This article has a content warning for discussion of rape.
On Sunday, after 2 seasons of battling the drop to Spain's second division, Rayo Vallecano Femenino were mathematically relegated when they narrowly lost their 19th match of the season. They fought tooth-and-nail in a 3-4 thriller against Levante UD, but Alba Redondo’s 63rd minute goal was what put the final nail in the coffin for La Franjirroja. At the full time whistle, the Rayo players fell to their knees in exhaustion, covered their heads with their hands, and knelt in silent reflection around the pitch. It was heartbreaking, but they and everyone else following their story knew in their hearts that their descent was inevitable.
For those not following their story, Rayo Vallecano has had a nightmare two seasons, plagued by controversy both on and off-the pitch. Between this year and the last, Rayo’s president and board have failed to provide the women’s team with medical staff or adequate training equipment, they have left players on the verge of eviction by not paying their rent, and they have barred them from speaking to the media about their situation. Most recently, the club made international news when they hired a disgraced former coach who was caught making jokes about him and his staff gang raping a player.
Rayo have fallen quite a ways from their former glory of three league titles, one Copa de la Reina, and being the driving Spanish force in the Champions League. Now, after 19 years in the Primera División, they have finally made the drop to the Reto Iberdrola. A fall from grace this drastic begs the question- how did one of Spain’s most successful women’s clubs become one of the nation’s biggest sporting tragedies?
Rayo’s story at the top of Spanish football began in 2003, when they were promoted to Spain’s first division, formerly known as the Superliga. Rayo Femenino’s sporting project was one of the most promising in Spain by the mid-to-late 2010’s. With some top-half-of-the-table finishes, they managed to recruit what are now some of the biggest names in Spanish women’s football history. Among these players were the likes of Sonia Bermúdez, Jenni Hermoso, and Adriana Martín, to name just a few, who spent multiple seasons at the club and won many of their first trophies there. In the late 2000s, Rayo became a force to be reckoned with when they won a Copa de la Reina, a win that helped convince players around the country of their project. One Copa de la Reina win gained them a star-studded squad, and Rayo followed up their Copa win with three straight national titles. The Madrid-based club were also pioneers for Spanish clubs in the Champions League, and notably attracted 8,000 spectators to Vallecas Stadium when they played Arsenal in the 2010-11 Champions League Round of 16.
Rayo's reign of Spain fell just as soon as it rose. In 2010, the club's primary investment group Nueva Rumasa were hit with bankruptcy, and the club was suddenly sunk 21 million Euros into debt. In the aftermath of the Nueva Rumasa scandal was the appointment of Raúl Martín Presa as Rayo’s newest club president. Presa, a 34-year-old Madrid-based businessman, vowed to take up Rayo’s debts in multiple installments, essentially saving them from insolvency and ensuring the men’s side’s promotion to La Liga.
Presa did end up saving Rayo’s finances, but his relationship with Rayo’s fans went sour as the years went by for various sporting and political reasons. Presa has long been at odds with Rayo’s fans, namely their main ultras group- the Bukaneros- one of the few staunchly anti-fascist group of ultras in Europe. The Bukaneros have many times protested Presa and the choices he has made as president, despite Presa’s insistence that his club “would never yield” to any “extremist” points of view. In 2017, Rayo’s supporters famously protested against and ultimately prevented the signing of Roman Zozulya, an alleged Nazi sympathizer. In 2018, fans took to the streets of their neighborhood of Vallecas to call for Presa’s resignation after a toddler fell through the scaffolding of their stadium, which has long had crumbling and neglected infrastructure. In 2021, Presa made fans angry again by inviting the leaders of Spain’s far-right VOX party, Santiago Abascal and Rocío Monasterio, to sit in the VIP box of Vallecas Stadium. Rayo’s supporters responded by showing up to Vallecas Stadium in hazmat suits the next day to disinfect its walls. Those incidents are just a handful of Presa’s controversies in his 11-year-long tenure as president.
In terms of his relationship with the women’s team, he has a similar history of controversy. However, things did start off on a good note. In his presentation interview, he even said that Rayo Femenino’s success was a major source of pride for the club, indicating a continued stream of investment and care into the project. Unfortunately, as is common in women's football, Presa’s words were nothing more than empty promises. In the years that followed, Rayo’s women's section of the club was hit particularly hard by cuts in funding. As a result, Rayo's most prominent and talented core players spent the next few years making their way out of the club. Sonia Bermúdez and Adriana Martín were the first to go in 2011, and by 2013, Jenni Hermoso, Natalia Pablos and Jade Boho had made their exit. By then, FC Barcelona Femení had taken over as Spain's biggest women's club and Rayo never managed to regain their footing. To this day, their 2011 league title was the last major title they have won.
