This was the kind of moment you didn’t want to miss and on the corner of Avenida Albufera and Payaso Fofó street, down in the People’s Republic of Vallecas, the opening bars of the Final Countdown boomed out. Inside, in the front row of seats on the eastern side of the ground where Colombian flags joined tricolours and the smoke smells sickly sweet, the fan in the tiger onesie roared and sang along. Around him, they did the same. Or just laughed. There were 3,280 people, plus a dozen or so gathered in the tower blocks overlooking the wall at one end, all going slightly mad while their striker wore a smile the size of the city he had returned to.
None of this made much sense, but things rarely do down there. The smallest team in the first division, and by a very long way, one that shouldn’t even be there but was somehow promoted through the play-offs, a crumbling club in perpetual conflict and crisis where many of the fans that make the place unique had chosen to stay away, was 3-0 up. Two home games, two wins, seven goals scored, none conceded. And out in the sunshine, that really was Radamel Falcao kissing their badge. He had played 10 minutes and 24 seconds for them and he already had a goal.
Few could believe he was playing for them. His new president had likened him to Pelé and people like Pelé aren’t supposed to play for teams like Rayo Vallecano. Sure, Maradona did, but that was Hugo, not Diego. If there was a time when players would keep going, heading down the divisions as they got older – Laurie Cunningham and Hugo Sánchez played for Rayo – that time seemed gone. When Sánchez joined them, he was 35 and that was 28 years ago. Signing Falcao, most agreed, is the closest they have come since. Likening him to Pelé was pushing it, a line he laughed at too, but this was still probably the silliest story from a summer full of them.
It started with midfielder Mario Suárez, Falcao’s teammate when he was at Atlético Madrid, telling Raúl Martín Presa, Rayo’s president, that the Colombian was available, soon to be a free agent and keen to come back to Spain. Galatasaray couldn’t keep him. At 35, he was old. He had been injured a lot, too. He wasn’t someone his coach, Andoni Iraola, had asked for and, put bluntly, he wasn’t someone Iraola would be asked about either. But they desperately needed a striker and it was Radamel Falcao. At Rayo. For free. Willing to waive the wages Galatasaray couldn’t pay, keen to find a place to play so he could make it to the World Cup. It was late-August and, without discussing with anyone – which is how he does most things – Presa began negotiating the move directly with Falcao.
“There wasn’t much time to give an opinion,” Iraola said in Marca. “It all happened very fast in the final hours.” When it was done, the last deal of the summer, it was hard to comprehend.
It is a long time ago now, his final La Liga game played in June 2013 when he was forced to leave against his will, but it is hard to do justice to just how good Falcao was when he was last in Spain, kickstarting this entire Atlético era. How popular he was: gentle, quiet, a hint of humility even shyness in that smile contrasting with the single-mindedness of his ambition, the determination that has staff describing a man steadily disappearing into a zone of his own as matches approach. The Tiger, they call him, and there was something in that, something predatory about him.
The former referee Iturralde González tells the story of Falcao’s second game in Spain. When a deflected shot went in, he approached Iturralde and asked for it to be noted down as his. “I have come here to be top scorer,” he said, the line delivered not as bravado but a statement of fact.
He scored 24 league goals in his first season, 28 in his second. There were 70 goals in 91 games: all sorts of games and all sorts of goals. At the end of the 2012 Europa League final, the second he won in a row, man of the match in both finals, scorer of 29 goals in the two competitions, when Diego Simeone is on the phone to his son. “Did you see Falcao?!” he says, enthusiasm overflowing.
That dizzy enthusiasm is still there, 15 minutes south of the Wanda Metropolitano. A sense of disbelief about it all.
There is something strategic too: Google “how to buy a Falcao shirt” and see the impact in Colombia and beyond. It’s just a pity they didn’t have the shirts to sell. There may also have been a risk of Falcao becoming the nice shiny thing that distracts from everything else.
Iraola leading Rayo to promotion last season was a miracle that stands as testament to the amount of the work he and his players put in, an achievement reached in spite of everything around them. As this season started, most thought it would be a miracle if Rayo did not finish bottom, let alone escaped the relegation zone.
Things are not good. There’s no money to spend. Their finance officer has left, their ticket officer has as well, there is a dispute over season tickets with fans who are staying away in protest and they can’t use their training ground. Every game brings chants of “Presa, go now” and it is genuinely startling that he doesn’t, hard to understand him hanging on – not just for them, but for him.
The chants come not from one, hardcore end, largely empty now, but from all round the ground, including the seats close to the directors’ box, fans right there telling him to his face.
The divide between supporters and club is deep. During the pandemic, Presa invited Santiago Abasacal, leader of the far-right Vox party, into an empty stadium to watch them against Albacete – whose striker happens to be Roman Zozulya, the man Rayo fans accused of being a Nazi. Fans responded by turning up the next day to “disinfect” the ground.
This, remember is the team from the barrio, the proud neighbourhood where they make much of their left-wing credentials, separate from the city that has swallowed them.
“Mario told me about the values of the club,” Falcao said. If he didn’t tell the Colombian that other part, all the problems, he soon saw. On Thursday, at his presentation – delayed from Monday, because it had been raining and for a further 50 minutes as they tried to get everyone in – he stood a little awkwardly as the president’s speech was drowned out by chants for him to leave. But still there were 2,500 people there – more than anyone could remember in Vallecas – and when it came to Falcao the excitement was inescapable, overwhelming. There was ambition too.
“We’re talking about the best finisher on the planet in the last 25 years, after Hugo Sánchez,” Presa said. Falcao said Rayo could aspire to “something more than just survival”. He also promised “lots of happiness and lots of goals”.
Two days later he delivered. Named as a sub against Getafe, “the tiger, caged” as Oscar Egido put it on Carrusel radio, Falcao did not warm up before the game. He did not come out of the tunnel with his teammates either. When he did appear, he did so alone, sneaking out when the starting XI strolled on the pitch, as if trying not to be noticed, like there was any chance of that.
“Rayo doesn’t tend to have players with his history,” said Iraola and as the starters walked on heads turned his way instead. Rayo played well and led through an early penalty, but it felt like the whole place was waiting for him, a player bigger than the club he was joining although he would never say so.
When he went out to warm up, there was applause. They stood when he came on to replace Randy Nteka halfway through the second half. He was wearing the number three, in homage to his father, Radamel García King: a defender he followed everywhere who named him after the Brazilian midfielder Falcao and who died in January last year. “He gave me my passion for his sport,” Falcao said. “What better way to pay tribute now that he is no longer here?”
Like this. With his first touch, Falcao had a shot blocked. With his second, he chased back and made a tackle and with his third, he completed a neat pass. With his fourth, he won the corner from which Pathé Ciss headed in the second. With his fifth, he held off two defenders and found Isi. And then with his sixth, he did what he does, what everyone remembered him doing over and over again all those years ago. Ciss’s superb pass cut through the defence. Falcao took one touch and then smashed it into the far corner.
“I dreamed of coming on and scoring,” he said, smiling softly. It was the first time he had scored in Spain since a goal against Barcelona eight years ago and, who knows, it may be the last. But the way he took on that shot like so many others over the years it didn’t look likely and in that moment everything made sense and everything was good, all was well with the world. Falcao was back, kissing the badge, embracing teammates and fans who could still hardly believe he was here. Then he pointed to the sky and raised his hands to Radamel, the father that started it all, as Europe boomed out again, the barrio bouncing along with them.