Groundhopper: Fútbol in the Spanish Capital

Following a recent trip to the Spanish capital of Madrid, Gethin Boore recounts his visit to Alcorón’s Estadio Santo Domingo, AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque and Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

By Gethin Boore

A few months after a great weekend in the Basque Country, it was time to head over to one of the biggest footballing cities. Some might think Real and Atletico Madrid are the only teams from the city, but as you flick through other names such as Getafe, CD Leganés and Rayo Vallecano, you wouldn’t necessarily know they are based in the capital. This time I watched three games, one in the Primera Division, one in the Segunda Division and one in the Segunda B.

My first game was on the Saturday as I went south of the city to Alcorcón for their Segunda Division game against CD Tenerife. They were formed in 1971, and first reached the Segunda in 2012. They are well known for thrashing their community neighbours, Real Madrid, 4-0 in the Copa Del Rey in 2009, who included Raul, Karim Benzema and Marcelo in their team. They have remained in the Segunda since that first promotion in 2012.

The town is around twenty minutes from Madrid’s Atocha train station, and it was pretty quiet when I arrived with my Dad. There was about four hours till kick off, and we needed to make sure that we had tickets. As we arrived at the Estadio Santo Domingo, it struck me how many 3G pitches surrounded the main stadium.

When we arrived at the ticket office, it was closed, so youth games was our entertainment for half an hour or so and one game involved a Real Madrid Peña, in which they seemed to concede at least 12 goals within the first five minutes! Although all of the surrounding pitches were 3G, there was one which was basically just sand, and which was occupied by South American immigrants.

We got our tickets, and headed to an Alcorcón Peña, and it was more of a Tenerife territory. In amongst the supporters from the Canary Islands were English supporters from Manchester, who follow the Blanquiazules across various cities in Spain. They were with the rest of the Tenerife fans, and they were in full voice at the stadium too.

As soon as we sat in our seats, Tenerife were awarded a penalty, which was tucked away nicely in front of the away fans. The home atmosphere heated up a bit, and Alcorcón were awarded one as well, and it was 1-1. The second half was full of bad crosses really, and neither side threatened to score, and a draw was a fair result in the end.

Coming into the game, both sides were battling in mid-table, so the match itself always wasn’t going to be incredible. The ground was compared to Hereford’s Edgar Street, where one stand has two tiers, and that you can’t see the touchline. Everyone knows that the Primera’s style of football is much slicker than the Segunda’s, but what was comic was the awful standard of crossing.

The Sunday after featured two games. The first game was in the Segunda Division B Grupo 1 between AD Union Adarve and the leaders Fuenlabrada. That league is in the third tier of Spanish football, as there are four different regionalised divisions spread across the country, and neither of these sides have played in the Segunda. The name of the ground is Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque, named after… yes, the Vincente Del Bosque. It is located in Madrid’s business area, where the only stand faces four gigantic towers, which gives it a surreal setting, as it’s also not far from Plaza de Catilla and further on the Bernabéu.

It was a free entry to get into the game, and everyone had to squeeze into one stand facing the towers. Marca gave the crowd 1,000, including 200 odd Fuenlabrada fans and ultras, including one guy wearing Atletico Madrid’s infamous ultra group Frente Atletico t-shirt. The game itself definitely wasn’t the best, as it finished 1-1 with Fuenlabrada scoring first in the first half, before the home side made it all square in the second period.

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AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque.

We then had a Metro ride to the north-east side of the city to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid’s new ground, as they faced Athletic Club Bilbao.

This is a fixture that goes back to 1903, when Atletico were founded by a group of Basque students. Their colours were blue and white, before they changed to their traditional red and white strip, and they became known as Los Colchaneros due to their kit being compared to mattress covers. The two giants of Spanish football battled it out in the 2012 Europa League final, in which the capital side won 3-0, and Athletic were the last away team to play at Atletico’s old ground, the Vincente Calderon. The move to the new ground wasn’t something the fans agreed with, because of their switch from their traditional neighbourhood to the other side of the city.

The game itself promised not to be the best because of Atletico’s defensive style of play, but there was no need to play defensive, as the Lions were without their top scorer and legend, Artiz Aduriz. Los Indios won the game 2-0, with goals from Kevin Gamiero and the mad-man himself, Diego Costa. It was a significant win for Atletico, as they played with class, and if felt like they could catch the leaders, Barcelona.

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Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m someone that likes old-school stadiums, but I have to admit that the Wanda is something else. The atmosphere was brilliant, and so much better than what you experience in the Premier League. The one man that definitely helps the atmosphere is the manager, Diego Simeone, as he rarely stops bouncing around on the touchline.

So, Madrid, the capital of this football mad country, definitely didn’t disappoint. We ticked off three grounds, all at different levels, all completely different. However, there are loads of grounds to tick off in the city. Clubs like Fuenlebrada, Rayo Vallecano and Leganés are apparently all worth the visit, and I do highly recommend visiting the Advare and Alcorcón, and of course, the magnificent Wanda.

Again, another brilliant trip in Spain. On to the Community of Valencia next.

Also, if you want to know more about football in Madrid, head over to watch YouTube vlogger Roddy Cons with his channel TheTeamOnTour, where he goes groundhopping to various games in Madrid, from La Liga to the Tercera.

Rayo Vallecano: The Pride of Vallecas

Rayo Vallecano are Madrid’s third team behind Real and Atletico, but it is a football club with an marvellous story. The club and their fans are true credits to the Vallecas community.

