Romance, revolution and Rayo

Letter From Madrid
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The modest stadium's tiny corner shop gives as much room to souvenirs of Madrid's football giants Real and Atletico as to its own team's kit. But the T-shirts say it all. "Not only am I perfect," they swank, "I'm with Rayo Vallecano".

The modest stadium's tiny corner shop gives as much room to souvenirs of Madrid's football giants Real and Atletico as to its own team's kit. But the T-shirts say it all. "Not only am I perfect," they swank, "I'm with Rayo Vallecano".

Madrid's third team, the eternal yo-yo between Spain's Second Division and lower reaches of the First, are enjoying the most glorious season in their 75-year history. While their mighty local rivals flounder in the depths of la liga, wracked by crisis and self-doubt, plucky little Rayo (fans call it "Rayito" with condescending affection) are in the top four, accumulating points and bringing back romance to the game.

For several unprecedented weeks, Rayo - which means a lightning flash - streaked to the top of the table, a heady experience for an unpretentious local club promoted only this season. "It's unbelievable to think we are topping our two big rivals after more than three months," said a Rayo spokesman, Fernando Lopez, this week. "It's a utopia. We've over-achieved expectations even of the fans, and shown you don't need expensive signings to do well."

But their ambitions remain down to earth. "Our aim is to stay in the First Division. We'll be happy if we avoid relegation. Everything else is extra," Lopez says. The attitude is typical of the gritty, working-class suburb of Vallecas whose name the club bears.

Vallecas, a neighbourhood of a million people, is Madrid's industrial "red belt", once home to the pro-communist, strongly unionised workers who were the scourge of Franco's dictatorship. While Franco in the 1950s promoted Real Madrid's European aristocrats as the unofficial ambassadors of Spain, he sent baton charges and water cannons to crush illegal strikes in the factories of Vallecas.

That contrast echoes today on the terraces. Skinheads at the Bernabeu or the Calderon shout Nazi slogans and wave swastikas, but Rayo fans wave banners of Che Guevara. Their rebellious spirit is not so much Dave Spart as tongue in cheek: less a statement of political allegiance than rooting for the underdog.

People from Vallecas are renowned for their boundless self-esteem, swaggering cheek and impudent irony, typically Madrileño traits summed up in the expression "chuleria". They'll need bucketloads when David meets Goliath, in the form of Barcelona, at home on Wednesday. A gate of some 12,000 is expected, which is good for a 15,500-capacity stadium that is notoriously difficult to fill.

Fans will be craning from surrounding apartment blocks that enjoy a full view of the pitch. These are solid red-brick constructions: militant neighbourhood organisations fought in the 1970s to get miserable slums transformed into good housing. On Wednesday, as usual before a big match, pseudo-postmen and pizza delivery boys will bang on back doors to bluff their way to a balcony grandstand.

Rayo, like their local rivals, are run by a flashy impresario with a lurid reputation. The flamboyant businessman Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos bought the club in 1991 and three years later, for ill-defined financial reasons, handed over the presidency to his wife, Maria Teresa Rivero, mother of 13 and Spain's only female football president. A deeply religious housewife who knew nothing of football, Maria Teresa became a fervent fan. She set up a local welfare association, and five years ago the stadium adopted her name.

Ruiz Mateos was a small-time sherry producer who created a huge conglomerate, Rumasa, which the socialist government expropriated in 1983 for allegedly shady dealings. The magnate spent years in and out of prison, trying to clear his name. He once ambushed the economics minister, who was enjoying an intimate dinner with a Filipino lady companion, and flung a cream cake in his face.

The cake episode is recalled in a hilarious television advert for Ruiz Mateos's current business venture, Dhul dairy foods, in which the entire Rayo team, plus Maria Teresa, extol their owner's products. Players' shirts bear the name of Ruiz Mateos's Trapa chocolate bars, offering further evidence that Rayo forms part of the family business.

But the grizzled factory workers and teenage boys and girls of Vallecas who wait outside the changing room claim the players as their own. "We love them because they're our local boys," they say, and greet their idols with a gruff salute, or beg an autograph and a kiss.

Among those emerging from Friday's training session is the United States international goalkeeper Kasey Keller. The former Leicester man was signed only this season, but he catches the mood perfectly: "It's great to be Madrid's top team and we're proud to walk around the streets. But we're realists, we don't have the resources of our rivals. We accept our position in the social scale." He turns, stops a moment. "But at this rate we'll qualify for Europe. That would be great."