New season, new enthusiasm, new hopes … an empty stand? Down in the Independent Republic of Vallecas, the protests started on the very first day. Rayo Vallecano emerged from the tunnel and into the silence. At one end of the stadium, a wall; at the other, the end that actually is an end, concrete steps and plastic seats with no one on them. Soon, a handful of fans occupied the open space holding banners directed at the vice-president of the league, Javier Tebas. "If football belongs to Tebas, let his fucking mother cheer them on," it ran.
Another declared: "For working, for looking for work, for studying, for getting rid of your hangover … Mondays are good for many things, but not for football." Cramped into the corner, the fans who had evacuated the end brandished a tarpaulin with the slogan: "For dignified timetables." And along the bottom of the empty section behind the goal, a clear message: "No to football on Mondays." Both of them are still there. They've been joined periodically by others: before their final game of 2012 there was a colossal a work of art, depicting a dominatrix whipping Rayo's servile president and ordering him to play on the days that she says.
It wasn't actually a Monday – Rayo's first game of the season was held on a Sunday night at 9.30pm, while the following week they played at noon – but the protest was for everyone's sake and it soon would be Mondays. "Mondays are killing us," complained the coach, Paco Jémez. The good news is that so far he has been proven wrong; Rayo are very much alive.
It is not just Mondays, it is Fridays too. This season, the league has used 14 different time slots, from midday to 11pm and the "weekend" games are spread across four days. There is one game on Friday, one on Monday and the rest on Saturday and Sunday. That is not necessarily in itself a problem – plenty of leagues have Friday or Monday slots – and it could even be seen as a good thing: the week's one free-to-air game is on Monday or Friday, so if you occupy that slot at least you get seen.
Only you don't, not really. The free-to-air game is being moved by channel and by day and squeezed (there have even been a handful of Saturday games). It is part of a barely concealed but never admitted plan to undermine the concept of "general interest", currently enshrined in law, and push instead for every game to be on subscription channels: viewing figures have tumbled from last year's regular Saturday night slot, which often included the league's best game, thus providing the perfect excuse to take that game off terrestrial TV.
Because kick-off dates and times are not confirmed until around three weeks to a fortnight before – and that's an improvement – fans have to wait. And hope. This Friday, Rayo's Bukaneros fans club was unable to travel to Bilbao. Then there are the forgotten victims of Spain's failure to fix match days well in advance: the teams themselves, the coaches who prepare for a game not knowing when it is and how many days' training they have.
When they get Monday or Friday, there is also something intangible about it that says: you don't matter. Out on a limb, in a kind of limbo, it is as if the games don't really form part of the weekend. Especially if you play on a Monday, especially if the free-to-air game was Friday: the round-up shows have been and gone, the wraps, the columns*. And you're not there. They're not going to wait for you. Certainly not if it's you. And all too often it is.
Madrid and Barcelona have not been on a single free-to-air game this season. None of the European teams have. Meanwhile, Rayo have been forced to play on Friday or a Monday more times than anyone else; given the slot no one wants. They had a run of Thursday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Monday. And of their past nine games, fewer than half have been played on a Saturday or Sunday. Of those, only one carried the consolation of being free-to-air on telly. "We may be humble but we're not idiots," said Jémez.
He is right, too. What they were, though, was almost forgotten until this week, when they faced Athletic Bilbao on Friday night and on TV. That's a pity because on Friday night Rayo Vallecano won 2-1. It was their fourth consecutive win and took them to the halfway stage having enjoyed their best ever start to a season. This morning, they sit in sixth, level on points with Málaga in fifth and just three points off a Champions League place.
Not bad for a team that has only ever played in Europe once before, and that was via the Fair Play places; for a team that survived on the final day of last season – albeit having thought they were safe in ninth place 10 weeks from the end and inexplicably collapsed after – or for one that lost 13 players in the summer. One that lost their manager as well. It is not bad when you consider that Rayo Vallecano are in administration and have the lowest budget in the division.
"We can only afford to rent," says Rayo's sporting director, Felipe Miñambres. "And every year we have to go and find a new flat." Among the players they lost in the summer were Movilla, Armenteros, Arribas, and Diego Costa, now back at second-placed Atlético Madrid and playing well. Then of course there's Michu, whom they had to sell, for just £2m. That's five of their best players. Replacing them is not easy either. Keeping them on long-term deals is impossible. "We can't offer potential new players anything tangible; what we can offer them is affection and a shop window," Miñambres adds.
Go through their squad and every player has one thing in common: he cost nothing. Their "star signing" was the Denmark Under-21 striker Nicki Bille on loan from Villarreal – and he's already left. Rodri tore an achilles tendon. A dozen players' contracts will be up at the end of the season and none of them have renewed yet. The club can't afford to do so until they are certain of survival and even then they will sell those they can sell. Léo Baptistão is their top scorer and star player, a man they brought to the club as a 15-year-old from a Brazilian futsal team. He will join Atlético next season.
And yet there they are, just three points off a Champions League place. No wonder Jémez announced this weekend: "I'm euphoric."
