How the challenge of building a club’s identity in Madrid’s satellite towns could alter Spanish football forever

How the challenge of building a club’s identity in Madrid’s satellite towns could alter Spanish football forever

The past decade has been a real golden age for football in the Spanish capital. In recent years, Madrileños have descended on Lisbon and Milan in their thousands for the first and second Champions League finals to be contested by teams from the same city. However, away from the glitz and glamour of big European nights at the Bernabéu and the Wanda Metropolitano, there are a host of other Madrid teams that have been busy climbing the Spanish football ladder whilst faced with the unenviable task of trying to build an identity and a fan base in the shadows of two iconic clubs.

Excluding Real and Atlético’s B teams, the Comunidad de Madrid currently has 12 clubs plying their trade in Spain’s top three tiers. Of the dozen, four are located in satellite towns on the south-western fringes of the Spanish capital. Far removed from the stylish plazas and elegant streets that form the very heart of the Spanish nation, the towns of Alcorcón, Leganés, Getafe, Fuenlabrada and Móstoles are connected by the circular MetroSur, the newest of Madrid’s twelve principal underground rail lines.

With a collective population of around one million and with no two towns more than ten miles apart, on the surface the area has always had the potential to develop a thriving football scene of its own, independent of Madrid’s big two. However, at the time of the completion of the MetroSur in 2003, a huge civil engineering project in the midst of Spain’s construction bubble, the zone had never produced a top-flight club.

That would soon change with Getafe’s promotion to the Primera División, but just five years after the opening of the MetroSur, Spain descended into a deep economic crisis. The south Madrid region to this day is littered with reminders of both the boom and the bust with abandoned shopping malls, unoccupied apartment complexes and areas that are bordering on ghost-towns.

There weren’t many winners from the social and economic upheaval that followed across Spain but the commuter belt to the south of Madrid was certainly one of the biggest losers. Soulless suburbs and urban decay are among the most striking legacies. However, curiously on the football pitch at least, the last 15 years or so has seen each of the principal towns of the South Madrid zone make their mark on the Spanish game in one way or another.

Móstoles, the second-largest city in the capital region after Madrid itself, is currently the only one without a side in the top three tiers. It does have the distinct honour of having produced the national team’s most capped player, though. Iker Casillas was born and raised in the town and his younger brother Unai played for CD Móstoles, a club which folded in 2012 after it was sued by its players for unpaid salaries.

Sadly it’s not an unfamiliar tale in the Spanish lower leagues, but south Madrid’s other main clubs have enjoyed better fortunes in recent years. CF Fuenlabrada are currently riding high in the Segunda B and are in contention for their first promotion to the Segunda División. They play at the Estadio Fernando Torres in honour of another member of Spain’s golden generation. Torres grew up in the town and while he never played for the club, his working-class success story has inspired the next generation of youngsters in one of the poorest parts of the capital.

Further north lies Alcorcón, perhaps the most visited of the five by residents of the city proper due to its wealth of out-of-town shopping centres and megastores from Media Markt to IKEA. For those more interested in football than furniture, the town is also home to the tiny Estadio Santo Domingo, home of Segunda División AD Alcorcón.

Despite a ramshackle stadium that is thoroughly unprepared for life in LaLiga, there have been a couple of recent brushes with promotion to the top flight. The club though is still perhaps best known for hammering their illustrious neighbours Real Madrid 4-0 in the Copa del Rey a decade ago. The event, dubbed Alcorcónazo by the national media, remains one of the biggest shocks in the history of Spanish football.

Read  |  When third-tier Alcorcón famously hammered Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey in 2009

However, you have to hop back on the MetroSur and head east to the neighbouring towns of Leganés and Getafe to find the clubs that have truly put South Madrid football on the map. 

Aside from a solitary season back in the second tier, Getafe have been a constant top-flight presence ever since they first won promotion in 2004. The town itself is no more remarkable than any of the others and is actually the smallest of the five in the MetroSur zone with the exception of Alcorcón. Therefore, in theory at least, there is no reason why the area’s other clubs can’t in the future emulate their on-field success.

Getafe, which could even soon be the most unlikely setting for Champions League football, bears all the hallmarks of a purpose-built town constructed without much consideration to aesthetics in the latter half of the 20th century. Even its small centre is lacking in much of a buzz with quiet streets and buildings that essentially have been left to decay since their initial construction. Like many Spanish cities, it has a central Plaza España but to say it lacks the grandeur of the Madrid or Seville equivalents would be quite an understatement. Getafe’s offering consists primarily of a small fountain flanked by a kebab shop, a budget supermarket and a gaming arcade.

The football stadium lies on the northern edge, in a slightly newer suburb, and is widely viewed as one of Spanish football’s most soulless venues. There have been occasions when that tag is perhaps a bit unfair but it’s safe to say that the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez is again not quite as grand as the name suggests and is rarely full to capacity even during the better times of which the present era is certainly one.

