MADRID, Spain -- "Sometimes you think: 'bloody hell, how are we where we are with what we have?'" In a line, Alvaro Garcia, the joint-fastest player in LaLiga last season, sums it up. On Wednesday, Rayo Vallecano go to the Santiago Bernabeu to face Real Madrid. They could not be more different. It's not just the budgets -- the visitors' is 18 times smaller -- it is everything, their entire worlds. And it is not just Madrid either; it is everyone. Familiarity makes you forget it sometimes, success does too, and theirs is extraordinary, but Rayo are unique. They're not like anybody else.
They're more fun, for a start.
Look at it logically and Rayo shouldn't be here, but few explain better how they do it than left winger Garcia. This is the man whose manager consults him on elements of the game and says has the vision, intelligence and awareness to become a coach one day too -- even if Garcia is not sure he agrees.
"Assistant, maybe," Garcia says, laughing. In fact, there's a reason why it's Garcia sitting in the club canteen this morning: precisely because, when ESPN goes looking for an explanation on Rayo's journey, a member of staff confides he is the man to talk to, the one who understands the game best. He has also seen football from the other side, going from the regional league to the edge of Europe with a unique club.
When Garcia joined Rayo in 2018, he became the most expensive player they've ever signed. His transfer fee was €5m. Yes, five, no zeros missing there. He had played just four first division games and 102 minutes total, and those had come five years earlier. At the end of first season with Rayo, they were relegated. But they're back, and better than ever.
It's worth mentioning Rayo have a ground, not a stadium. Wedged among the flats of the most emblematic, working class neighbourhoods in Madrid, it has an end missing -- the last time they met Madrid, a Fede Valverde shot flew over the wall and into someone's living room -- and there are things missing from their training centre, too. In their place goes pride and identity. Supporters see themselves as a social cause as much as a football team, and the players know that; they are shown it and can feel it. In their place goes achievement too, against the odds.
"Next year Rayo-Liverpool," the song goes, fans still clinging to the small hope of a European spot at a club where survival is, or should be, the only target. This is the barrio team, from the slums, and they're good. "Rayo is different," Garcia says. "It doesn't have the normal things that other grounds and other clubs have. On the inside we lack resources. But maybe that's what makes us different: the connection with barrio.
"When you sign, they take you around the barrio. The fans do it: we go see the key places, where the club was founded. At other places no one does that. They tell you about the club, the ups and downs, the conditions of the barrio: they explain that it's a humble place, there are social problems. The fans have a [left wing] ideology: there's the humbleness. They ask you to run, work, give everything; maybe that goes hand in hand with the way they are."
Maybe missing things is good? Garcia laughs. I ask if there are players who come here and think: holy s---? Garcia laughs again. "For sure," he says. "There are players who come from bigger clubs and see there are things missing here. We're humble. Even though we're in primera, there are resources we don't have. Maybe it makes you conscious of where you are. We would like more resources: to recover, to train, for everything. It brings you back a bit to when you first started in football. I come from a team in my home town, Utrera, a humble club that hardly has anything, and I relate to that.
"My son is three years old and I can't get him a Rayo shirt because they don't have his size. Resources for recovery, physiotherapy... we're limited in that sense and that hurts. We would like to have everything, to have those things to be able to live in the same conditions, to compete equally. But there's unity: this is my fifth year and the dressing room has always been united. Maybe that makes us different too."
The way Rayo play football definitely does. Rayo don't park the bus. Instead, they take it for a wild ride. The standard model for a team that comes up from the second division is to be tough, defensive, cautious. Rayo have gone for teams instead, pressing relentlessly, running right at opponents -- and it works. This season, both Barcelona and Madrid have been beaten in Vallecas. It's great to watch, too. With the atmosphere and the way they play, there is no better day out in Spanish football.
Sid Lowe: Is it as fun to play for Rayo as it is to watch them?
Garcia: You enjoy it, yes. You attack, rob the ball and you're all up and running. You go to play at Barcelona's stadium -- last year we beat them there, this year we drew -- and you go there thinking you can hurt them. You win the ball and you're right there in their goalmouth. Sure, you're chasing them down and maybe you don't like that, but as soon as you get the ball you're all flying out of there. If you just defend, you can get points, sure, but you're not going to win a game if you never attack.