But it is not just that Rayo are over-achieving that makes it such a pity for them to have been shunted into the graveyard slots, it is the way they have done it. Put in simple terms: they're fun. They are worth watching. On Friday night, they were fortunate against Athletic – Lass scored a breakaway goal and they were given a penalty for a foul that was clearly outside the area – but otherwise they have deserved their victories.
Rayo are a bold, dynamic and aggressive team. Jémez, who says he used to drool over Bebeto and Fran when he played at Depor, pushes his team high up the pitch, encouraging his full-backs to become midfielders. Quite literally, at times: they have occasionally lined up with three at the back, particularly early in the season. "The players would be happier with four because they'd feel more secure," Jémez said. "But then again they'd feel even more secure with seven." And then he said it, the phrase that sums him up: "if you're going to lose by two, what difference does it make if you lose by four?"
The trouble was, he did lose by four to start with. It seemed suicidal. When Celtic almost clinched a draw at Camp Nou earlier in the season, Jémez declared: "My face would fall off in shame if we played like that." In Spanish, it is a set phrase, less dramatic than it sounds when translated literally, but he soon looked pretty silly. A couple of weeks later, Celtic beat Barcelona. Rayo, meanwhile, conceded four against Atlético, three against Espanyol, five against Barcelona and six at Valladolid.
But Jémez, who won promotion from the third division to the Second Division B with Alcalá and from the Second B to the Second with Cartagena then took Córdoba to the play-offs for the First Division last season before joining Rayo, stuck with his philosophy. He preferred to remember the opening 20 minutes against Barcelona when Rayo, pressuring high, closing quickly, throwing men forwards but leaving space behind, made chances and made Barcelona suffer.
Slowly, the style was becoming defined. Bit by bit the players bought into it – it helped that there was a certain parallel with Sandoval last season. And as Sandoval put it: your players are going to play better if they actually enjoy it and they are going to enjoy it more if they go for it.
Only two teams, Espanyol and Zaragoza, commit more fouls than Rayo – this weekend Jémez had to take Jordi Amat off because he was, in the coach's words, "on a knife's edge" – and only two teams create more chances than them. Only Deportivo and Athletic have conceded more goals but only Real Madrid have taken more shots. Piti, playing more or less the Michu role has reached the halfway stage on nine goals – just two behind Roberto Soldado, Ruben Castro, and Artiz Aduriz. "This is a dream," he says.
"We can make history," said Jémez. "I'm really enjoying it." And for all the Monday kick-offs, he is not the only one.
• Clunk. That noise you can hear is thousands of jaws simultaneously hitting the floor. Barcelona were absurd on Sunday night; some of the close passing and technical skill, from Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in particular, was ludicrous. Flicks and tricks and roulettes and rondo after rondo, all soft-shoed and swift. It was one of those games where you could understand what Charly Rexach meant when he said that he does not need to see a player to know if he is any good; he needs "to hear him … tac" Málaga were pretty good too, but they gifted Leo Messi the opening goal, even if he then needed some pretty nifty footwork to finish it off, and Barcelona won 3-1. That completes the best first half of a season ever: 18 wins, one draw. They are now 11 points clear of Atlético, 18 ahead of Madrid.
• Woof! Goal of the week … no, goals of the week … Step forward Valladolid's Ebert. One wallop, one dance. Brilliant.
• Diego Simeone has achieved where so, so many men failed. Atlético are flying. Ten out of 10 at home, second in the table, seven points clear of their city rivals. Astonishing.
• A team from Seville and a team from Valencia battling it out for a Champions League place? No, not Sevilla and Valencia; Levante and Betis. And it was good, too. Very good. Pepe Mel's Betis side sit fourth this morning after they defeated Levante 2-0 with goals from Joel Campbell (on loan from Arsenal) and a real beauty from Rubén Castro. "That's the calmest I have been during a game because I knew they were going to play well," said Pepe Mel. "Rubén pulled a great goal out from up his sleeve," sighed Juan Ignacio Martínez.
• Oh well, at least now we can concentrate on the league. Not Madrid; Madrid have turned the normal cliche on its head. They have thrown in the towel on the league and are concentrating on the Cup. They were awful against Osasuna; their first shot on target came in stoppage time and even Kaká got sent off for the first time in his club career. It finished 0-0 and it was a diabolical game, although it could have still finished with a Madrid victory but for them having a goal ruled out for offside that is very, very close. Alfredo Di Stéfano, who has been effectively domesticated ever since he criticised Madrid after the 1-1 league draw with Barcelona two years ago, likening them to mice, has two boxes at the foot of his weekly column: "What I liked" and "What I didn't like." In the former it says: "nothing really."
(*And yes, that does include this column. On a personal level, the frustration of having potentially great stories placed beyond reach is infuriating. And they have only gone and done it again next week with Betis.)
Results: Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Rayo Vallecano, Real Valladolid 3-1 Mallorca, Espanyol 1-0 Celta Vigo, Osasuna 0-0 Real Madrid, Valencia 2-0 Sevilla, Real Betis 2-0 Levante, Real Sociedad 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña, Atlético Madrid 2-0 Real Zaragoza, Málaga 1-3 Barcelona.
• A huge thanks to Rayo Herald for its help finding photos of the protest banners. www.rayoherald.com