Politics and passion in MadridPosted: October 25, 2012
I’ve recently moved to Madrid from my hometown of Dublin. I came here to study communications and learn Spanish, but I’m also going to grab with great fervour the chance to experience a year of Spain’s La Liga football, which in my opinion is the best league in the world. The best league on the pitch, that is. There is a saying over here that La Liga is ‘played by geniuses, run by idiots.’ In my first three weeks of living here, I already saw first hand the extent of the truth behind the saying.
In this article, I’m going to write about my first experiences of La Liga football this season, and the culture behind it in the city of Madrid, in the setting of a week where two derbies were played involving Rayo Vallecano, Atlético de Madrid, and los Campeones, Real Madrid.
I settled into life in Madrid relatively quickly. It wasn’t that hard to do (for me anyway), as a student living with four friends, when we arrived we enjoyed the occasional alcoholic beverage and venture into the city centre to experience the nightlife (every night…) I live in the west of the city, a two minute walk away from the river, to the Manzanares’ west. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Madrid, El Estadio Vicente Calderón is located south-west of the city centre too, and as I discovered on a walk I went on one day, I lived only a stone’s throw away from Atlético Madrid’s ground. The Calderón is actually located just on the banks of the river, on the east side, so there’ll always be some physical separation between my house and Atleti’s stadium.
The walk was an interesting one, anyway. Graffiti is very common and popular in Spain’s capital, and unfortunately surrounding Atlético’s ground are many displays of right-wing, fascist symbols and messages spray-painted on walls wherever there is enough space for one. On the other hand, there are the rare pieces of antifascist and anarchist inscriptions in that part of town. These left-wing symbols seemed to build up and almost amalgamate further away from the Calderón, closer to my house and surrounding streets.
In Madrid there is no escape from politics – it is everywhere. From the Republicana flags and colours displayed proudly at plenty of stalls at El Rastro, Madrid’s largest and hugely famous Sunday market, to the never-ending posters of protests and strikes against the government, to the antithesis – the white power symbolism that can be seen in certain parts of town. Everybody is aware of politics constantly, because there’s almost no way that you can’t be, with reminders everywhere you look.
Modern Spanish history is a peculiar story, with hugely divided opinions over the former dictator Francisco Franco – who took power from the left wing Republicana government in the 1930s. He died in 1975 due to natural causes. He wasn’t killed by opposition forces, and he remained in power until the day he died. Some loved him; there are people in the city who believe strongly in Franco’s idea of a totally separatist Spain, completely self-dependent. There are others who believe that Franco’s reign was the worst thing ever to happen to their country, with hugely conservative policies, often crossing lines on xenophobic, racist, and homophobic issues.
The area I live in has suffered a lot during La Crisis, from which the entire country of Spain is enduring a seemingly significantly more turbulent time than most other places in Europe/the world. A walk down one of the main streets close to my house will show you shop after shop after shop; what would otherwise be a great spot to buy almost anything you need. For the life of me, I couldn’t get my head around the opening/closing times of these stores, as I never saw them open and trading, but guessed it was something to do with poor timing on my part as many shops close at siesta time (c. 13:00-15:00) during the day, and Sundays. After around three weeks of living here I realised that these telephone network stores, cafés, bars, and other places now unidentifiable, have all closed down in the midst of the economic crash.
The heated debate over the former dictator Franco still has a massive effect on contemporary society. And how could it not, when the country is still doing so badly in global economics?
On Sunday, September 16th at 21:30 local time kicked off my first match of the season. The venue was the ground right by my house, Atleti’s Vicente Calderón, and their opposition was Rayo Vallecano. Rayo and its fans probably have one of the strongest identities in all of football, not just the Spanish game. The Rayistas are proud of their working-class background, in the barrio of Vallecas (or, Vallekas as it is often written by those from in and around the area.) Their club struggle greatly financially, and simply put, they will never win La Liga, as long as everything in Spanish football continues to be administrated the way it is now.
But do the Rayistas care about fighting for the league? Of course not. They care about being individual, breaking away from the mould of the typical, glory-hunting Madridistas. They care about having their strong left-wing identity, with Che Guevara, Anarchist, Communist, and Socialist symbolism proudly displayed at their games. The red-yellow-red flag that we’ve all seen is not the Spain flag that represents them, but rather the red-yellow-purple Republicana flag, used by the liberal, left-wing government in Spain in the 1930s is.
Vallekas is relatively similar to the area that I live in, in the fact that it is a poorer region of the city than the likes of further north, where El Estadio Santiago Bernabéu rests pretty. The people have had tougher lives than others, and are especially not happy with the government in charge of today, the right-wing, conservative Partido Popular. Those who are seen in the news taking to the streets in protest of education cuts, rising taxes, and austerity policies, are of the exact same mindset as the Rayistas.
On the 29th of March, 2012, there was a massive general strike in Spain. It was an open-invite to join the strike, open to any sector of the working force. Any sector. And hey, to some lucky few people, football is a job. There are men and women who wake up every morning and are paid to exercise and perfect their fitness, their passing, their control, their skill. But who’d expect a football club to join a general strike?
Rayo Vallecano joined this strike. The 29th of March was a Thursday, and there were no games to be played in La Liga that day, so Rayo’s players didn’t take to the training field, in solidarity with their peers driving metros and buses, selling you your bread and milk in your local supermarket, teaching your children in school, or whatever else. Rayo are a left-wing club, and proud of it.