The trend of decreasing funding continued year-by-year, and by 2014, Presa failed to allocate any money whatsoever to Rayo’s budget for the women’s section. Both players and fans quickly understood that Presa was doing what he could to rid the club of its women’s section by forcing them to operate with the least possible amount of money. Fans responded with the hashtag #SalvemosAlRayoFemenino (“We Save Rayo Femenino”), created to support both the players and staff who were affected by the club’s decision to fully defund the women’s section. Regardless of the pressure, Presa never allocated money to Rayo’s budget that year, and continued to do without it for the seasons to follow. Naturally, Rayo Femenino continued to struggle without proper funding and poor marketing. Rayo managed to finish in 6th place that season, but 6th fell to 10th, and the club continued to finish their seasons around the middle of the table.
Things started to heat back up publicly in 2019, when Rayo players collectively dropped a statement complaining about unequal working conditions from the men. Months later in July, Rayo increased the price of their season ticket, and removed women’s team matches from the season ticket package. Briefly, things started to look up in December when Rayo Femenino were allowed to play in Vallecas Stadium for the first time in 9 years. They managed to hold their opponent, Barcelona, to a draw, a historic result against a team beginning their unrelenting dominance over the Spanish league. For a very short moment, despite the scandals and controversy, things were looking up for Rayo. Before the end of the 2019-20 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rayo sat comfortably 8th place.
A turning point for the worst started in the beginning of the 2020-21 league season, where dysfunction in Rayo’s camp regarding a COVID-19 outbreak postponed kickoff for the Primera División. Presa’s disagreement on a starting date with all the league’s clubs pushed back the start date of the entire league for weeks. In August, he argued that Rayo Femenino didn’t have enough time to start the league because they didn’t have a preseason- a preseason that wasn’t played on time because Presa didn’t pay the player's July salaries (in order to save on Social Security payments). The Spanish league began play in September to accommodate Rayo, a month after every other major European league. Rayo Vallecano’s first few games were automatically postponed so they could make time for a preseason.
Then-captain Cristina Auñón told Diario AS that “the pandemic was an excuse to take things away from us,” a statement echoed by teammate Paula Ubeda. Ubeda recounts how “COVID protocol” prevented women from parking in the same facilities as men. They removed the women’s access to the gym to maintain a “bubble” for the men’s team. The only way Rayo’s women players could train was at 9 at night on an astroturf field, with training materials (cones, hurdles, elastic bands, etc.) they had to buy out of their own pocket. In December 2020, Primera División team Sporting Huelva posted photos to their Instagram of their visiting players not being offered a locker room. Huelva players were shown changing into their kits on the floors of Rayo's stadium interior and on outside benches- yet another thing Rayo attempted to write off as "COVID protocol."
Rayo Femenino’s problems only got worse in the following season. Nine players left the club in the summer of 2021, including captain Cristina Auñón after an 11-seasons-long tenure. In August, news broke that none of Rayo’s players were registered with Social Security last year, in violation of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Rayo’s players were also not offered a contract for the 2021-22 season. Shortly after, more disgraceful news broke from the Rayo camp- 16 of the Femenino players were at risk of eviction because the club did not include their rent payments in their budget. Beginning the league only continued to damage the team’s morale. They lost 6 of their first 7 matches, only drawing the other, and were left dead last in the relegation zone. It took them until the end of October to win their first match of the season against Sevilla. A goal from Millene Cabral took them out of the relegation zone, and at the full time whistle, players fell to their knees in tears and hugged their teammates.
In November, after Chilean international Camila Sáez went down after a blow to the head, Rayo had no doctor or physio on-hand to run her through concussion protocol. Athletic Bilbao, their opponent, had to offer their doctor to check on her, and she ended up being stretchered off the pitch. Rayo player Paula Andújar took to Twitter to ask “How much longer are they going to allow this situation? Something truly serious must happen for them to act…” After the lack of a team doctor became a nationwide scandal, Rayo’s fans showed up the next week at Vallecas Stadium to hold up shirts in support of the women’s team, reading “RESPETO Y DIGNIDAD PARA EL FEMENINO” (RESPECT AND DIGNITY FOR RAYO FEMENINO).
Once again on December 18th, Barcelona’s medical staff had to treat a Rayo player who was injured on the pitch. In the same match, Rayo, a red-and-white Umbro-sponsored team, had to play the match wearing Barcelona’s Nike-sponsored maroon socks, because their own socks were left in Madrid.
