Soccer in Madrid: 3 Teams, 1 Sport, 1 People

Soccer, or futbol, in Madrid is more than just a sport, it’s a lifestyle.

By Taylor Patterson

MADRID – Ranked No. 1 going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Spanish national soccer team failed to make it past even the first round. Since that swift exit from Cup play, this soccer-crazed city has little else to do than anticipate next season.

“It’s such a disappointment,” Nicolas Psara, a traveling student from Argentina. He said Spain’s soccer team failed to meet the high expectations Spaniards have for their teams, and did so miserably.

Soccer stirs deep passions in Madrid, which is home to three clubs in La Liga, the top professional soccer division in Spain: Real Madrid, Atlético and Rayo Vallecano. Each has its loyal fans, a distinctive history, neighborhood affiliations, and a long list of connotations and assumptions about the other teams.

“Soccer is more than just a sport here, it’s a tradition,” said Matt Nuguid, an English teacher at a local primary school. “It is a part of the culture; therefore, it is a way of life.”

Santiago Bernabéu stadium, home of the perennial
title contending Real Madrid soccer club, was built by
Franco as a shrine to his beloved team.
(Photograph by Taylor Patterson)

The Real Madrid Football Club, which won last year’s Champions League title by beating Atlético 4-1, is the most popular team in terms of sheer number of fans, and it is the best known from Madrid, said Victor Gonzalez, director of study abroad company ACCENT and an Atlético loyalist.

Real Madrid’s perennial competitiveness is a result of the access it has to money compared to the other teams, Gonzalez said – money mainly to sign top players. It also affords the club the largest and grandest soccer venue in the city, perhaps the country – Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, a venue that holds about 100,000.

“Money equals more players you can get, and the higher ability you have to win,” he said.

Real has the money to buy whatever and whoever they want, according to Madrid resident and Real Madrid fan Matt Nuguid. Though he is a Real fan, Nuguid said it is Atlético that is the team people want to support and spend their money on.

“Real buys, but Atlético sells,” he said.

Real v. Atlético

Real’s fan base comprises an older demographic compared to Atlético’s relatively young supporters, Gonzalez said. And Real’s fans are a more privileged class, creating socio-economic reasons for affiliating with the various teams.

“Atlético is a team for the people who are less privileged but have more passion,” Gonzalez said, not surprisingly, given his loyalty. “Fans celebrate the hard work and effort that is put in by the team, and this is seen as lacking in Real Madrid.”

Of course, hating Real Madrid also is a motivation.

“Atlético fans love to hate Real Madrid,” Gonzalez said. Atlético “is about humility, which is something the Real is lacking.”

Atlético’s nickname supports Gonzalez’s description: colchoneros, or “mattress boys.” Legend has it that the team’s red-and-white striped jerseys originally were made from mattress ticking, according to Elizabeth Nash’s Madrid: A Cultural History. Atlético plays in in Vincenzo Calderón Stadium on the Manzanares River in southwest Madrid.

Futbol and politics

This mural in the Vallecas neighborhood in
Madrid reads: “Love Rayo, Hate Racism.”
(Photograph by Taylor Patterson)

At the bottom of La Liga’s standings typically is Rayo Vallecano, which has a loyal fan base in the working class neighborhood of Vallecas, a part of Madrid that has seen (much) better days.

“Fans are proud of their team because that is were they are born, its in their roots,” said 13-year-old Diego Giraldo, a middle school student and Madrid resident. He observed that Rayo fans are very passionate about not only their team, but about the game. This helps to explain the loyalty of the team’s fans despite more losses than wins.

Rayo plays “for the love of the game,” said Nick Garcia, a Vallecas resident and Rayo supporter. “We know we won’t win, but it’s all about having fun.”

Rayo ownership simply lacks the funds to field a competitive team, said 14-year-old Eduardo Pereiro, a Vallecas resident. He said his neighborhood is racially diverse, and that most residents struggle on the local economy’s lower rungs.

Where to celebrate

Each fan base has its own spot to go for celebration. For Real Madrid fans, that place is Plaza de Cibeles, “the place to go to celebrate, drink, and scream for Real Madrid fans,” said Jesus Garcis, who goes to school at the university in Madrid.

After a title win, the club’s players ride an open-topped bus and circle the plaza to the screams of its fans. In the plaza, “young kids paint their faces and wear jerseys,” Pereiro said.

Atlético fans, celebrating in much the same way, go to the Neptuno fountain in the Plaza de Canovas del Castillo, not far from Cibeles, said 20-year-old Carlo Joir, who lives in the suburbs of Madrid.

Matt Nuguid
(Photograph by Taylor Patterson)

While the Rayo team may not have a tradition of congregating in any one spot after a win, they celebrate in the neighborhood of Vallecas, Garcia said.

Providing hope

According to Financial Times, Spain has a 26% unemployment, one of the residuals of an economic crisis that began in 2008 and that the country is struggling to shake. For many, soccer is a way of escaping the harsh economic realities, if only for a few hours.

“In a country that is economically struggling and where people are looking for jobs, soccer gives them hope,” Nuguid said.

Anton Huevez, a Madrid resident and Real Madrid fan, said that “no matter what happens, we will still love the sport of soccer and support our teams.”

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