The Madrid suburb of Vallecas has long been a working-class neighbourhood in a cosmopolitan city.
An eyesore to General Franco’s nationalist vision, a knot of staunch resistance at the heart of Spain’s sprawling metropolis; it’s a place that’s largely been left to fend for itself, through times of economic neglect from a government that despised its very existence. A slum for the migrant workers, a shelter for the poor, it’s only the struggle of its people – keen protestors for their civil rights and unrelenting in their quest for social change – that has brought this battered barrio somewhat up to date.
Yet, while the skyscrapers of the big city still tower over the casas bajas (low houses) of one of its most impoverished neighbourhoods, Vallecas has never been a place to wallow in the shadows. Instead, a vibrant multiculturalism and an unfaltering togetherness drives it onwards, helping to forge the intense cluster of rebelliousness that has become synonymous with its name. Vallekas, with a k, embodies a gritty counter-culture, and its football club, Rayo Vallecano, bears that insurgent identity square on its shoulders.
The famous red stripe, the raucous ultras, the high-rise flats bearing down over the pitch – Rayo are widely lauded as the last of the neighbourhood clubs in Spain. Yet for all the ideological conviction in the stands, recent years have presented numerous identity crises from the top down. Stadium issues, ticketing disasters and money mismanagement have sparked Los Bukaneros (the club’s famous fan group) into never-ending protest, but political tensions between supporters and Rayo’s controversial president, Raúl Martín Presa, have since reached tipping point.
It perhaps culminated when the business tycoon invited two prominent far-right politicians to watch a behind-closed-doors game at the Estadio de Vallecas last season – after which, thousands arrived at the stadium in hazmat suits to “disinfect” the ground – and as a result, large sections of the club’s fervent support have boycotted match attendance this season.
And so, even while the club (by far the smallest, poorest and statistically weakest in Spain’s top-flight) bask in the glory of an unprecedented start to the campaign, there does seem to be something slightly awkward about the euphoria – something slightly less vociferous, at least – as footballing fairytales and deep-rooted political unrest continue to uncomfortably coexist.
From a neutral, external perspective though, it’s difficult not to feel some sort of affection towards Rayo Vallecano. Defying expectations and tearing up scripts – only promoted to La Liga last season after finishing sixth in Segunda División and overturning a 2-1 deficit in the play-off final – it seems as if the football club is gripped with the same spirit that drives Vallecas itself.
They’ve always delighted with their fearlessness – famously suffering relegation in 2015-16 with an entertaining 52 goals scored and 73 goals conceded – but there seems to be real substance to Rayo’s footballing audacity this time around; spearheaded, unbelievably, by the biggest name that this neighbourhood has ever seen.
With over 220 career goals, 70 of those in two blistering seasons that probably still have La Liga defenders tossing and turning in their sleep, players like Radamel Falcao simply don’t play for clubs like Rayo Vallecano. Yet somehow, somewhere amongst the political and administrative chaos, the Colombian slipped through the door. A global superstar at a local club, El Tigre – THE Radamel Falcao – wearing the red stripe of Rayo on his chest will probably have most at the club rubbing their eyes in disbelief for at least a few more months.
Radamel Falcao has scored his first La Liga goal since May 2013 against Barcelona.
Back in Spain and back in the goals. ⚽ pic.twitter.com/TcR4PqoLHV
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 18, 2021
But he is here, seriously. And while the peak of his powers may well be a few years behind him, his aura remains. “One of the three best finishers in the history of football”, according to Presa, he obviously brings that killer instinct in front of goal to Rayo, that ability to sniff out a chance and win the game. But he also brings variety and balance to the squad – a quietly talented group brimming with enthusiasm and fight – that, coming from Vallecas, knows the value of the collective when the poor go up against the rich.
A David amongst Goliaths, Andoni Iraola’s men incredibly find themselves third-top scorers in the division after matchday 11, having won all five of their first five home games, including one against Barcelona, by an aggregate score of 13-2. And, while Falcao may be the highest-profile, he is just one of nine different goal-scorers this season for Rayo.
Alongside the explosiveness of Randy Nteka, the craft and guile of Óscar Trejo, the lightning pace of Álvaro García, the imagination of Isi Palazón and the hold-up play of Sergi Guardiola, the Colombian offers a predatory instinct and a killer touch. His global reputation certainly earns him huge respect, but it doesn’t offer him an automatic starting spot.
Shirt sales and fan hysteria aside, Radamel Falcao is ultimately just one shiny new compartment to Rayo’s organised chaos.
Reflective of this, having racked up just 249 out of a possible 630 minutes so far for Iraola’s side, we’ve only seen glimpses of Falcao’s goalscoring touch in these opening rounds. Yet, with four goals from six shots on target, the manager’s plan for the Colombian has so far been executed to perfection.
The top six in LaLiga so far this season:
1️⃣ Sevilla (21 points, P10)
2️⃣ Real Betis (21 points, P11)
3️⃣ Real Sociedad (21 points, P10)
4️⃣ Real Madrid (20 points, P9)
5️⃣ Rayo Vallecano (19 points, P11)
6️⃣ Atlético Madrid (18 points, P9)
Barcelona are ninth. 🙃 pic.twitter.com/fpXzuVs2Xe
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) October 27, 2021
Against Getafe, just strolling from defender to defender, he suddenly darts across Jonathan Silva and into the space to receive the through-ball, before firing a lethal finish across David Soria’s goal. Against Cádiz, he springs into life to get in front of Varazdat Haroyan, beating the centre-back to the front-post to bundle home the cross.
Against Athletic Club, in the 97th minute, he carries on his run while the rest of the defensive line stops, crashing in the decisive header from Bebé’s powerful delivery to give Rayo all three points. And against Barcelona, stretching away from Gerard Piqué, he keeps his composure under pressure, takes his time, and rolls the ball in off the bottom left-hand post.
Small movements, quick decisions and clinical finishes; Falcao probably won’t be destroying teams all on his own like the long-locked live wire he once was, but he’ll certainly be popping up with those crucial goals that will keep plucky little Rayo in this division – and who knows, maybe even more.
And so, while things finally start to look rosy for Rayo Vallecano on the pitch, the storm, if anything, shows no sign of abating off it. The striker must have been wondering what he had gotten himself into after his official presentation, where, trying to address 2000 of his new adoring fans, he repeatedly had to stop to let the whistles and boos die down for the club president who stood beside him.
But football is much more than just a distraction here in Vallecas – it’s a vibrant representation of who its people are, and a real opportunity for a voiceless community to make their voices heard. And so, while Radamel Falcao’s goals won’t ever paper over any societal injustice in Vallecas, his mere presence, his mere association with Rayo’s rebellious cause – as one of the greatest strikers of his generation – can only help to put Vallecas’ fizzing reputation on the map.