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 the stadium really is there.
Well, I know it's there, of course, living 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 toward 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, wearing their distinctive white shirt with the 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 Sebastian, 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+ satellite dishes on the building is therefore significant.
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 newest 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. 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 among 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 seven million euros (which is half of Cristiano Ronaldo's salary) and the usual book-balancing exodus of players (Leo Baptistao to Atletico, Javi Fuego to Valencia, Piti to Granada, Jose 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 -- those points coming from a 3-0 win against Elche on the opening day. Amazingly, Coach Paco Jemez took Rayo to third 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 halfway 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 2300 hours, which included the Rayo versus 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 Atletico, and the prawn-sandwich set at the Bernabeu. 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").
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 p-----r!), 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 something disparaging 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!"
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 Bernabeu?" Why, indeed?