“Next year, Lightning-Liverpool!”. It is the fashionable song in Vallecas and resounds in the preview of the game played on Sunday against Sevilla. “First let’s see if Liverpool gets in…”, jokes Álvaro García, one of the bastions of a Rayo who is rubbing shoulders with miuras like Athletic, Betis or Villarreal for entering European positions. “In the dressing room we are prudent, but it is logical that people get excited and dream. It is now the second round and we are not up there by chance”, says the winger.
Despite the fact that the last two draws (1-1) against Getafe and Sevilla have moderated the Rayista euphoria, Vallecas is dedicated to a team that, after 22 league games, is sixth in the table with the sixth lowest salary cap. This Sunday they had in front of a Sevilla called to be where they are and who their goalkeeper Bono saved from being defeated in the southeast of Madrid.
In command of the rayista ship is the youngest first class coach. Andoni Iraola (Usurbil, Gipuzkoa, 40 years old) achieved promotion in 2021 and eight of the eleven starters against Sevilla were part of that squad. One of them is Álvaro García, who spent two seasons in the second division with the Vallecanos before reaching the best moment of his career at the age of 30. “The key is the dressing room, we know each other perfectly and with the same coach the new ones adapt perfectly,” he explains.
David Cobeño, former Rayista player and sports director, highlights the importance of this block. “I talk about it with the footballers. They are the same, but after spending several years in the elite their confidence is different, the rivals have more respect for them and it shows. They are better than last season and also worse than the next one, ”he summarizes.
In the rayismo, the figure of Iraola seems key in the good progress of the team. With advanced pressure and a vertical game, Rayo is the sixth team in the League with the most shots on goal (13.14 shots per game). Nacho del Molino, a Rayista partner, commented before the match that he “knows a lot of people who, without being from Rayo, wear the team’s games to see good football” and that “he never disappoints” in that regard.
Rayo 2022/2023 equals the best numbers in the club’s history at this point in the season. He has 34 points in 22 days, the same as in the 2012/2013 season, where with Paco Jémez on the bench, they signed their best historical position (eighth with 53 points). They also had 34 points at this point last season, where during the first round they reached Champions positions. But the drop was considerable in the second round and they were only able to add eight more points to reach 42 and finish twelfth. Iraola himself is aware of the fear that history will repeat itself, who nevertheless pointed out at a press conference that this year he saw “a more balanced team in its results”.
For this stretch of the season they have brought in Raúl De Tomás, who stood out in his first spell at Rayo and scored 17 goals for Espanyol last year, which led to the call-up from the Spanish team. The summer soap opera of his departure from the Catalan club had the worst possible outcome: his return to Rayo was forged out of time and the player has been training without being able to play for four months. Teammates, managers and fans cross their fingers so that RDT recovers its best version and gives an extra quality to the Rayo striker, who already had a promising youngster like Sergio Camello and a veteran like Radamel Falcao.
The influx to the Vallecas stadium (with a capacity for almost 15,000 spectators) has grown compared to last season: from an average capacity of 57.2% it has gone to 82.9%, according to Transfermarkt. Antonio Castilla, president of the Peñas del Rayo Federation, enjoys the great sporting moment of a club that is the “emblem of his neighborhood” and coexists in the capital with two giants such as Real Madrid and Atlético. “There have been important displacements (to Getafe or Valladolid) and the youngest are getting hooked, despite the fact that the board has removed the child’s season ticket,” he explains.
The president of Rayo, Raúl Martín Presa, publicly asked for help from Isabel Díaz Ayuso and José Luis Martínez Almeida for the expansion of a stadium in Vallecas, which in his opinion “has become too small”. Also small is the structure of the club, made up of very few workers. “We are few, but we all love the strip. If we continue in first class for more years, the organization chart will expand”, affirms the sports director Cobeño.
Rayo is a special club for many reasons, but one of the most striking is that a large sector of the fans coexist around it, very much on the left and with a working-class spirit, with a president who invited Vox leaders to the box when fans were still unable to access stadiums due to the pandemic. Coexistence is not easy and from the clubs they do not give Presa any credit for the good sporting situation. “His decisions about him vary depending on the day and time,” says Antonio Castilla.
Of course, when the ball rolls, disagreements with the board of directors are forgotten and illusion prevails. The great challenge for those from Iraola is to keep up. “Managing the euphoria is easy because we are a humble club,” says Cobeño, who smiles when talking about walking the strip through the fields of Europe.
A single European participation
The only time that Rayo Vallecano participated in European competitions was in the 2000/2001 season. The Madrileños finished ninth the previous season, but were invited to the UEFA Cup for being one of the teams with the fewest bookings in Europe. They reached the quarterfinals, where they were eliminated by Alavés, who would be runner-up after the remembered final against Liverpool.
In the 2013/2014 season, after making the best campaign in its history, the Vallecanos should have also played in the Europa League, since they finished eighth and Málaga was sanctioned, but the club was in bankruptcy proceedings and UEFA did not grant them the license to play. It was precisely Sevilla, their last rival, who played in the tournament and ended up lifting the title after beating Benfica in the final.
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