With [head coach] Andoni Iraola, we work a lot on the press. People say to me: "I love watching Rayo." You talk to players from other teams and they say: "you play really good football." In our games, there is pace, chances, enjoyment. Lots of people tell me how fun we are and Andoni's the one that makes that happen, who wants us to press this way.
You won promotion playing that way, which is unusual in the second division, and then you kept at it in the top flight and massively over-performed. Is it actually easier in primera?
For our way of playing, yes. It's not the same when you try to press and the goalkeeper just goes: "pum" and the ball is over you. Compare that to our last game against Espanyol where they're playing out. They place that sweetie in front of you to go and get. It's not always going to work, but it's a chance to press.
How would you define Iraola's football? There's a feel of organised chaos to it.
I would say: vertical. He wants the ball, but when we get it we want to go at you direct and fast. He wants volume: lots of crosses, lots of people arriving in the area, lots of attacks, get to the second ball quickly. If there are three crosses in the same move that's good: even if each is not so precise, one will come off. It's a question of time. There's the sense of danger when you're pinning opponents back.
We use lots of direct balls, which forces the other team to sink, to fall deeper. That makes space between lines for people like Isi Palazon. If we just went centre-back to full-back to centre-back to full back, and the other team don't press, we wouldn't have the space to pour into. We try to force them back, so that they feel they can't breathe. They think: "bloody hell, they're here again, and again, and again."
You're the pesados of LaLiga, the pain in the backside.
Yes, pesados. That word defines us well. Pesados.
Has a full-back ever said to you: "Will you ever stop running?"
Yes. Quite a few of them. I can't stop running: if I do, he'll take me off. When I stop it's because I can't run any more.
It's you and Fran on the right, the two Garcias, both of you bombing forward. There genuinely may never have been a left wing as quick.
We mix very well, me and Fran. We have been together three years and he knows what I am going to do and I know what he is going to do.
He's returning to Real Madrid in the summer. You'll miss him.
He'll miss me too, won't he?! I don't know if they'll do overlaps as much there. He's very good and he has the talent and the age to grow. He has the consistency, the relentlessness. He's pesado. Today we're training, all tired, doing recovery work but he's there in the gym, working on his upper body.
Physical preparation is vital here.
If we didn't have that capacity to go and press, return, press, return, press, we wouldn't be the same. You really notice it when we're not at our best physically. We had a run of games without winning and you could see that we were tired. A team that is used to pressing stops getting there in time, gets forced to to drop off a bit and just isn't as good.
Defenders see you coming over and over, at top speed, and think: ah, s---.
For sure! And if it's not me, it's Fran. In the 70th minute I can sometimes see that a player is tired. I talk to Fran and say: "he's knackered, let's keep going." I try to focus on them, their expression. Sometimes you think: "bloody hell, we're getting to him, we've got to drive this home."
Do you know your top speed this year?
35.6 km/h. Last year I was 35.4 km/h. I was level with [Athletic Club forward] Inaki Williams as the fastest last year. I am not sure if anyone has beaten that this time. Andoni gives me the space, the chance to break into the gap beyond. That's my virtue, more than receiving [the ball] to feet and turning.
Take Isi: he's maybe not as fast but he has more quality, so he comes inside, combines. We have two different wings: depth, reaching the byline on our [left] side, and more play, more initiation on the right. That makes the most of our qualities. You can see what the opponents think: if they're letting you receive, it's because they want to protect the space beyond, they're not so fast. If they come right to you, it's because they think they can recover and race you. The bigger teams, with better physical players, tend to come closer.
What's the worst thing full-backs say to you to wind you up?
They don't insult you so much, but there will be a little elbow here, a kick from behind there. They tread on your toes when no one is looking. It's normal for them to kick you. They're more likely to do it to a player they think they can wind up.
And you're not one?
No. I try not to be, once in a while it's inevitable. You're losing, you're tired, annoyed and they kick you, or say something, it's normal. You have to be calm because it's no use getting wound up.
You were Rayo's most expensive player. Does that weigh on you?
Not now. To start with it did. I wasn't playing well and people said: "eh, you cost €5m." People remind you. You're a machine, a robot; what you feel doesn't always matter. You have to do this every day and that's not always easy. In football, it can be hard to say to everyone "there are things you don't know" but that's true sometimes. We have issues like anyone else and that can show in your performance level.
That psychological support is more widespread now; there's more awareness. Most clubs use mental coaches.