By Gethin Boore

When you think of Spanish Football, the first thing that comes to your mind is Real Madrid and Barcelona. When you think of Madrid, the first thing that comes to your mind is Real & Atletico Madrid. Yet if you think of Vallecas, the first thing that comes to your mind is Rayo Vallecano. A unique, special football club located in southern Madrid, who have a history of controversial figures coming in and out of the gates of the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas. Managers, players and owners. But as well as that, Rayo have a passionate, strong support within the community, and even around the world, and that is when the political side of the club comes to the fore.

Rayo have never been a world super-power, but they are not just any football club. They are a club with supporters that are deeply involved on the left-wing of the political spectrum. Their infamous ultras group, the Bukaneros, who are well-known all over the world for their protests, are a group of Rayo fans who welcome refugees into Spain and tackle homophobia, racism and fascism within football. Other left-wing ultra groups in Spain admire the Bukaneros. Also, the club, fans and players help the neighbourhood; their neighbourhood.

A perfect example of this is Carmen’s situation. Carmen is an old lady that’s a Vallecas resident who was kicked out of her flat for financial reasons. The players took notice of it, and helped her to get her a new flat. This was an incredible touch and people started to realise what Rayo does for their people.

Historically, they aren’t a very big name. They were formed in 1924, in a house a few meters away from their current home, but they didn’t have an easy first few years. Numerous players left the club for military service around 1926, and were not even playing in a proper league. They properly re-formed after the Spanish Civil War, and reached the Tercera Division (the fourth tier of Spanish Football) for the first time in 1949.

They are often referred as Spanish Football’s “yo-yo” club. They have been relegated and promoted on 17 different occasions, and have spent most of their history in the Segunda Division. They were first promoted to the Primera in 1977-78, and in total, they have spent 12 years in the first tier. During the 80s and 90s, they were hovering around the Primera and Segunda Divisions, but in 2001, they first appeared in a European competition. They were knocked out in the Quarter Finals of the Uefa Cup by eventual finalists, Alaves, beating the likes of Bordeaux on the way. Despite gaining promotion to La Liga in 2012, they currently play in the Segunda, following a relegation in 2016 after their longest spell in the top flight in their history.

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Despite various relegations, the pride remains.

Money is always in short supply, and their fans know that, and it’s part of their self-identity. Once, before a game, the Bukaneros displayed a banner saying ‘We are poor, but we are proud’.

They have a history of financial crisis. In 2011, they were in a deep one. For years and years, Rayo were owned by the controversial Ruiz Mateos family. Firstly, the family took over the club in 1991, and for the first few years, the mad-man was the owner of the club, who is famous for turning up to court in a Super Man costume once. In 1994, he backed out, and his wife, Teresa Rivero, took his place. To begin with, she was actually quite loved by the Rayo faithful, and even the stadium was named after her for a time, before opinions started to change.

Eventually in 2011, with the club in deep financial trouble, they were forced to sell, and the current, unpopular figure, Raul Martin Presa took over. The fans have been protesting for years that he should leave, but, he’s still there, and there’s a big friction between the board and the supporters.

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The controversial Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos as superman.

Rayo made the headlines recently in probably the most politically charged transfer ever made in Spanish football history.

In January 2017, they signed Ukranian striker Ramon Zozulya on loan from Real Betis until the end of the season, but he didn’t last very long. Fans carried out some research, and quickly, the word was out. He appeared to have ultra right-wing connections linked to the Ukranian army. He denied it all, but the fans weren’t having any of it, as they made it clear that ‘VALLECAS IS NO PLACE FOR NAZIS’.

As well as hating fascism, they’re also against racism. Their former Nigerian keeper, Willy Agbonavbare, who recently passed away, is a legend in Vallecas. He played for El Rayo for six years, and he was a cult-figure not only in Vallecas but in Spain. People liked him. He was the complete gentleman, and it’s very worth remembering him for what he did. Agbonavbare overcame racism and poverty to become one the most loved players among Rayo fans.

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A tribute to Willy following his death. Image: Twitter

Vallecas is a massive part of Rayo Vallecano’s identity. The club represents this small, working-class neighbourhood in south-east Madrid. You have clubs such as Celta who represent the city of Vigo and Sporting who represent the city of Gijon, and you have Rayo who don’t represent the city as such, but this particular neighbourhood. But, as well as not representing Madrid, they are willing to accept that they are the capital’s third team.

As well as symbolising their barrio, they’re well known other quirky characteristics. They’re famous for making fairly catchy kits like their away kit with a stripe of the rainbow flag running down the length of the shirt. Their home kit is called ‘La Franja‘ which stands for The Stripe, and imitated it from River Plate, as they admired their unique playing style. Also, their stadium only has three stands. The fourth one is behind one goal and it’s known as the back wall, where there is no seats

There aren’t many clubs like Rayo. It’s a common thing to see Spanish clubs with special identities but there are none quite like this one. Atletico Madrid players Diego Costa and Saul Niguez have all worn La Franja, but most importantly, they understand Rayo’s uniqueness.

A truly difficult but special club.

 

El Clásico: More than a game

The El Clasico is a rivalry teeming with historic significance, from tempers flaring to moments of brilliance, Barcelona and Real Madrid have both produced the goods over the years. Here we take a look at the rivalry and how it developed.

