The Rebirth and Near Death of Rayo Vallecano

Police helicopters buzzing about; beer-fueled fans pouring through the turnstiles; TV cameras squeezed onto the narrow strip of grass separating the pitch and stands - Rayo Vallecano's Estadio Teresa Rivero was certainly the place to be in Madrid late on Sunday night.

The weekend break for la Primera meant that the Segunda division clash between Betis and Rayo in Vallecas - a working-class suburb nine metro stops and fifteen minutes south of Sol station in the centre of Madrid - was the Big One. It was the match that Canal Plus had chosen for their prime-time extravaganza, the game between two fallen giants of la Liga trying desperately to clamber back towards the bright lights like a mono-winged moth.

But as well as being a tight tussle between the two sides occupying the two slots at the top of the table, the game was also a charity match - the twist being that while both sets of players were playing for free, no-one could be entirely sure where the proceeds would end up.

Despite being Spain’s top second-tier teams and favourites for a return to la Primera, Rayo and Betis are both financial basket cases. The club from Seville, who dropped out of the top-flight in 2009, are in Spain’s equivalent of administration and it is still unclear who owns the club due to the murky business dealings of their downright scary former president, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.

In fact, Betis are so cash-strapped that it is relying on collections from supporters to help pay for the cancer treatment required by former Liverpool defender, Miki Roqué, to remove a tumour from his pelvis.

Rayo are in also in deep trouble, with the club having only sporadically paid their players’ salaries - which given their second tier status aren't likely to be extravagantly high anyway. Midfielder, Javi Fuego, revealed that he has only been paid twice in the past nine months.

The Vallecas club’s problem is incompetent owners. In this case the Nueva Rumasa group who suspended payments to clients at the end of February due to debts reported to total around €700 million. The company is owned by José María Ruiz-Mateos - a truly appalling ‘businessman’ who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2005 for fraud and tax evasion.

These were the charges he was found guilty of in the 1980s when the first incarnation of Rumasa was shut down by the Spanish government due to debt and unpaid bills. And these are the charges that the Ruiz-Mateos empire which includes his 13 children are facing again.

Players have tried visiting his estate, wearing t-shirts calling for solutions and petitioning his batty wife Teresa Rivero, who is the club president - her delightful husband had to pull a swift financial trick and put the club into her hands as his reputation was less than clean - but the only response from Rivero was the claim that the players weren’t trying hard enough in their promotion campaign and that her husband is "a man of his word”.

Supporters have also being trying to force Ruiz-Mateos to sell up and leave Vallecas. Fans have formed a human chain around the stadium, ripped the ‘Teresa Rivero’ letters from the front of the ground that takes her name, held up a banner portraying Ruiz-Mateos as a mafia godfather and even formed a convoy to the family home in the posh part of Madrid. But so far, nothing has worked and the players have had to keep playing knowing that the only realistic chance of ever being paid is to win promotion.

Using the national coverage of the game, the players walked out onto the pitch on Sunday night carrying a “Rayo Vallecano Solutions Now!” banner with the fans backing their campaign with a red card protest on the 15th minute and 60th minute mark.

The club’s Ultra group had done their bit to hit the headlines too, but not exactly in a helpful manner. LLL popped out of the metro exit outside the front of the stadium to see a helicopter buzzing over ahead and gun-clutching, riot police looking very menacing indeed. Not that surprising as it turned out, as minutes before a police car had been set on fire by home hooligans in an overspill of clashes between Rayo and Betis Ultras.

However, there was no trouble inside the stadium during the game, despite the fences around the ground having been taken down during the week for the first time in 34 years. Instead, the atmosphere inside the three-sided stadium was electric, with the Rayo Ultra group showing their rare-in-Spain Marxist leanings by unfurling a banner condemning the “imperialist war in Libya.”

“We saw a Vallecas without fences with just a low wall, supporting the team like never before,” was the praise from manager, José Ramón Sandoval after the game.

The clash itself was as tense as was to be expected, with Rayo starting the encounter just one point behind Betis at the top of the table. The home side had the best of the chances in the first half with the visitors reversing the pattern in the second.

However, it was a 65th minute strike from Piti that gave Rayo the victory and meant that the forward had a long night of TV and radio interviews to face in the club’s cramped press area.

There are still eleven games to go until the end of the season in la Segunda, but Rayo now have a six point lead over third-placed Celta in a division where the top two go up with a third team winning promotion through a new play-off system.

The players and coach Jose Ramon Sandoval know that events off the field are out of their hands. Word on the street in Madrid is that a takeover could be in the offing, but striking a deal could prove tricky thanks to the opaque business dealings of the Ruiz-Mateos family. All Rayo can do is pick up the wins required to return the side to la Primera after an eight year absence and reward the club’s 12,000 members and other supporters who left ‘sold out’ signs plastered all over the ground on Sunday night.

Rayo supporters are looking to return to the top flight and win back the title of Madrid’s third team - a label pinched by Getafe in recent years. With so many stadiums in la Primera made sterile by apathetic supporters - Getafe included - Spanish football needs the passion and verve of a reborn Rayo Vallecano.

On Sunday night, the club took a huge step towards making that happen.