Presa later justified his decision to not give Rayo’s women’s team a doctor by saying verbatim that if the women’s section had a doctor then all of the youth sections would need to have one too, and he cannot “deplete the country’s medical system.” Rayo Femenino never ended up getting their own team doctor.
The constant barrage of scandals coming from Rayo’s team meant constant PR disasters for Presa and co. Thus, the Rayo Femenino players were completely barred from speaking to the media.
The final breaking point for Rayo’s dysfunction came on January 28 2022, when news made the rounds of the Spanish women's football sphere that Carlos Santiso was re-hired as manager of Rayo Femenino. Santiso’s appointment was immediately met with intense backlash, both within Rayo's fanbase and outside of it. This is because in November 2021, WhatsApp audio messages sent by Santiso in 2017 were leaked, and he was caught making jokes about gang raping a former player. His jokes were in reference to what happened at Arandina CF, where three of the club’s players gang raped a 15 year old girl. Santiso joked to his staff that they should find a girl (of legal age so they don't get in trouble) and have sex with her to "bring the staff together." Santiso was fired from his youth coaching job and disgraced from Spanish football as a result, so his appointment was a complete and utter shock. Rayo had experienced scandal after scandal this season and the last, but something was different with the Santiso appointment. This time, Rayo had somehow managed to outdo themselves in their mistreatment of the women's team. Instead of neglecting them, Presa was putting the Rayo Femenino players directly into harm’s way by hiring someone like Santiso.
Santiso’s appointment sent shockwaves through Spanish women’s football. Rayo’s supporters groups were the first to formally communicate their disgust. In Rayo fan group Plataforma ADRV’s statement, they alluded their resistance to Santiso’s appointment to their famed protests against the signing of Roman Zozulya. Not soon after, Spain’s female player’s union FUTPRO condemned his appointment, and their criticisms were echoed by the President of Spain’s National Sports Council and by all major Madrid-based political parties (except for VOX, who are known friends of Presa). Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl asked “How in the world can Rayo go on like this?” Barcelona midfielder Alexia Putellas remarked “I could not live with a person who has said those things.”
The pushback against Santiso’s appointment quickly spread outside of the Spanish women’s football sphere, eventually making its way to a global audience. ‘El caso Santiso’ (the Santiso case) crossed over into a global story when it hit the English-speaking world, done in-part because of a Guardian article written by prolific football journalists Suzy Wrack and Sid Lowe. Understanding how big of a deal it became outside of the devout followers of Spain’s women’s league, Presa went on a PR tour trying to justify his hiring decision. He claimed to COPE that the players "requested" Santiso, and that they were delighted by his arrival. Presa's ultimate message? “We hire professionals, not people.” None of Rayo’s players offered public comments because, as previously mentioned, they were barred from speaking to the media.
Jorge Blanco, Rayo’s physio for their B team, resigned from his position in protest of Santiso’s hiring. Supporters continued to push back, but neither Spain's footballer's union (the AFE) nor their Federation (the RFEF) bothered to step in. Santiso apologized publicly and Presa kept him in his position. Eventually, the media firestorm died down. Rayo quietly went back to their losing ways. Santiso’s re-appointment was ultimately useless, as his side only managed to collect 5 points from 10 matches before their relegation.
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 17th, in front of a measly crowd of 70 spectators, Rayo’s 19-season-long story in the Primera Division was put to a close. Spanish football journalist Chantal Reyes put it simply- “No ha muerto, lo han asesinado” ([Rayo] is not dead, it was murdered).
Rayo were immediately met with an outpouring of support and well wishes from clubs, fans, and former players. The day following Rayo’s relegation, ex-player Jade Boho reflected on her time at Rayo, and how they once offered the best treatment towards players in Spain. She signed off her message with "I say goodbye dreaming and imagining that maybe one day this club will be what it used to be." Feelings are mixed and hopes aren't quite high that Rayo will return to their rightful place in the Primera División. Rayo Femenino legend Natalia Pablos even said she feared the team would disappear and become amateur. Given the downward trend, her fears are nothing irrational.
Amid world record-breaking crowds, conquering Europe, and Ballon d’Or wins, it is easy to lose sight of the harsh reality that many women in Spanish football still face. Hopefully, Rayo will not end up as Pablos fears, but for now, Rayo will be another tragic tale in women’s football- vulnerable women routinely and deliberately failed by the institutions meant to protect them.