By Gethin Boore

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. The two biggest clubs in the world, and when they face each other, it usually means a battle. Today, football fans associate El Clasico as Messi v Ronaldo, Suarez v Benzema, Rakitic v Modric and so on, but in a true sense, these clubs represent completely different things. To begin with, they represent completely different nations…

Barcelona was the first to form out of the two in 1899 by a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers, whilst Real Madrid were formed as Madrid FC in 1902, but changed to Real Madrid in the 1920s after gaining the permission of King Alfonso XIII. The first ever meeting between the two was in 1902, the year Real Madrid was formed, in which Barcelona won 3-1 at the old Hipodromo de la Castellana stadium in Madrid. Barcelona won the first ever La Liga title in 1929, but it wasn’t until the year 1936 when the rivalry began for real.

1936 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and football was a big part of it all. Many people say that it was in 1936 the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona truly began. The man who was at the heart of it all was the dictator Francisco Franco. The reason football was a big part of the civil war was because Real Madrid was Franco’s team and the team of the right while the democrats and the team of the left was Barcelona. In 1936, Barcelona president Josep Sunyol was assassinated by Francoist troops just outside Madrid, which caused controversy between the left wing and the right wing. Franco hated Catalonia as well as the Basque country, and banned the Catalan flag from being flown and didn’t allow the Catalan language from being spoken.

The war finished in 1939, and in 1943, the most infamous game in the fixture’s history was played. 13th of June, the semi final of the Copa del Generalismo, the forerunner of the Copa Del Rey named after Franco, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 11-1. This had such a political feel to it.

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The famous scoreboard.

One member of that Barcelona team was still alive when he told Sid Lowe in his book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” in 2013 what happened. He tells the story of a police officer coming into the Barcelona dressing room saying something bad must not happen. Not that they don’t have to lose but that nothing bad should happen. His name was Fernando Argila and he was Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper at the time, and it was after this game that the people of Barcelona considered Real Madrid as Franco’s team.

In 1947, Real Madrid moved from their old Charmatin stadium to a new stadium named after the man that was Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabéu. He was the president at the time, but also a former player and manager as well. He had an idea of transforming Real Madrid into a global attraction by signing the best players and being recognised by the world. The 1950s became Real Madrid’s golden era, and in 1953, the man that turned out to be Real Madrid’s greatest ever player arrived to the Spanish capital. His name was Alfredo Di Stefano.

Di Stefano was a player that impressed both Barcelona and Real Madrid in his time at Millonarios of Colombia, and Barça were the favourites to sign him. Both clubs claimed to have his signature, but Barcelona’s president resigned, forcing them to cancel the signing. This saw Di Stefano catching the train from Barcelona to Madrid and signing for Los Blancos.

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Di Stefano in Barcelona colours with Kubala

In 1955, the European Cup began, and Real won the first ever tournament in 1956. Incredibly, they won it five times in a row, and are considered the best ever to have played the game. They had incredible players who came and went between 1955-1960 such as Raymond Kopa, the rapid Paco Gento, Di Stefano of course and the outstanding Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas. Real Madrid’s finest hour came in 1960 when they thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park. Di Stefano scored a hat trick while Puskas scored four and some experts say it’s the greatest final ever played.

Real were dominating Europe, but not so much in the league. During that period of dominating Europe, they won the league twice while Barcelona won it twice as well. The El Clasio remained tight, despite Real Madrid dominating Europe. However, Di Stefano once said that Real’s football rivals were their cross city rivals Atletico de Madrid. Barcelona were managed by ‘the magician’ Helenio Herrera. He was appointed as the manager of Barcelona in 1958, and won two league titles. The only thing that was missing was the European Cup, and he was sacked in 1960 after Real Madrid knocked Barcelona out of the competition they wanted to win the most.

Again in 1960, Barcelona and Real Madrid faced each other in the European Cup. This game is mostly remembered for two things. One, Real Madrid knocked were out of the European Cup for the first time in their history and two, the Eenlish referee Arthur Ellis. The Real players were furious with the all the decisions going against them and they also tried to beat him up after the game. The players knew that it was decided that Real Madrid couldn’t win another European Cup. Instead, it was their arch-rivals who came closest to winning it, reaching the final in Bern before losing to Benfica.

Barcelona hadn’t won the league since 1960 under Herrera. That was about to change. Step forward, the Dutchman, Johan Cruyff.

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Johan Cruyff as Barcelona captain

He joined Barcelona in 1973, and changed the club forever. A legend at Ajax, he moved to Barcelona in the middle of a pretty gloomy time at the Camp Nou. Franco was still alive at the time, and still, Catalonia was a country depressed. The only place that the Catalan language was spoken and a key place to express Catalanism was at the Camp Nou. Cruyff came to the Camp Nou and brought smiles to the faces of the Barcelona supporters. He carried Barca to their first league title in fourteen years, beating Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou along the way. Cruyff came into the 1974-75 season with a World Cup runners-up medal. At the ’74 World Cup, Holland were best remembered for the famous style of play ‘Total Football’ and Cruyff duly brought it with him to the Camp Nou.

As soon as Cruyff arrived in Catalonia, he was a fans favourite, and tried his best to fit into the Catalan culture. In 1974, he called his newly born son Jordi after Saint Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, which put him in a bit of a mess. Under the dictatorship of Franco, newly born babies had to have a name in Castillan Spanish. A year after Cryuff’s arrival, Franco passed away at the age of 82.

The 1980’s proved to be a strange decade for both clubs in a successful and un-successful way. In 1980, Real Madrid won the league title, but for the next four years it stayed in the Basque Country when Real Sociedad won it in 1981 and 1982 before Athletic Club Bilbao won it in 1983 and 1984. It was an incredible few years in the Basque Country, but the next five years was memorable in Real Madrid’s case.

