting it. Some recorded, most I fear, only known by those who were involved. They recognize and politicize the fact that football clubs are fundamentally unlike other businesses. They are part of the community and are dear to the hearts of the many thousands of people who support their teams. In a very organised fashion, Rayo fans, specifically the peñas such as the Bukaneros, campaign on behalf of fans - all fans - against this capitalist football which puts profit before fans.

The fact that the Bukaneros perform this task in the face of an often malevolent state and out-of-touch club owners is nothing short of heroic.

From a footballing point of view, Rayo are just as fascinating. For instance the stadium, the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas, has a wall directly behind the goal at one end. On a match day it is full of color and loud with singing, very intimidating for visiting sides.

It’s fair to say that it is in need of renovation work. It is entirely possible for the ground to be improved, modernized and made safe without losing the working-class, passionate identity of Vallecas. Of course, it isn’t possible if the club’s money is being poured into a corporate plaything in the US (OKC) as the Bukaneros and others have pointed out!

Rayo fans, generally speaking, expect only that the team plays with pride. Like one of the banners seen in the stadium states, “poor but proud”. The fans understand, even if they are against the fact, that huge amounts of money has entered into the game. They do not expect to win every game, nor do they even expect to be in the top league, but they expect the players to proudly pull on the shirt that represents the neighborhood and ideology of the club.

Managers such as Paco Jémez and, to arguably a lesser degree current coach Míchel, are probably managerial manifestations of the Rayo ethos. Turn out to win, to be the protagonists and attack the opposition, not just try to do what’s best for the board. To entertain and make proud the fans is paramount for a Rayo team.

Other managers that would be known to UK football fans would be Juande Ramos, who led Rayo to great European success, Pepe Mel, who had a rather unsuccessful spell in England but is well liked amongst Rayistas, and fans of Chelsea may know that left-back Marcos Alonso’s Dad (of the same name) was the first Rayo Manager to lead the team to victory over Real Madrid in the 90’s.

Some quality players have passed through Vallecano too. Players like Diego Costa, Álvaro Negredo, Mohamed Diamé, Michu, Coke, and Kasey Keller have played for the stripe in the past. Rayo Vallecano was also Laurie Cunningham's last club – he was killed in a car crash just outside Madrid in 1989.

Legends like Potele and Felines are fans’ favorites and magician Roberto Trashorras still appears now and again aged 36.

There’s also plenty to be exited about with the current crop of players, whilst remembering the financial state of the club. Youngsters Santi Comesaña and Fran Beltrán have seemingly established themselves in the middle of the field. Óscar Trejo, another fans favorite, has just signed a new deal and the youth set-up is showing some promising signs too.

English clubs have only recently adopted a structural style similar to those in Spain; a coach supported by sporting directors and technicians of various flamboyant titles. This is common in Spain and many clubs try to ensure the youth systems support the first team, down to playing a similar style of football from bottom to top.

Before leading the first team, Míchel had worked with the youth system trying to implement such a setup. And without being an expert on Rayo’s youth team, it would appear from articles I have seen that this is helping players towards appearing in the first team. Players like Sergio Akieme are close to following Santi and Fran with others, like Kike, described by Unión Rayo as a ‘beautiful player’ are also not far behind. Jean Jules, Joni Montiel, Jesús Mena, Raúl Espinosa, Pablo Villalón and Sergio Benito are also names I’ve seen touted about on various sites.

As a center-half in my youth I particularly admire Chechu Dorado, though he’s in the autumn of his years now, and Emiliano Velázquez, the young Uruguayan who is, like many others, a loanee, from Atlético in his case. Alberto García, Unai López, and Raúl de Tomás, are the other loanees who are regular starters for El Rayo, from Getafe, Bilbao and Real Madrid respectively.

Rayo fans are not deluded enough to expect ‘marquee signings’. For a number of reasons; firstly because they demand players sign up fully to the standards and ethos of the club, which in the age of multi-million pound (or Euro) contracts narrows the market significantly. This is a sacrifice many are willing to make. You must ‘get’ Rayo for all it is before you get to wear the stripe jersey and get the pay too - look at the Zozulya affair!

More infuriatingly, years of mismanagement by the Board has seen the club financially fragile at best, almost completely crippled at worst. A whole article could be written about the current owner, Raúl Martín Presa (with his ventures into the American soccer leagues at the expense of Rayo) and previous owner José María Ruiz-Mateos (with his superman costumes and threats to journalists and the Bukaneros).

Rayo fans make it clear that you don’t just sign a playing contract when you sign with Rayo, there’s a social contract too and these values are at the core of what you’re signing up for. That runs from the youth players right through to the first team and up (or down, depending on your view of things) to the board.

The team have a good chance of lifting themselves back up into the top flight, La Liga. Whilst fans put adherence to pride and ideology before promotion, promotion would of course be welcomed.

On paper, we should ease ourselves back in against Nàstic who sit Just above the relegation places. We then face two teams in and around us in the play-off Places; at home to Oviedo then a trip to Numancia. I think these games could shape our season but with Rayo, you simply never rule anything out!

But it’s the social and political movements of the fans that drew me to supporting Rayo if the truth be told. Yes, Everton, my team since childhood, and others in England engage in campaigns and occasionally these reach out further than the pitch. These can be sporadic though, with most campaigns focused solely on their own club or individual theme (ticket prices, chairman, etc). This in no way takes away any of the dedication and hard work of those fans, but with Rayo that ethos of challenging social ills and capitalist wrongdoing runs through their veins. It shapes how they view football as a whole. The social contract and the values being at the very core of what you’re signing up for as a Rayista.

And that’s why I support Rayo Vallecano and that why I’m making it my aim in 2018 to create a UK Supporters Group (or peña), getting as many people from the left who love football - the original and best working class sport - to join and share the magic and passion of the lightning.

In our infancy, we have a Twitter account (@UKvallecano) and a Facebook page (give it a like here) from which we want to spread the message and be a focal point and a place for others to meet and engage. We’ve made contact with some of the groups already in existence in Spain and I’d like to thank Unión Rayo who have been very supportive in our early stages. I’d like to thank Robbie Dunne, by the way, who has written a fantastic book about Rayo, I think the only English language book on El Rayo.

If you’re interested in learning more about Rayo, or know someone who might be, do get in touch with us.

Let’s make 2018 the year we bring the pride of Vallecas to the UK and fly the stripe flag and promote the values that go with it high and wide.


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