These days Getafe have company in LaLiga from neighbours Club Deportivo Leganés. It would only take little more than an hour to walk from the Coliseum to the Estádio Municipal Butarque and only in Seville and Valencia will you find two Primera División clubs who are closer to one another.

The immediate surroundings of Leganés’ main train station are pretty uninspiring even by the standards of Getafe. However, if you look closely enough, Leganés does boast a bit more character with a slightly more extended central district, a handful of pretty streets and even the odd sign of gentrification. The stadium lies away from the heart of the town but perched on a small hill; Butarque feels a bit less cut off from the city of Madrid with extensive views of even the northern districts of the Spanish capital possible on a clear day while the distant snowy peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama provide the backdrop.

While there may be subtle differences, the satellite cities to the south of Madrid share most of the same working-class traits and their histories are closely linked. It’s not quite accurate to describe them as new towns given most were founded around the time of the 13th or 14th century, however it was only really in the second half of the 20th century that these sleepy settlements transformed into a rapidly growing and increasingly industrialised urban area on the fringes of an ever-expanding Madrid. 

To put things in some perspective, Getafe was home to around 12,000 people in 1950, Leganés around 6,000, while Alcorcón was a village with just 759 residents. Fast-forward to 1980 and all three had populations of over 100,000. Today it is closer to double that again with immigration from other parts of Spain, Eastern Europe and Latin America adding to those who simply moved out of the city.

In football terms, though, they had a lot of catching up to do. While Leganés were a functioning albeit pretty unsuccessful entity hovering between Spain’s third and fifth tiers during the most intense period of growth, even by the start of the 1980s, Getafe Club de Fútbol in its present form had yet to be founded.

Read  |  Getafe and the incredible UEFA Cup odyssey of 2007/08

Their climb towards the upper echelons of the Spanish game would only commence in the 1983/84 season in an amateur local league that was effectively the seventh tier. That same season saw Leganés, Móstoles and Alcorcón finish seventh, eighth and ninth in Group VII of the Tercera División, which was primarily made up of teams from in and around the capital. As a point of reference, Real Madrid’s now defunct C team came second.

Having big enough populations to support a top-flight or second tier team was one thing; getting those people, many of whom had simply moved out from the city for a quieter or at least cheaper life, to stop supporting Real or Atlético in favour of such lowly ranked teams was another. There were also large numbers of migrants from Andalusia who again came with deep-rooted loyalties to clubs like Betis and Sevilla. Meanwhile, those that came from further afield didn’t exactly arrive in towns with clubs that were easy to fall in love with.

Even several decades on from the initial waves of migration, the battle for hearts and minds remains a struggle, one that is not entirely solved by building a successful team. Getafe found that out to their cost during an unbroken 12-year stay in the top flight between 2004 and 2016. It was a period that saw Geta reach back-to-back Copa del Rey finals and twice qualify for Europe. Their 2007/08 UEFA Cup campaign saw them beat the likes of Tottenham and Benfica, only to exit on away goals after drawing both legs of a quarter-final against Bayern Munich. 

However, even that wasn’t enough to truly make the town embrace the football club that bore its name. They had the lowest average attendances in LaLiga in seven of those 12 years and it would have been more were it not for the 2014 promotion of Basque minnows Eibar. After a slight surge in interest after their initial rise to the top flight, average crowds had sunk to less than 8,000 by the final three seasons of their first stint in the Primera División, meaning the Coliseum was more than half empty most weeks.

Even so, anyone connected with Leganés during that period was left looking on enviously. Los Pepineros went in the opposite direction to their neighbours at the end of the 2003/04 Segunda División ensuring it would be a long wait for the next south Madrid derby between the sides.

They would spend the next decade in the Segunda B with only the inspired 2013 appointment of Asier Garitano finally sending Lega on a path towards the big time. Two promotions in three years followed but even as Leganés clinched an improbable first ever promotion to the top flight in the 2015/16 season, Butarque only attracted average crowds of 5,131, just the 14th highest in the Segunda División.

The success of Atlético Madrid in the 2010s under Diego Simeone has only added to the challenges faced by the likes of Leganés and Getafe as they try to build a fan base. From the gritty city suburbs all the way to Fuenlabrada, the most distant of the MetroSur towns, south-west Madrid has always formed Atléti’s traditional backyard.

Seen as the people’s club, the working-class nature of much of the area makes Los Rojiblancos the logical choice. Even more rebellious spirits could still get their kicks by following Atléti, who at least like to portray themselves as the anti-establishment club trying to fight back against Real Madrid, the rich and powerful force in the generally more prosperous north of the city.

For decades, clubs like Leganés, Alcorcón and Getafe have seen potential fans eroded away by their popular, if not always successful, neighbours from the city. The recent of rise of Atlético with a coach and team that largely embodies the spirit of the club has led to Madrid being home to not one but two of the great forces in European football and has only made the small clubs in the commuter towns an even tougher sell.