A team known as ‘Quinta del Buitre’ which translates to ‘The Vulture Squad’ included five players who came through the youth squad at Real Madrid. The five were Miguel Sanchis, Rafael Martin Vazquez. Michél, Miguel Pardeza and the main man and striker, Emilio Butrageño. They won five league titles in a row, yes, five. They were a great side, but like the Barça side in the late 50s, they’re not that well-known for winning one thing; the European Cup. The European Cup is a trophy that Real Madrid will forever want to win. It’s always their aim at the start of every season. It’s what signifies them as a club.

For Barça meanwhile, the end of the decade was turbulent. They won the league in 1985, and tragically lost the European cup final against Steaua Bucharest in Seville. They lost on penalties, and the Romanian keeper saved four penalties. It was a sour evening in Barcelona’s history, and it’s a game that most fans would like to forget. Also in that year, they lost to Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey final, a change was needed, and in 1988, the man that changed the club as a whole, returned to the Camp Nou, Johan Cruyff.

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Johan Cruyff in the Barcelona dugout in 1988

When he arrived in 1988, Barcelona were a club in debt and crisis. They had just won the Copa Del Rey, but Cruyff brought in new players, and a brilliant team was starting to emerge. He signed Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup as well as giving local boy, Pep Guardiola a first team place. He started developing young players at Barcelona academy, La Masia.

In 1990, Cruyff brought in Bulgarian striker Hirsto Stoichkov, and a year later, Barça finally won the league title again. They won it again the next year, but in 1992, an even bigger thing was about to happen. A Champions League final at Wembley against Sampdoria.

It was huge. Barcelona just needed to win. After coming so close in 1986, this was a massive chance to forget about the heartbreak in Seville, and to finally put their name on the trophy. The game was 0-0 as it went into extra-time, but in the second half, Ronald Komean’s free-kick flew into the Sampdoria net, and it’s a picture that is still famous to this day. Finally, Barcelona were European champions, and it was down to Johan Cruyff. It was an incredible evening, up there as one of the special evenings in Barcelona history.

A controversial figure in El Clasico history is Luis Figo. After a successful period at his childhood club Sporting Lisbon, he moved to Catalonia in 1995. He was an instant hit, and the fans adored him. He was part of a terrific attacking partnership alongside Rivaldo at Barcelona. It was a strange period, Barcelona had a good team, but in 1998, Real Madrid were European Champions for the first time since 1966 as they defeated Juventus. They then won it again in 2000 after beating Valencia.

That team featured Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Steve McManaman and one of the greatest players to ever wear the famous white shirt, Raul, having signed from Atletico Madrid after they shut down their youth system. He joined in 1994 and is the all-time record appearance holder at the club with 741 games as well as the second highest scorer in the club’s history with 323 goals. Also in 2000, a new man took over the presidency of Real Madrid, and transformed the club into a global attraction. His name was Florentino Perez.

He had a vision of signing the best players in the world. He called them the ‘Galacticos’, and still to this day, the Galactico policy is ongoing. He said publicly that the first singing he will make will be from Barcelona, and that signing will be Luis Figo. Incredibly, he left for Real and the Barça fans were way more than angry, they were absolutely livid. When he returned to the Camp Nou on several occasions, he was taunted with abuse, and there missiles such as knifes, cigarette lighters and bottles were flying all over the place. In 2002, a pig’s head was thrown by a supporter onto the pitch, and still to today, it’s the most iconic image in the Clasico’s history. Even his old team mates were trying to hurt him, and the players had to be blocked by riot police. He was attacked outside his house 2004 by two members of the ultra group, Boixos Nois.

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Luis Figo taunted by Barcelona fans

With the Galactico policy, in 2001, Zinadine Zidane moved from Juventus to Real, and was followed by Ronaldo in 2002. In the same year, forty years on from the club’s finest moment in the 1960 European cup, they won it again against Bayer Leverkusen, at the same location, Hampden Park. What is best remembered from that game is Zidane’s superb volley into the top corner, and is arguably the greatest goal ever scored at a European final. They were still signing players from all over the world, as David Beckham left Manchester United for Madrid in 2003 and Michael Owen moved as well in 2004.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, they had their own policy. Although, they didn’t have to sign as much as they used their famous youth system, La Masia. They had a new president, Joan Laporta, who was the most politically driven president in Barcelona’s history. La Masia was used often, and many young talents came through such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Perdo, Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol, Sergio Busquets and Csec Fabregas. Most of the players who came through were Catalan born and bred.

Though a certain Lionel Messi wasn’t Catalan, but whilst playing for Rosario, he impressed the Barcelona scouts and moved over when he was young. Messi was given his first team debut in 2004, and from then on, he is the greatest player to ever wear the Blaugranna shirt. An incredible team was being built, and in 2006 under the guidance of Frank Rijkaard along with the talent of Brazilian, Ronaldinho, Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time in their history.

The Spanish national team was developing brightly as well, and La Masia was a massive part of that. 2009 came around, and it was the greatest year in the history of the club. Managed by former player and La Masia graduate, Pep Guardiola, incredibly, they won six major trophies in a calendar year – a record. They won the Champions League again that year with a 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome, as well as the league title, the Club World Cup, Spanish Super Sup, Uefa Super Sup and Copa Del Rey. It was an incredible achievement, and La Masia was the reason behind it.

The 2010-11 season was another season that will go down in the history of famous El Clasico fixtures. In November 2010, Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou, in a first game out of many that featured fights between the players and the managers. The Real Madrid manager at the time was Jose Mourhino who had just won the Champions League at Inter Milan, as well as beating Barcelona in the semi-finals.

