There is no other club in Spanish football that is quite like Rayo Vallecano. Tucked away in the south-east suburbs of Madrid and dwarfed in size & support by two heavyweights of the world game, you would forgive Rayo if they opted for a simple, quiet life. Nothing could be further from the truth, as either by default or design, Rayo has led a very eccentric existence.
The story of Rayo Vallecano goes back to 29 May 1924 when Agrupación Deportiva El Rayo was formed. Rayo is Spanish for lightening and the club kicked around the local leagues for the next 20-odd years, one of many small clubs in the Vallecas district of Madrid. Home in those early years was the Campo de la Calle de las Erillas, which stood around 300 metres west of their current home. In 1940, the club moved to the Campo de El Rodival and by 1947, they were the district’s senior team and had changed its name to Agrupación Deportiva Rayo Vallecano. By 1949 Rayo had reached the Tercera and was a subsidiary of Atlético Madrid. The club also adopted its distinctive red sash in 1949 after receiving shirts from Club River Plate of Argentina, who had used El Rodival for training in the lead up to a friendly with Real Madrid. El Rodival remained the club’s home ground until the mid-fifties, then for a couple of seasons, the club led a nomadic existence until the renovation of Campo de Vallecas, the former home of Atlético Madrid, was completed in December 1957. The handicap of not having a permanent home did not hinder Rayo as the club won promotion to La Segunda at the end of the 1955-56 season.
The stay in La Segunda lasted five years, with the highest place finish in 1959-60 of fifth. Relegation followed in the following season, but four seasons later Rayo returned to La Segunda in style. The 1964-65 season saw Rayo play 30 matches, score 102 goals and become the first club outside of the top flight to remain unbeaten throughout a campaign. Back in La Segunda, Rayo had a look of permanence about them and the club was soon establishing themselves as one of the front-runners in the division. Fourth place was achieved in 1967-68 and the club was not out of the top ten in any of the first eight seasons back in La Segunda.
In November 1972 the club moved away from Campo de Vallecas whilst a new stadium was developed on the site. For three and a half years they played their matches in the centre of Madrid at the Campo de Vallehermoso. The first game at their temporary home was on 5 November 1972, when Rayo beat CE Sabadell 3-0. Form dropped a little whilst at Vallehermoso and in 1975 Rayo had to overcome UP Langreo in a relegation play-off.
Finally, on 10 May 1976, the Estadio Nuevo Vallecas opened with Rayo winning 1-0 in a league match against Cádiz. Although the stadium was formally inaugurated on 5 June 1976 by soon to be Spanish president, Aldofo Suárez. As for the Campo de Vallehermoso, which was stood just a mile or so south-west of the Bernabéu, it saw out its days as an athletics stadium until it was demolished in the autumn of 2008.
Under the management of Víctor Núñez and buoyed by the momentum of a new stadium, Rayo remained unbeaten at home throughout the 1976-77 season, which is just as well considering their very ordinary away form. A points total of 45 was two clear of fourth-placed Real Jaen and secured Rayo’s first promotion to La Primera. Their impressive home form continued during their first season at the top level, with reigning champions Barcelona and champions-elect Real Madrid losing at the Estadio Nueva Vallecas. Away form was still a problem, however, with Athletic Bilbao and Valencia handing out drubbings. In the end, Rayo finished a very creditable tenth place. The end to their first visit to La Primera came at the end of the 1979-80 season when a total of 26 points saw them finish in sixteenth position.
Rayo came within a point of an immediate return to La Primera, losing out on a worse head to head record with third-placed Racing Santander. There followed two seasons of diminishing returns matched by emptying coffers off the pitch before a disastrous 1983-84 season saw the club finish in the last place in La Segunda and drop to the third tier. Rayo had little trouble topping the southern division of the recently formed Segunda B and returned to La Segunda. It took a further four seasons of steady growth in La Segunda before Rayo won promotion back to La Primera at the end of the 1988-89 season. There followed a period of 15 seasons of four relegations & three promotions, as Rayo led the life of the archetypal yo-yo team. In 1991 José María Ruiz-Mateos became club president. Under his leadership, the club wiped out the debt and changed the club’s name to Rayo Vallecano de Madrid. In January 1994, Ruiz-Mateos handed over the presidency to his wife, Teresa Rivero.
