The team least likely to


“If they don’t let us play in Europe, it would be an injustice.”

Athletic Bilbao at home in Vallekas; the last game for this Rayo Vallecano team this season, officially the best in the club’s history with at least 8th place and 52 points guaranteed. One more game to defy the odds. One more game to entertain the fans. One more game to party, like the fans have done their whole lives whether battling in Spain’s third tier or challenging for European spots on minuscule budgets.

Rayo fans won't know until after the season has finished whether or not they'll be in the Europa League

Rayo fans won’t know until after the season has finished whether or not they’ll be in the Europa League. Photo credit: Danny Last.

Back it up – European spot? How? How have this lowly team from the Independent Republic of Vallekas, while as vibrant and as colourful as they come, reached the end of this season still fighting for a European spot? I ask this question considering the many obstacles that the club have faced in reaching this point, both on and off the field. The complications as to who can and who can’t get Europe, and why, are quite head-scratching, but I’ll do my best to explain the situation here.

First off, there’s the Málaga situation. Their, err interesting, owners have put them in a bad position by which the club have been banned from European competition for next season. This would obviously bode well for teams below them fighting for European berths, as the next best placed side would take the Andalucíans’ vacancy.

After that, another Europa League spot was (seemingly at the time, officially now) freed up in late February when Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid made it to the Copa Del Rey final. The Madrid teams held the second and third positions in the league at the time, and looked on course for Champions League qualification, meaning neither team would use the Europa League spot awarded to them with a Copa final place. The two teams did finish the season in second and third, although they swapped positions from February, with Real taking second ahead of Atleti. That allowed the next best team to fight for the chance to play in Europe’s secondary competition. As Málaga looked good for a high finish, assured of at least 7th spot (which would otherwise qualify them for Europe), it seemed that as far down as 8th place in the league could achieve qualification for the Europa League 2013/14 campaign.

“Rayo has debts, but we haven’t stopped paying them. Right now Rayo are a good example in terms of making payments, we don’t have anything due to anyone and everything is covered up to date”

Rayo Vallecano entered administration a few years ago. The club had difficulties paying players, and recent owners of the Vallecano side have given the fans plenty of strife to worry about. However, José Ramón Sandoval and his successor, current Rayo boss Paco Jémez, have given the fans the total opposite with regards to matters on the pitch. Sandoval took the club from the second division up to the first, and even managed to stay in the top flight with the last kick of the season with a goal known as the Tamudazo (named for Raúl Tamudo, scorer of the goal.) Paco Jémez came into a club who many thought were sure to be relegated this season, but instead has guaranteed at least 8th position in the league, and the club’s best ever season. However, nobody can say for sure that Jémez has secured Europa League qualification yet, despite on paper 8th place being enough.

Earlier this month, the club were denied a European license by the Spanish football federation, the RFEF, on the grounds of administration. It is true that the club have financial difficulties but one look at the dealings of the club since entering administration, you can see that all the right moves are being done. The club is paying what needs to be paid, and operating on a budget that they can afford, as opposed to spending millions on players while at the same time owing millions, like plenty of other La Liga teams do. Valencia, for instance, have had to be taken over by Bankia, the Spanish financial firm, yet still compete with expensive and competitive player signings. It can be validly argued that Atletico Madrid are one of the worst run clubs in Europe, too. The league didn’t hesitate for a second in awarding either team their European license.

Rayo Vallecano have to operate differently. Every player is for sale at the right price and often that price is free, as the majority of the squad can only be offered one year contracts because the club simply can’t afford to risk offering many players anything longer. After Sandoval left, most members of the team did too. Rayo had impressed people last year, and the best players like Michu, Arribas, and Movilla moved on to clubs that could offer them more money and security in the job. Diego Costa, Joel, and Emiliano Armenteros returned to their parent clubs, as Rayo weren’t able to keep players of that quality.

Youngsters Leo (L) and Lass (R) have been vital for Rayo this season

Youngsters Leo (L) and Lass (R) have been vital for Rayo this season

Paco Jémez had a lot of work to do even before a ball was kicked. He had to assemble a squad that could – ideally – compete. He dipped into the youth system and promoted Leo Baptistao and Nacho Martínez to the first team, while also giving youngster Lass more responsibility. Leo Baptistao has even been heralded as one of the best young players in the league, and has earned a move to Atletico Madrid for the upcoming season to go with that praise. Jémez also recruited Álex Gálvez, a centre back who is now being courted by Champions League runners up Dortmund, Chori Dominguez whose creativity has been vital in Rayo’s style of play this season, and Jordi Amat, a fantastic young centre half on loan from Espanyol.