We don't have one here, but you can find one. We had a team one at San Fernando in Segunda B. I had come from Utrera in the Andalucian regional league and I thought: "Wow, what's this?!" We would all see him once a week. There's all sorts of help now: now I have a nutritionist, a personal trainer and my wife. She's the one that helps me. I've been with her since school, she understands me, knows football, is from the same town. When I play badly, I get home and she says: "what a terrible game, eh." She knew me before I was a footballer.
You played regional football, then you played in Segunda B, which is anything from the third to the seventh level of Spanish football. Does that change things? Was it better to arrive late in the elite?
Logic says no, but it has been good for me. It's easier to make it if you are at Sevilla or Real Betis as a kid than if you come from Utrera like I did. It's harder to get from primera andaluza to the first division. I was at Utrera and I was introduced to an agent. I was 18, 19. He took me on a trial at San Fernando in Segunda B. I played a friendly for them and they signed me for the rest of the season.
At what point did you think: "I can live off this"?
Maybe when I went up to the second division with Cadiz. At Granada [in 2013], I was training with the first team but mostly playing with the B team. I played four games in the first division, but not many minutes. I was there with them but it's like I wasn't.
I went to Racing on loan and played well but we were relegated from the second division to Segunda B. I had to go back to Granada but I thought: "What do I do? I'm not going to get chances there." I joined Cadiz in Segunda B on loan but I had a bad year, barely played. Then Alvaro Cervera came as coach and changed everything. He changed my life. He played me and Salvi as two wingers, which really got the best out of me. We made the playoffs, only just. I played well, scored, we went up to the second division. Granada said they didn't want me back so I stayed and it all fell into place. Cadiz then made the second division playoffs and offers started to come.
RAYO TAKE THE LEAD OVER BARCELONA 👀 pic.twitter.com/rrsvExP2zk— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 26, 2023
Is that a relief? You're in your mid-20s by then. Is that the moment when you think you have some security? When do you think you have made it?
I think the big relief is when I signed for Rayo. That's where I more or less can buy myself a flat. I couldn't before. That's maybe when I think I can start to have a future. But we went down again. I made it to the first division at 19 but only played four games. I made it, sure, but it was four years before I played there again. I played one year in the first division [2018-19], and got relegated. You think "bloody hell, it might never happen again, I might not play in primera." Rayo went up via the playoffs and that was a hard, long season. But now we've been here two seasons and we're going to have a third.
Yes, I feel that way too. Logic says Rayo should be fighting to survive but we've been safe for a long time, securing that early both seasons. Maybe we have lacked that little something to take the extra step, the ambition to get into a European place, but we have what we have.
Are you, and many of your teammates, proof that clubs don't always have to look for a name? That players can come up from lower levels and perform?
[You hear:] "He's a second division player, how can he play for X club in the first division?" That's normal and people don't watch the second division much. But there are players of first division level in the second division too, lots of them.
When you go to stadiums like the Bernabeu, is it just another place to play now or do you think "wow, what a journey"?
You go there and you feel like a footballer. The Bernabeu, the Camp Nou, the Metropolitano: this is what I saw on TV. Everyone's watching, the floodlights are on, there are thousands of journalists. When I was a kid I was a Sevilla fan and I watched Jesus Navas. The first thing I did when I played against him was ask for his shirt. I wanted to be a footballer but I never knew if I could make it. And now I think "bloody hell, how lovely to be here and at this ground against these players."
Your shirt collection must be quite something.
I'm embarrassed to ask for them, usually. When I was at Granada that first season and hardly playing, we were against Madrid one day. Jose Mourinho was the manager. Iker Casillas wasn't playing. Nor was I. I was on the bench and I saw him leave and I thought: "I'm going after him!" I followed him down the tunnel: "Iker, could I have your shirt?" He gave me his and said: "Well, give me yours, then." 'Oh, you want my shirt?!'
I've got Cristiano Ronaldo's from preseason in Manchester . I got it by chance. You can ask but I wouldn't ever dare to ask during a game. I would feel bad and there's a question of pride too. Afterwards, maybe. How can I then kick you if I have asked for your shirt?! That day, we all wanted shirts. We had never played at Old Trafford. We gave our shirts to the delegate who went to them and swapped. He came back with United shirts and started handing them out. Totally by chance. "Wow! Cristiano!" It could have been anyone. That was cool.
If you swap a Rayo shirt now, do you have to pay for it?
Of course. It comes out of your wages.