4 March ~ Readers of Spanish football daily Marca were treated on Monday to a headline explaining that Rayo Vallecano president Maria Teresa Rivero, matriarch of the Ruiz Mateos dynasty that owns Madrid’s third club, had questioned the professionalism of the current group of players. It's no surprise that sort of complaint was thrown around after a result like the 4-1 defeat away at a team, SD Huesca, struggling in the lower reaches of the Spanish Segunda. It was also incontestably true. The most basic definition of being professional is getting paid – something that has not happened to Rayo’s players and staff for several weeks.
Having watched less than an hour of the Huesca match, Rivero appeared affronted that her workforce should believe they were entitled to be paid on time. She accused them of not caring whether or not Rayo, currently second in the Segunda, were promoted. She promised that they would be paid before the end of the season – a little matter of three months away (and more if Rayo end up in the new promotion play-offs). Until the weekend there was nothing in their play or demeanour to suggest understandable discontent. Rayo only kept Segunda status in their final match last season, but this time round the involuntary amateurs have played their way to a serious shot at the Primera and local derbies with Real, Atletico and Getafe.
After the meeting last week at which players were told they would not see their money for some time, team captain Michel said they all wanted to continue playing as before “This team will carry on in the same way, giving 100 per cent on the field.” Nor does this appear to be the usual story of a club wrecked by its own reckless expenditure. Quite possibly Rayo are, as Rivero has proclaimed, a “money-pit”, but on this occasion they are collateral victims of a wider collapse in the fortunes of the Ruiz Mateos family business, Nueva Rumasa, which filed for bankruptcy protection on February 17.
It is the latest, potentially terminal, twist in one of football’s odder pairings of club and owner. Rivero’s husband and predecessor as club president Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos is the classic Spanish business magnate who did very nicely under Franco and was happy with the way things were then. His original Rumasa company was the centre of the first great financial scandal following the restoration of democracy in Spain. It was declared insolvent and nationalised in 1983. He was a member, until expelled, of hard-right Catholic sect Opus Dei and has made huge donations to the still more fundamentalist Legion de Cristo.
Rayo are deeply rooted in the working-class, left-voting district of Vallecas. When Spain had a general strike last year, Rayo’s players took part – not least because they were disinclined to cross a picket line formed by supporters. The Ruiz Mateos clan has left its mark. Rayo’s atmospheric ground, the Estadio Vallecas, has been renamed the Estadio Teresa Rivero. The apparent carousel of shirt sponsors, including such memorable names as Dhul and one logo in the form of a giant bee, is in fact a rotation of Ruiz Mateos brand names. Their plans for Rayo have included moving the ground elsewhere and building a giant office block on the site.
When first appointed president in 1994, Rivero was photographed in the club magazine with a Rayo scarf draped across her shoulders, looking roughly as comfortable as the Queen might under such circumstances. She has, though, warmed to the role, becoming over the years as bitterly and partisanly critical of referees as the most blindly paranoid Rayista. And there is a next generation – 14 of them, mostly sons. Several were photographed, looking like an uneasy cross between the Glazer brothers and an amateur production of Reservoir Dogs, grouped supportively around their father last week.
It must now be rather less likely that any of them will get to be Rayo president. If comments on club websites like Rayo Herald are any guide, any identification between fans and ownership has been trashed – Rivero’s assault on the players the final straw. While she backtracked on Wednesday, saying she had “always believed in the professionalism of our players", inhabitants of Vallecas rarely have trouble choosing between rich capitalists and an unpaid workforce. There were still vocal protests aimed at the presidential box during Wednesday’s match at home to Alcorcon, which Rayo won 1-0 to consolidate second place.
The great fear remains that Rayo could be dragged under by a general collapse of the Ruiz Mateos companies. That the payments delay was cited in the departure of centre-half Borja Gomez to Karpaty Lvov, removing vital defensive cover for the run-in, hardly stilled those fears. Against that is the fact that Rayo’s league position makes them a more attractive proposition for alternative owners than they have been for years.
Too bad that, in spite – or perhaps even because – of its tradition of membership-based clubs, Spain has no equivalent of Supporters’ Direct. The peñas, club-recognised supporter groups, responded to the crisis by setting up a fund, based in part on the sale of specially produced T-shirts, to help with basic expenses such as team travel. If ever there was a club made, by virtue of fan activism and intense local identity, for the trust movement it is Rayo. Huw Richards