In April 2011, they faced each other four times in the space of 11 days, once in the league, once in the Copa Del Rey final and twice in the Champions League semi-finals. In all four games, many players were arguing with each other for various things and the managers were a big part of it.

A big incident occured in the Champions League semi-final first leg when Pepe was sent off for a challenge on Dani Alves. Some people say it is a red, some say it is not, and still, not really many people know if it’s a red or not. Barcelona won the two legs 3-1 on aggregate, and they faced Manchester United again, and at their hallow turf, Wembley. The Catalans won it again for the third time, and it’s up there as the greatest team performance ever seen at a European final. The Spanish national team were gaining success as well. When they won the World Cup in 2010 for the first time ever, seven players La Masia gradiuates started that game, six were Catalans. The only one that wasn’t Catalan was Iniesta, who is from Albececete, scored the winner in extra time.

El Clasico is a fixture that attracts the whole world. Billions of people watch it, and it’s always entertaining on and off the pitch, but, the history behind this fixture is amazing. Politics was a big part of the game, but it’s not all about thatt. For supporters and players, this is the game they want to win.

Groundhopper: Basque identity against Spanish identity

In our first Groundhopper feature for a fair while, Gethin recounts his recent visit to the Basque Country, as he took in the San Mamés and Mendizorrotza, whilst also catching a brief glimpse of the Ipurua Municipal.

By Gethin Boore

The Basque Country, famous for its politics, pinchos and football. Four teams represent the Basque Country in La Liga, Athletic Club Bilbao, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alaves. All four of these clubs have supporters who want to be an independent Basque nation as there is various Basque flags proudly flown around stadiums. I went to Euskadi, as it is known in the Basque language, to see two matches and to discover how big football is in this region.

The first match I went to was at the famous San Mamés for Athletic Club Bilbao against the Swedish miracle men Östersunds FK. Athletic Club is undoubtedly the most political club in the Basque Country. They have a famous policy of only allowing players from the French and Spanish Basque and Navarre to play for the club, and football fans around Spain embrace this. Some players such as Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera have all departed from Athletic to join clubs in other countries, leaving fans frustrated as one supporter referred to Athletic Club ‘as the biggest club in the world’ and doesn’t understand why they would leave a club like this.

The admired rule resulted in success for Lehoiak (the Lions) as they are one of three clubs to have never been relegated from the Primera Division, alongside Barça and Real Madrid. They are one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football with several La Liga titles and Copa Del Rey cups to their name.

They usually appear in the UEFA Europa League, which is the competition I got to to see this glamorous club play in for the first time. Their opponents were Östersunds FK from Sweden. Located in the Northern part of the country and founded in 1996, the last few years have been incredible for them. In 2016 they were promoted to the Allsevenskan for the first time, and now, after a year in Sweden’s top division, they’re the only team from Sweden to be playing in a European competition this season.

We arrived in Bilbao on match-day and the second I arrived, I sensed that Athletic were playing at home. I wandered around the city looking for the Spanish football newspaper “Marca” and in every bar and shop there was an Athletic flag in the windows. It was clear that Bilbao is a football-mad city. As it was time to head towards the stadium you would pass the odd Athletic shirt and an Östersunds shirt in the city centre, and the atmosphere was building more every yard.

We finally arrived at the San Mamés. This was not the first time I have laid eyes on this incredible stadium, as me and my Dad wandered around the ground last year when we visited Bilbao for the first time, but Athletic were not playing at home, but even then, you could still clearly sense that the people of Bilbao live for the beautiful game.

When Athletic are at home, it’s ten times better. As kick off was getting nearer, more and more supporters would come out on to the streets. A huge street leads up to the stadium that is full of bars with Athletic flags, scarfs and memorabilia, which might be familiar for Wales fans who attended the game against the Basque Country in 2006 at the old San Mamés, which was located in the same site as where the new stadium is now.

Amongst the Athletic supporters were Östersunds fans. Throughout conversations we had with Östersunds fans, they were saying how proud they are of their team and their incredible story, which is similar to Eibar’s amazing story in La Liga.

With around half an hour to go till kick-off, it was time to head to the ground. In the vicinity of the old stadium, it was full and it was a big game, as Athletic were yet to get a victory in Group J. The other game in the group was in the German capital, as Hertha Berlin hosted Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. The last time Athletic Club and Östersunds met it ended in a 2-2 draw in Sweden. Athletic had also drawn 0-0 away to Hertha and lost at home against Zorya, so the only option was a win for Athletic if they wanted to keep their European hopes alive.

Inside the stadium, it’s even better, with the pitch as green as ever.

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San Mamés stadium.

In the first half, both sides came very close, and it was an even game. Athletic came the closest following Raul Garcia’s powerful that was brilliantly saved by the keeper. In the second half, Athletic Club took the lead thanks to veteran forward Artiz Aduriz’s header. The Swedes rarely attacked in the second half, and it was fair to say that Athletic deserved the victory.

Personally, I thought it was a great game, as there were many chances created, which added an extra excitement to the game, but what was really significant was the atmosphere. As soon as the club anthem was blasted out, there was non-stop singing, and the roar when the ball hit the back of the net was incredible. In the other game, Hertha won 2-0 meaning Athletic were third in the group and Östersunds sat first in the table.

As the city of Bilbao fell quiet, it was another brilliant Spanish football day out. It’s becoming a bit more than a hobby now.

