The Madrid double-header continued after a frenetic Uber whisked me from the shabby Vicente Calderón to the somehow more decrepit Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas, home of hipster sweethearts Rayo Vallecano.
Prior to this and the Atletico game, during my hunt for churros, I’d ventured into a souvenir shop off Gran Via. But my intention wasn’t solely to sneer at the tack inside, but rather to follow my gut instinct that an opportunity to feel better than everyone else was at hand.
As I browsed the inevitable merchandise of Real, Atletico and Barcelona, I was approached by a sales assistant. She asked if she could help, to which I replied, I’m looking for any kind of Rayo Vallecano paraphernalia.
She looked back at me perplexed. My chest heaved with pride.
Rayo Vallecano?, I offered once more.
No, no, she replied. I don’t know.
I slithered out a grin of rich, melted butter. God, I’m just so underground. So niche.
As the tide against the commercialisation of football grows, so does the legend of Rayo Vallecano. The only Spanish club named after a specific city quarter — Vallecas — they are staunchly left wing and a symbol of a working class neighbourhood. From famously chipping in to rehouse an evicted, elderly fan, to replacing the sash on their away kit with a rainbow in order to raise awareness for numerous social issues the club is fighting, this is a club that means so much more than football.
From the gods at the Calderón, I now found myself pitch side, bathed in early evening sun, watching a far more entertaining game of football than Atletico and Eibar offered up.
Rayo hurried out into a one goal lead. The goal music of choice was Europe’s The Final Countdown. It’s a choice that defies any logical comprehension, and that’s precisely why I approve of it. It’s the kind of bold artistic direction that was so lacking at the Vicente Calderón.
The atmosphere that proceeded to flow around the tatty rows was so warm and welcoming that I expected to find my three friends somewhere in attendance. The ultras were admirably doing their thing behind the goal, but in the two other stands everyone else was simultaneously relaxed and supportive. Chatting and chanting. Friends and family. The continued crack crack crack of sunflower seeds was even more prevalent here than at Atletico.
With the sun continuing to beat down, my pinkish hue was veering into red territory. With half time approaching I sought some shade, tentatively standing in an entrance leading from the stand to the concourse. Naturally, I was expecting a jobsworth steward to move me on for violating health and safety codes. But nothing came; nobody and no word. I peered over my shoulder to see the only visible steward chatting away to another fan, my presence before him the last thing on my mind.
Emboldened by this, I changed seats for the second half for one higher up in the stand, in what was evidently an unofficial, shaded, British groundhoppers zone. The men about me were either sickeningly pale, or painfully red, but both equally hiding from the sun. Like the Morlocks of The Time Machine clad in Fred Perry and Topman threads, we sat huddled in the relative darkness, not speaking to one another, watching on as Rayo retook the lead after a Levante equaliser late in the first half.
The final ten minutes were frantically played out in end to end football, but Rayo held on. The fans poured out into the fading twilight of the residential streets, heading to their homes nearby. In fact, the platforms at the Portazgo metro station, a dive away from the stadium itself, were unfathomably calm considering a football game had just cleared out. When a club is as staunchly representative of its people, however, they don’t need to travel far to get home, because they’re already there.
As football costs spiral out of control, Rayo Vallecano are truly a marvel, yet with all the feel of an endangered species. In the twin shadows of Real and Atletico, no less, it’s a victory in itself to sustain such magic so long; and long may it continue.