The club are recruiting cheaply, employing players who come from the youth setup, on loan, or were out of contract. Despite this, the club is still being punished by the RFEF who rejected Rayo’s first appeal after being denied a European license. Why? I’m not really sure. Perhaps the league would rather 9th placed Sevilla, a far more marketable and popular club, in the Europa League, but I’m just speculating with this, we can’t know for certain.

Which Spanish teams will be in next season’s Europa League?

This is what we’re left with. Real Betis will be there for sure. They have their licenses, and they have enough points on the table. They are officially in. But who will be joining them? Real Sociedad and Valencia will fight it out for a place in the Champions League in two separate matches in the final day of the season and the loser will begrudgingly earn a Europa spot.

But then…

Rayo and the CAS

The club are now bringing the case forward to the CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in hopes of being allowed to compete in next season’s Europa League. Rayo and Espanyol (who were also denied a license) initially appealed the decisions with the league, and while Espanyol were subsequently awarded their license, Rayo were not. The CAS is an internationally recognised arbitration body established to settle disputes in the field of sport. Their current involvement shows how serious Rayo Vallecano are taking their Europa license deal. We can only play the waiting game from here to find out how the CAS decision goes.

Málaga, again

While Málaga are right now banned from European competition, they did have one ban overturned already. The result of their first overturning meant that Málaga would be eligible for European competition once they’ve served a one year ban, i.e. they would be given no more, when it originally looked like they may have. The Qatari-backed millionaire club are now appealing UEFA’s decision that left them banned in the first place, and are looking to be allowed back in the mix for Europa League 2013/14. Should this happen, it’ll render Rayo’s case practically pointless, as Málaga would then take the spot that would otherwise be Rayo’s.

Ninth

Should Rayo and Málaga both be denied their license and ban overturn it will result in the team finishing 9th in the table this year going to the Europa League. There are three teams that can possibly finish 9th, and Sevilla are the leaders of this race so far. They’re level on points with Getafe but have a better head to head record over the Madrid-based club, which means they’ll finish above them in the table if it needs to go to a tie-breaker. Two points behind sit Levante, who can take 9th spot with a win over Real Betis at home, combined with losses for Sevilla and Getafe, who play Valencia (h) and Granada (a) respectively. A win for Levante and draws in the other two games will give the Valencia club 9th spot, as the head to head record is in their favour as such: Levante, Sevilla, Getafe.

Rayo boss Paco Jémez is one of the main reasons for a successful 2012/13

Rayo boss Paco Jémez is one of the main reasons for a successful 2012/13

“We’re not letting this decision affect us. We’re going to do everything possible to get there on our own merits, because I know if we get into those positions, then the club is going to fight to the death.”

Rayo Vallecano were always the team least likely to get to Europe. For the Vallekano faithful, Europe has usually been outside the realms of possibility, for so many reasons. It did happen once though, when they club earned a UEFA Cup spot for the 2000/01 season through the FIFA Fair Play rule. Entry through the Fair Play rule didn’t stop Rayo reaching as far as the quarter finals, however, eventually defeated by runner-up Deportivo Alavés. In its 89 years of history, the club have never earned European competition by collecting enough points. The budget that a club in administration has to work with will always be an obstacle, especially in such a money-driven league. Rayo have never made an excuse of their budget, instead choosing to employ intelligently and use the tools at their disposal.

Ultimately, the club have been successful in very adverse circumstances. The highest place Rayo have ever finished in Spanish football before is 9th, on 52 points, achieved in 1999/2000. This season, the club are set to break that position record with 8th assured, and a loss in the final day of the season will see the club equal that 52 points tally. To me, it just doesn’t seem right to deny Rayo a European license after the good work the club have done and position in the table they have earned. Then again, this could be considered just one more example of the ineptitudes of the Spanish football governors. Played by geniuses, run by idiots.

Quotations throughout the article in bold italic are from Rayo Vallecano manager Paco Jémez, speaking about the denial of Rayo’s European license. 

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