On the Friday, we left Bilbao to head to San Sebastian, the home of Real Sociedad. Last year, I went to the Anoeta (Sociedad’s stadium) to watch them play against Basque rivals Alaves. The home side won 3-0 but the most standout thing that day was the Alaves support.

In Spain, not many away fans travel to watch their team play away from home, but Alaves brought at least 2000 supporters to the 2016 European capital of culture. It may be local for them, but the support throughout the day was incredible, both in the stadium and around the city centre.

It was also in 2016 I went to watch Osasuna face Real Betis. Osasuna is located in Pampalona, which is in the Navarre region. The debate about whether Navarre is in the Basque Country has been going for decades, but in the El Sadar (Osasuna’s stadium) there were numerous Basque flags proudly shown. The away side won 2-1 with a last minute goal.

Back to this year, and when me and my family were on the way to San Sebastian, we stopped at the town of Eibar. This is a very small town located right in the middle of the Basque mountains, but what’s so significant about this place is the football. Incredibly, Eibar has a team in the Primera Division, and has been on an incredible rise through the Spanish pyramid. Their promotion from the Segunda division in 2014 was the start of something special. They’ve been in La Liga for a few years now and have established themselves as a top-tier side.

Eibar is a club that’s linked with Scottish football. Their ultras group is called “Eskozia La Brava” which translates to Scotland the brave in Basque. They admire the passionate support the Scots have, and have a mosaic located in the town about the connection between the two sets of supporters.

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Ipurua Municipal Stadium

The ground is tiny for a club in such a huge league, but the club itself is very friendly. We asked the front desk in the stadium if we could go inside the Estadio Irpura. They politely said no, but did give us a free pin badge and a poster of the 2017-18 squad. In the town, there were many, many Eibar flags in windows, which shows the support this incredible club has. It was very clear what the team’s incredible journey meant to the town.

As we arrived in San Sebastian, we passed the Anoeta on the motorway going into the city centre, and there was work going on there. Ever since Sociedad moved from their old stadium (Atocha) the fans have complained about how far the pitch is from the stands. The club has taken notice of the situation and have a plan to move the stands closer to the pitch, which will complete in 2019.

In the town centre, it is clear that the people of Bilbao has more passion for their club than the people of San Sebastian have for theirs, but you would spot shirts and flags in bars and fake merchandises in tourists stores alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys.

After a walk around the city and stuffing ourselves with Pinchos, it was time to watch my favourite Spanish team play; Real Betis. Me and my Dad watched the game against Getafe in an Eibar fan bar in the middle of the old town in San Sebastian. Betis thankfully came from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 to continue their strong start to the season. Another day in the Basque country, no game, but plenty of football involved.

On the Saturday, we departed from San Sebastian with a copy of “Marca” to recap the Betis game and to see what they had to say of it, and headed to the Basque capital, Vitoria.

The team located in Vitoria is Deportivo Alaves, and Liverpool fans might be familiar with this club, as they faced each other in the 2001 Uefa Cup final which ended in a 5-4 victory to the Merseyside club. Since that final, Alaves have been stuck in the Segunda Division and Segunda B.

However, in 2016, they were finally back in La Liga, and reached the Copa Del Rey final, only to lose to Barcelona in the last official game at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid’s old ground. Like Eibar, they’ve had a fairly slow start to the season, and are clearly missing their manager that was with them last season, Mauricio Pellegrino, who left for English side, Southampton.

My second and final game of the trip was at the Estadio Mendizorrota between Alaves and Espanyol. My first impression of the city of Vitoria is that it’s again, like Bilbao, football mad. It’s not a city that attracts many tourists, and there was a better vibe and atmosphere.

In the old town, many civilians were out enjoying pinchos, with most of them wearing Alaves tops. Every Saturday, it’s market day in the old town in Vitoria, and it was really busy. As it was match day, maybe a few more people came out than usual. After a few hours enjoying the pinchos in the Basque capital and a walk around the city, it was time to head towards the direction of the ground.

For this game, I went with my Dad, as usual, my sister, who went to the Sociedad-Alaves game last year, my cousin, Tom, and my uncle, Rhys, who went to the Athletic game as well. For a year, I’ve been non-stop chatting about the Spanish football results with Tom, and it’s clear that maybe he wasn’t very interested, so it was good to bring him to his first taste of Spanish Football and to realise why I love it so much

On the way to the ground, we stopped in a bar to watch the first half of the game between Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid, which was the 16:15 game. The Alaves game kicked off at 18:30 local time, but there wasn’t exactly many people in the bar we were in.

As we headed closer towards the Mendizorrota, the atmosphere was building. In the distance, we could hear drums and people singing, and as we got closer, it was getting louder. Suddenly, as the Alaves team bus came through, something incredible happened. An incredible flow of pyros appeared out of nowhere, and all you could see was a wave of red and orange. The singing was loud as well, and it was something to inspire the team following their bad start.

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Alaves fans on the day.

A couple of weeks before this match, Alaves hooligans were caught in the spotlight. On a day when they were at home to Real Sociedad, Racing Santader ultras travelled from the Cantabria part of Northern Spain, to fight Alaves fans. Many videos went viral in the and the footage was brutal.

On match day in San Sebastian, me and my Dad spoke to some Alaves ultras and they kindly gave me a scarf. After the pyro show, we wanted to see if we could see them again, and within five seconds, we bumped into an individual that we met. He remembered us straight away, and he looked delighted to see us. He was with another person that either I don’t remember or wasn’t at the game against Sociedad. They took us to a bar in the middle of numerous apartments and introduced us to new people and people that were there last year. The group in fact have been banned from following Alaves away.

