Rayo Vallecano fans celebrate with their team's players after beating Mallorca in the Copa del Rey. EFE
Lightning strikes in Vallecas

Lightning strikes in Vallecas

There isn't a more daunting arena in the world right now than Estadio de Vallecas, home of Rayo Vallecano

Friday, 4 February 2022, 11:52

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Entering the three-sided stadium in a working-class barrio of Madrid is like going back in time, although it is very much existing in the present and may have a very promising near-future.

This week Rayo reached the semi-final of the Copa del Rey for the first time in 40 years in a season of fine achievements.

This was the scene of Ronald Koeman's last stand as Barcelona manager in October after being outplayed by the smallest club in La Liga.

By December, the team in white and distinctive red sash, reached the top-four and the fans were singing their favourite song: "Next year, Rayo-Liverpool'. It has always been a tongue-in-cheek chant; but the way things have been going it could still be a possibility.

The league form has dipped a touch, but they are still in the frame – just four points behind Barcelona. Only Sevilla have a better home record and Rayo have the best home defence.

It's not only Koeman who dislikes visiting the barrio. You can imagine the faces of football royalty if Champions League does become a reality at Rayo.

Behind one goal is a block of flats, where residents sit on terraces to take in the game. At the other end are bare-chested fans protesting at the ownership of the club, which seems to be succeeding despite the decisions of president Presa.

They are bare-chested because Presa insisted. They couldn't enter the stadium if they were wearing offending t-shirts and the club also don't sell tickets online or allow season passes, so queues form early to ensure entry for the cup match.

Presa has also created national headlines by appointing a coach to the women's team who is accused of making some very unsavoury comments. This is a team which has been underfunded since the start of the season and has lacked even basic medical back-up.

It makes the success of the men's team even more remarkable. Coach Andoni Iraola is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa from their time at Athletic Bilbao. He swapped ideas with Patrick Viera, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard when they played at New York City. This is about as far from the Big Apple you can get. The fans are very left-wing in their politics, but the team is balanced!

Iraola has assembled a formidable team at the ramshackle stadium. Columbian superstar Radamel Falcao accepted a return to Madrid. Luca Zidane is one of the goalkeepers and journeyman Argentinian Oscar Trejo leads La Liga's assist charts.

It's a club with shades of Millwall's "no-one likes us" attitude, with a tornado-like approach to football similar to Leeds United at a stadium wedged into a corner of the capital.

You'll never find the Estadio de Vallecas on a tourist map, but you may find it on a footballing map of Europe next season if all keeps going according to plan.

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