The reign of Dame Teresa was one of extremes, that ultimately ended in unpleasantly. Promotion to the top flight had already been won in 1994-95, but the stay was a brief two-season affair. Promotion was won again in 1999 and what followed over the next few years was the most successful period in the club’s history. The ninth-place attained at the end of the 1999-00 season was at that point, the club’s highest ever final placing, and thanks to their excellent disciplinary record, earned them a place in the UEFA Cup. Their first campaign in Europe was memorable and featured aggregate wins over Constelació Esportiva of Andorra (16-0), Molde of Norway (2-1), Viborg of Denmark (2-2 – away goals), Lokomotiv Moscow (2-0) and Bordeaux (6-2). Their run ended in the quarterfinals where Deportivo Alaves won the tie 4-2 on aggregate. Understandably, the long run in Europe had an impact on league form as Rayo finished the 2000-01 season in fourteenth place. In late 2001, in an act that lacked a certain magnanimity, the stadium was renamed Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas Teresa Rivero or Estadio Teresa Rivero.
In 2001-02, Rayo achieved an eleventh place finish, but with many of the better players moving on, it was only a matter of time before relegation came a-calling. That arrived in June 2003 when Rayo finished bottom in La Primera with 32 points, 11 points shy of safety. If that wasn’t bad enough, what followed had the Rayistas crying in their cervezas. A second successive relegation in 2003-04 saw the club in Segunda B for the first time in twenty years and playing regionalised football little over three years after appearing in a UEFA quarter-final. If the club thought the stay in the third tier would be short, they were in for a shock. Defeats at the end of season play-offs in 2005 & 2007 (they didn’t even make the play-off in 2006) added to the fans agony. They finally won promotion back to La Segunda after winning the league title in 2007-08 after seeing off Benidorm and Zamora in the playoffs. Three years later, and despite all of the turmoil off the pitch, Rayo made it back to La Primera thanks to a great second place finish.
It would be easy to paint the Ruiz-Mateos family and in particular Teresa Rivero as the villains of the piece, but the truth is that their reign was full of light and shade. There were the highs of the European run and the visits to La Primera where many of the top dogs limped away from Vallecas, licking their wounds. But you cannot ignore the lows of the longest period in the third level since the mid-1960s and the huge debts the club incurred. This and a perceived reluctance to sell the club led to a huge amount of resentment towards Dame Teresa from the disenfranchised fans. She finally sold the club in March 2011, and soon after the stadium was renamed the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas.
When it opened back in 1976, it had a capacity of 20,000 with the lower portions of each stand featuring terracing rather than seats. The terraces lasted until 1996 when new seats were installed throughout the stadium reducing the capacity to 15,500. It was also the final stadium in Spain to feature security fences, but rather symbolically the new owners removed them in March 2011. As the first row of seats was too close to the pitch, a further 792 seats were removed, leaving the current capacity at 14,708. The two main stands are steeply raked and identical, except the middle tier of the southern stand features a band of red seats and the Directors Box. The rest of the blocks of seats in both upper tiers of the stands are white with a distinctive red sash. The popular west terrace also has this seating configuration, and also feature entrances for the players and officials, as the changing facilities sit beneath. I haven’t mentioned the east end of the ground because there isn’t one, or rather so tight are the local tenements to the ground, all that stands behind that goal is a wall full of advertising. It hasn’t been the case. For the first 20 years, the east end of the stadium featured a narrow terrace that tapered-away towards the north end. The switch to an all-seater enclosure in 1996 put pay to the terrace, but ironically, it also created the stadium’s most iconic feature.
The Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas is owned by the Comunidad de Madrid, but Rayo is responsible for the upkeep of the interior. However, the stadium has seen little change in the past 42 years. Maybe the colour of the seats has changed & the removal of the fences, but that’s it. Lack of investment came back to haunt Rayo when it returned to La Primera in 2018. A €1.2m upgrade of the stadium was only partially completed at the start of the season, and following safety concerns raised during Rayo’s opening fixture, the stadium was closed for 6 weeks. What would be deemed unacceptable from the start in any other top European leagues, needed a high profile televised match to highlight the stadium’s inadequacies. For all it’s brilliance, this was La Liga at its chaotic worst.
Over the years, Vallecas has proved to be an intimidating arena, but why? Yes, the configuration of Estadio de Vallecas is unique in top-level Spanish football, but this is only part of the reason. As with any intimidating arena, design only plays a part. You need atmosphere and passion, and whilst there may only be 14,700 of them crammed into home matches, the Rayistas deliver atmosphere & passion New owners have come & gone, and frankly, Rayo is a shambles off the pitch. But the magic remains on match days, as Rayo continue their up & down relationship with the top two divisions of Spanish Football.