In the bar, there were loads of Alaves memorabilia on the walls, and chants were sung. After a good hour, it was time to head to the match. On the way, we were discussing how much we hate Real Madrid. I refer to Madrid as General Franco’s team, and so do they. We hate Madrid with a passion, and we forever will. As a Welshman, I should have a “soft-spot” for them because of Gareth Bale, but I don’t think there’s nothing that can change my opinion. As we said our goodbyes, we met up with Rhys and Tom and headed straight to the turnstiles.

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Gethin with Alaves ultras.

There’s something about the stairs that leads to the stands in some Spanish grounds. The concourse are quite low so you face up when you’re walking, and then just face the pitch, which is something special. I remember it at Levante, and the same here. In some concourse’s, you walk through the turnstile and you face the pitch straight away, such as Betis and Athletic.

Enough about concourse’s, we had a decent view from where we sat. It was an old-school ground, which might be reason for the incredible atmosphere. It was much better than Athletic’s, which was pretty special as well. As the players came on, there was a “tifo” in the Ultras with a picture of a young boy wearing an Alaves shirt with the numbers 1921, which was the year when the club was founded. It was brilliant, almost every person in the ground was chanting, and it was something else.

To make it all better, Alaves scored an absolute screamer to make it 1-0 within four minutes, and the roar then was something I’ll never experience again.

In the first half, Espanyol was by far the most attacking team, but they were reduced to ten men towards the end of the half. Still, Alaves had a few chances, and in the second half, both sides had good chances. Even though both sides attacked frequently, Espanyol definitely deserved to win and it was fair to say that Alaves were pretty rubbish and need to start performing better. Espanyol had a glorious chance to equalise right at the death, but the keeper’s heroics ensured Alaves secured the three points.

When the full time whistle went, there was a huge sigh of relief and the singing again couldn’t be stopped. It was a huge victory for Alaves, their second of the season.

This was sadly the end of another incredible Spanish football trip in the Basque Country. Football is a huge thing in this country and many people think that La Liga is rather dismal. Fair enough, that’s your opinion, but if you go to watch clubs like Alaves, Athletic, Betis and too many more to name, you soon realise that La Liga is much more than Barça and Real. In the Segunda Division, it’s so tight it’s actually astonishing. The Mendizorrota was my eleventh Spanish ground in total and my tenth in just over a year.

Once again, another top class Spanish Football weekend.

Marcelino reignites Valencia flame

They’ve had La Liga triumphs, Champions League finals and utter disasters. But now it seems as though Valencia are on the way back. With Marcelino doing things in his effective own way, Los Che are on the march.

By Gethin Boore

28 October 2017, Alaves 1-2 Valencia. This may not be the most eye-catching result, but it followed a 4-0 trouncing of Sevilla at the Mestalla, where Valencia rubber-stamped their growing authority on this season’s La Liga. Yet their narrow win at the Mendizorrotza Stadium is the type of performance success-aspiring sides churn out regularly throughout the season. The type of performance where you fail to hit top-form, but still manage to come away with three points.

Ahead of Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off against fellow high-flyers Leganes, Valencia find themselves unbeaten and second in La Liga with seven wins and three draws. This equals their best start to a La Liga season, and follows a few abysmal seasons that included 4-0 home defeats, several managers that were not really managers, low attendances and fans visibly disagreeing with club owners. For a club of their size, it was not right seeing them in such a state, but all of that is seemingly on the change.

Normally, when you first think of Valencia CF, you’d associate them among not only Spain, but one of Europe’s biggest clubs. They have a glorious history, with glorious players and managers, but where did this club start?

Football arrived in the city in 1909, where you would find British sailors kicking a ball in Valencian ports, but the club was founded ten years later in the so called Bar Torino. They moved to their legendary Mestalla stadium in 1923, and were first promoted to the newly created Primera Division in 1932. Following the Spanish Civil War, the club entered their first golden era. In that period, they won La Liga in 1942, 1944 and 1947 and the Copa Del Rey in 1941 and 1949.

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Bar Torino, where it all began.

As they emerged to be one of the biggest clubs in Spain, the founding of Uefa in 1954 meant they could be a threat in Europe. They won the Inter Fairs Cup against Barcelona in 1961 and beat Dynamo Zagreb in 1962. A year later, they reached the final again, however there was no hat-trick was they were denied in the final against fellow Spanish side Real Zaragoza. Their next piece of silverware was in 1966-67 as they beat Athletic Club Bilbao in the final to win the Copa Del Rey.

In 1970, arguably Real Madrid’s greatest ever player, Alfredo Di Stefano, took the job to manage Valencia, which lasted four years. During that period, the club managed to win their first La Liga title since 1947, and they reached the Copa Del Rey final three times in a row between 1970 and 1972 but, they lost all three. Following Di Stefano’s departure in 1974, they won the Copa Del Rey in 1979, and shone in Europe again as they won the 1980 Uefa Cup-winners Cup, defeating Arsenal on penalties in Brussels.

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1980 UEFA Cup-winners Cup winners. Image: uefa.com

In the 1985-86 season, Valencia were relegated to Spain’s second tier, the Segunda Division. The club website re-called it as the toughest moment in the club’s history. Di Stefano returned to the dugout at the end of this season to try and save Los Che with four games to go. They had a slight chance of surviving, but, however, following wins against Sevilla and Hercules, they were relegated at the Camp Nou as they lost 3-0, as other results also didn’t go their way, with Cadiz and Betis drawing.