Thirteen months beforehand, the club were declared bankrupt. They were having a decent season in La Segunda División and had a real chance of going up. But in February of that season, the financial situation in Vallekas truly broke out, with many players revealing that they had gone months without being paid – despite playing so well in hunt for promotion.
The players of Rayo were genuine human beings, and not the typical prima donnas normally associated with professional footballers. Before games that season they held numerous displays, such as a banner that read “Fix the problem, pay the players.” They also wore t-shirts that read “Rayo and the fans – united by a feeling.” For the liberal left-wing fans on the stands seeing this, it could have been their friend, boyfriend, brother, or whatever on the pitch fighting for the same things as those politically active fans. And in ways, they were their friends and brothers.
But across town around the Calderón part of Madrid can be found many a person with the opposite political ideology. There are still those who feel the need to defile the painting of Rayo’s crest on the walls of their ground with white-power symbols (which happened just in the past week gone.) There are still those who feel the need to antagonize Rayo’s fans on their way to the Calderón with Nazi salutes.
On the day of the game between Atlético and Rayo, I was very aware of politics in the country – as I mentioned before it’s very difficult to shy away from it. I had read stories before of Atlético’s more extreme fans and ultras being of a fascist midset, but never really understood the extent of it. In the week before the game, the fixture had been declared one of ‘high risk’, and would duly be policed with extreme caution. The reason for this is because of events at last year’s derby between the two sides. It was the first year the pair of clubs played each other for a number of years as Rayo were only promoted to La Primera last season (11/12), and the two sets of the more active and aggressive fans made up for lost time.
I’m not for one second suggesting that every Atlético fan is a Hitler-supporting fascist. In my time so far in Madrid I’ve made numerous Atletico-supporting friends, none of them (as far as I’m aware) fascist, some of them don’t care much for politics whatsoever. But unfortunately it can’t be denied that there is certainly an element of their support who are like that.
As a safety precaution for all Rayo fans, aggressive or not, the club organised for everybody to travel from Vallekas to the Calderón together. If you didn’t want to or couldn’t make it to Vallekas at the time, others met up at Príncipe Pío metro station at 19:00. This is where I joined the Rayistas, as it only took me ten minutes to walk there, and about 20-30 minutes to (slowly) walk from there to the stadium.
At the game for me, it was great to be right there in the middle of the fans, to see how Spanish football culture is, to see what pre-match preparations are like for Rayistas. As we marched towards the stadium together, we passed a number of Atlético bars and were greeted with many a fascist salute. The obligatory middle fingers and “hijos de puta”s followed, but nothing serious broke out, it remained at verbals. We continued on our way and entered the ground at 20:17. Kick off was at 21:30… Perhaps it was just because it was a game of high risk, perhaps it is the norm for away supporters, but we arrived with almost an hour and fifteen minutes to kill in the Vicente Calderón.
At half time Atlético lead 1-0. An awful opening ten minutes of the second half for Rayo saw the home side take an easy 4-0 lead. The score stayed like that for a long time afterwards, entering the final ten minutes of the match. Impossible to come back from, but Rayo fans were more concerned with shouting for their team and singing anyway. Because of the scoreline, everybody had to find amusement elsewhere, and the Rayo fun and games really began as the fans started to have some fun in the stands.
One of the leaders of the ultra group orchestrated the evening’s proceedings with a megaphone at the bottom front of the stand, common amongst the Bukaneros (Rayo ultra group), so everybody could hear the orders from below. He spoke in Spanish, and with my Spanish not exactly perfect, I could understand only a few words of what he said. This lead to a lot of confusion for myself, as everybody surrounding me would suddenly and in unison would pretend as though they were in the middle of an earthquake, and start falling on the seats and over the friends and fellow Rayistas next to them.
Before the first Rayo goal, everybody made synchronised movements taking steps to the left, then right, then afterwards, everybody began climbing up the stand onto the rows of seats behind them. As we did this, with our backs to the pitch on minute 82, Andrija Delibasic popped up with the first for Rayo. The fans didn’t know or realise for a moment though. “Gol?” everybody asked each other. “Sí – gol! Yaaaaaaayyyyyy…!”
Afterwards, the Rayo faithful continued to entertain themselves by having a fake fight between each other. Everybody made a giant separation in the group of fans, and those on each side began hurling mock abuse and some empty paper cups at each other. After the verbal warm up, the two sides joined together and began light-heartedly pushing each other as though a massive altercation was going on. As soon as this ended everybody sang about themselves being “hijos de putas.” These Rayo guys knew how to have fun.
The excitement really amassed when Rayo’s next two goals went in – “SÍ, SE PUEDE! SÍ, SE PUEDE!” the crowd roared, every heart in the stadium ferociously pounding with either excitement and hope, or nervousness and fear, of a possible fourth goal and equaliser.
Alas, it wasn’t to come. Around the 90 minute mark, Atlético’s players were being ruthlessly hacked into the ground, in dire need of medical treatment, but no amount of lying down on the pitch could possibly heal them – only the referee’s full time whistle could do the job. The final score ended 4-3 in what ended up as being a very interesting and ultimately tense affair, with both teams scoring/conceding three quickfire goals at different points in the second half.
After a police escort back to the metro station of Príncipe Pío (from which I actually broke away half way through, as I ended up just walking away from my house,) everybody went back home, or to a friend’s house, or to a bar, with their minds solely focussed on next week’s game, Rayo Vallecano vs Real Madrid. Poor vs Rich. Neglected vs Spoiled. Left vs Right.