While most Spanish clubs were resting over their winter break, Rayo Vallecano was in its usual state of turmoil, with midfielder and club captain José María Movilla threatening to leave in a row over outstanding wages and bonuses due to him and some team-mates. Movilla had earlier used his personal Twitter account to announce that the squad would not attend the club Christmas party because of money owed. The affair was eventually settled sufficiently for Movilla to remain at the club until the summer at least, but it was hardly an ideal way for all involved to spend the holidays.
It came as no surprise to fans of Madrid’s third club though. Rayo is currently in administration under the infamous Spanish Ley Concursal and was apparently 24 hours from going under completely in June. Last season’s promotion push was almost overshadowed by regular player protests, including a number of strike threats and the team walking onto the pitch for the Huesca game carrying a banner saying ‘Basta de impagos’ or ‘enough with the not paying us’. These protests were backed by the clubs’ left-leaning fans (famous for flying Che Guevara banners and pre civil war Spanish Republic flags at games) and aimed at unpopular club president Teresa Rivero, husband of convicted fraudster and friend of Franco José María Ruiz-Mateos.
In an unusual move the Ruiz-Mateos family gave the club “as a present” to the previously unknown Raúl Martín Presa last summer. After months negotiating with the court-appointed administrators Presa was officially named club president in October. Rayo remains deep in the financial mire. Excellent fans website Rayoherald.com has been looking into the club’s finances over Christmas in a series of articles (in Spanish). The €40 million debt includes money owed to former players, other clubs and local businesses including restaurants, bus companies and florists. There’s also a huge unpaid tax bill. Javier Tebas, a lawyer involved in the administration process, told the site in a lengthy interview that he hopes to negotiate these debts down a more manageable €20m. Tebas also mentioned that criminal proceedings were in process against members of the Ruiz-Mateos family relating to their stewardship of the club.
None of this is of much immediate help to Rayo coach José Ramón Sandoval. Sandoval almost left the club himself last summer before eventually agreeing to stay on reduced terms. He then saw last season’s best player - right back Coke - sold to Sevilla, with the only new arrivals loans and frees. Rayo’s annual budget is €13m, the lowest in the division (Levante are next with €21m). Despite this they are currently sitting pretty in 13th position, by no means free of relegation worries, but still more than content with how the season has gone so far.
The 43-year-old Sandoval is a refreshingly open character who talks a good game. A huge bear of a man, he never played professionally, began his coaching career aged 20 and worked his way right up from regional leagues. By 2008 he’d made it to Rayo B and in 2010 he took over their first team, winning promotion against the odds in his first season working at Segunda level. In an interview with AS this month he spelled out just how super it was for him to now be coaching in the Primera División.
“I really appreciate the job I have,” Sandoval said. “I am one of 20 coaches with the privilege of working in the most exciting league in the world. A year and a half ago I was watching these coaches at home on television and now I battle with them. They are all global names: Guardiola, Mourinho, Emery, Bielsa, Pellegrini… They have spent years winning things and now I have to beat them.”
Sandoval’s teams also express themselves on the pitch. In an interview with Mundo Deportivo in December he talked about getting inspiration from Cruyff and Del Bosque and the pros and cons of 3-4-3. Rayo have put in impressive performances at both the Bernabéu and the Camp Nou this season - memorably going 1-0 inside the first minute at Madrid and worrying Barcelona with a high-pressure opening - although they eventually lost both games pretty heavily (2-6 and 0-4). They’ve done even better against La Liga’s other bigger names - beating Sevilla 2-1 and Málaga 2-0 at Vallecas and securing a 1-1 draw in Bilbao.
Even with some players unhappy with their wages, Sandoval has fostered a tight-knit spirit within the squad. Javi Fuego - who currently leads La Liga’s interceptions stats - turned down an €800,000 move to Bruges this week, saying how much he enjoyed playing for Rayo.
“I am happy here,” said the midfielder, who joined on a free from Recreativo in 2010. “I am not saying this to look good, but I feel good here, I identify with the philosophy of the club.”
Fuego’s team-mates include veterans given a last chance in the Primera such as Movilla and Raúl Tamudo and youngsters with an opportunity to put themselves in the shop window. Tricky and pacy 19-year-old Guinean attacker Lass has been a revelation, attracting rumoured interest from Real Madrid, Málaga and Atlético. Former US teen sensation Freddie Adu has also been training with Rayo in recent weeks in the hope of securing a move to Spain.
It’s unlikely there’s any cash available to even bring Adu in on loan, but Sandoval will be happy if he can get to the end of this transfer window without losing any important squad members. He’ll also be hoping Tebas and Presa keep making progress off the field and keep paying his players’ wages. The coach would possibly allow himself a smile if court proceedings don’t go the Ruiz-Mateos family’s way and his former bosses end up back in jail. But he’ll be mostly hoping Rayo can build on their excellent opening half of the season and stay in the Primera División for one more season at least. It’s the least he, and they, deserve.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.