The club returned to the top flight at the first time of asking as champions. After their season away from the Primera, they finished 14th in the league with Alfredo Di Stefano in the dugout for the third and last time. Fifteen years later under Héctor Cúper, the club entered their modern day era dorada.

To start it all off, they beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the Copa Del Rey final to win Spanish Football’s cup showpiece for the first time in twenty years. A year later, the club reached their first ever Uefa Champions League final, their opponents, Real Madrid. This was Los Blancos’ eleventh European Final, and it was their eighth win in the Europe’s greatest club competition. Yet it was a 3-0 win for Real. The following year, however, they reached the final again, this time against German giants Bayern München in Milan. Valencia heartbreakingly lost on penalties, and the club found it hard to re-build.

Then came the Rafa Benitez era, as they won La Liga for the fifth time in 2001-02, before winning it for the sixth time in 2004. This illustrious side had a spine of veteran Los Che goalkeeper, Santiago Cañizares, Argentina captain, Roberto Ayala, Spanish midfield duo, David Albelda and Rubén Baraja, and Norwegian giant, John Carew, as the target-man.

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Rafa Benitez celebrating his first La Liga win at Valencia

Following that era, a disastrous spell awaited. In 2013-14, they missed out on a European spot, having finished eighth in the table, but that was only the start. Their worst season came in 2015-16. Their controversial owner, Peter Lim, a Singaporean business man, took over the club following the 2013-14 season. When he bought the club, the Valencia fans admired him, but it did not last.

Things came to a surreal halt in 2015-16. They had four different managers. Following a 1-0 defeat against Sevilla, their first manager of the season, Nuno Espírito Santo, resigned. He had been at the club the previous season, and guided them to the Champions League. Their next manager was interim man, Salvador Gonzalez Marco or better known as Volo. He took charge for only one game, which actually ended up in a 1-1 draw against Barcelona. Then a day later, their third manager of the season was confirmed, former Manchester United and England full-back, Gary Neville – yes, Gary Neville.

His brother, Phil, arrived at the club at the start of the season, so his brother decided to join him. He couldn’t save Valencia from departing the Champions League, nor the Europa League, as they lost to Athletic Club Bilbao. In his time at the club, they only managed to win two games, and he was sacked following a defeat against Celta Vigo. His failure at Valencia led to countless debates on Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football and on twitter as Jamie Carragher teased Neville about his time at Valencia. That was their worst part of the season, and it was his first ever experience as a manager. Their fourth and final manager of the season was assistant manager Pako Ayestaran, who steadied the ship until the season’s close.

Off the field issues definitely didn’t help, and going into the 2016-2017 wasn’t looking very glamorous. Although, they did manage to sign Nani, who had just won Euro 2016 with his country, Portugal. They sold key players as well such as Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes, both to Barcelona, and Alvaro Negredo to Middlesbrough. This was another season where managers came and went, but it was their last, for now…

Another dismal season followed, that included a 4-0 home defeat against Eibar; fans boycotting and protesting; three different managers in charge and no European qualification. It was clear they needed a change, and quickly.

Step forward, Marcelino Garcia Toral.

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Marcelino upon his arrival at Valencia. Image: @ValenciaCF twitter.

A former midfielder who used to play for Sporting Gijon, Racing Santander, Levante and Elche, the 52 year old from Asturias is making himself popular amongst the Valencia faithful. He retired from professional football at the age of 28 due to a serious injury so he’s been involved in the managerial industry for a long time. A former manager with the likes of Sevilla and Villarreal, he was out of a job for an entire season, following his sacking at Villarreal a few days before the 2016-17 season. They’ve also had a new president – Anil Murthy, a former Real Mallorca president, and a West Ham supporter.

They also changed their squad. Countless signings were made, including Simone Zaza from Juventus, who had been on loan with Los Che the previous season, along with West Ham. The Italian striker has been absolutely vital this season. He’s scored nine goals in ten games and is second in the La Liga top scorer chart behind Lionel Messi, of course. One of the on-field problems that they’ve had in recent years is a prolific goal-scorer, and that’s a problem that Marcelino has fixed.

Another key player is Goncalo Guedes. He came to the Mestalla with something to prove, as he rarely had game time for PSG. He was sent on loan after being bought for 30 milion Euros, and has already won a player of the month award this season. Many people hadn’t heard from him till he arrived, but he’s definitely making a name for himself. He fits Marcelino’s style, and he’s very quick. Another player that has been key for Valencia this season is Rodrigo. He’s been at Valencia for three years, and has scored three goals every season, but this season, he’s already scored five. The captain is Daniel Parejo, who’s been at the club since 2011, and a former Real Madrid player. He was criticised last season by the club for being unprofessional and that he should say sorry to the supporters. How times have changed for Dani Parejo an co.

Their start to the season has been frantic. The first sign of good football came in the second game of the season, drawing 2-2 against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. More eye-catching results game included a 5-0 win against Malaga, a 3-2 win against Athletic Bilbao and a 6-3 win away to Real Betis. And in October, following a 4-0 win at home to Sevilla, a team they’ve had many ups and downs against, Valencia, alongside Barcelona, were the only unbeaten teams in La Liga.

From Champions League finals to utter disaster, the club has had a turbulent few years. But now, it seems as though Valencia are on their way back. Marcelino has done things in his own effective way right from the beginning of his reign. By keeping a close eye on player diets and imposing a new dynamic style of play, it all seems to be coming together for this exciting Valencia side.

Marcelino’s Los Che are on the march.

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