Read  |  When Real Madrid Castilla reached the Copa del Rey final and played in Europe

The most obvious parallel to draw is that of Manchester, a smaller city than Madrid but one with an equally sprawling metropolitan area with a host of smaller teams. Much like the Spanish capital, it’s also a city that has recently seen the balance of power shaken to the core by a decade of change and the emergence of a second European superpower. While Atléti haven’t had anything like the helping hand that has aided Manchester City’s rise, both essentially see themselves as the club that represents their city better than their illustrious neighbours who draw support from far and wide. 

In Greater Manchester, the growth of City has, on the surface, had pretty dire consequences for the other clubs in the region. Stockport County are perhaps the best example having fallen to England’s sixth tier just 20 years on from a season in which they were actually a division above Manchester City, a club that much of the town supports. Former Premier League outfits Bolton and Oldham have also hit hard times and small clubs around Manchester can identify with the struggle faced by the likes of Leganés and Getafe as they try to generate a following even within the confines of their own towns.

They might even be able to learn a thing or two. With five top-flight clubs for the first time ever, including two from the area to the immediate south of the city, football in Madrid is flourishing amongst both its elite and smaller teams. Clubs like Getafe and Leganés are not just succeeding on the pitch but finally appear to be making steps forward in their long struggles to build some kind of identity that people are willing to buy into.

Their approaches, though, have been very different. Leganés have made a real point of drawing people in with affordable ticket prices and continue to offer some of the cheapest match-day tickets in LaLiga. Prices start at €15 for many games, less than half of the equivalent rates at Getafe or Rayo Vallecano, the other of the smaller Madrid clubs currently in Spain’s top flight.

Despite a small and fairly uninspiring stadium, Leganés have also worked hard on improving the match-day experience. The cash windfall that top flight football brings has in part been used to make Butarque a more aesthetically pleasing place. The bland bowl-like exterior has been brightened up by blue strobe lighting effects on match-days. Meanwhile, a huge club crest now hovers on top of the main entrance, adjacent to the words ‘Dreaming since 1928’, a subtle dig at arch-rivals Getafe who see themselves as the biggest of the cluster of south Madrid sides even though the club is younger than some of their current players. 

In reality, even the loyalist and most optimistic of Leganés supporters wouldn’t have wasted much time dreaming about one day reaching their present heights when they spent decades meandering around Spain’s lower leagues. Therefore it is a slight exaggeration to suggest they have been dreaming for over 90 years, but it all helps to serve the overall goal of building an identity, even if it’s one built on half-truths.

Leganés have also been savvier than most in the way they’ve embraced social media and LaLiga’s growing global appeal. They were one of the first of Spain’s smaller top-flight clubs to start using English language social media channels. The likes of Valladolid and Eibar have since followed suit. Meanwhile, moves such as this season’s introduction of Super Pepino, a bizarre cucumber mascot, have served the joint purpose of generating publicity and adding a touch of comical value to matchdays at Butarque.

Even Rayo Vallecano, the third team within the city of Madrid itself, have proved an obstacle to the likes of Leganés in their bid to truly find themselves. As the likeable, left-wing and very socially-conscious alternative to the big two, Rayo have long since bagged the plucky underdog tag in the Spanish capital – and in that respect they’ve almost been as big a problem as Real and Atlético for the other smaller teams. You could travel the length and breadth of Europe without finding a more self-aware club with such a clear sense of what they stand for.

Leganés, though, seem content to be the club that doesn’t take themselves too seriously, which is actually quite refreshing in a league where football and politics are so regularly entwined. While they do have a loyal hardcore following that does a good job of generating a racket at Butarque each week, they are making clear strides forwards in terms of growing a local fan base and perhaps even a small cult following from further away.

Read  |  Atlético Madrid’s iconic class of ’96: the unlikely double winners who forged a unique legacy

International visitors to Madrid are increasingly making the short trip to the southern edge of the city for a very different football experience to the one on offer at the Bernabéu and that has played a small role in putting Leganés on course to end this season with average league gates of over 10,000 for the first time in their 90-year history.

Three miles east at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, you won’t find many foreign voices nor will you be able to locate English language Twitter accounts or even a matchday ticket for less than €35. It’s as though Getafe have simply accepted that they are never going to win any popularity contests and aren’t willing to waste any resources trying to draw in fans from elsewhere. The English parallel in this case is more the ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ mentality of south-east London bad boys Millwall and the physical, uncompromising style this present Getafe team has developed under the leadership of José Bordalás plays into that perfectly.

Getafe have learnt from some of the errors of their first stint in the top flight and have made some ground in terms of engaging their local community. Half-season tickets have recently been offered to under-10’s for just €40, while discounts for students and the unemployed have made a difference in terms of bringing more people into the Coliseum. With the team making a surprise push for Champions League football, attendance figures are at least moving in the right direction again.

However, like many clubs in Spain, season-ticket holders don’t necessarily show up to all the games meaning there are still plenty of empty seats at some of Getafe’s less glamorous fixtures. There is now at least some sense that they are willing to play the long game and try to draw in local fans, who they hope will stick with the side in the years to come. Getafe fans may have another European adventure to enjoy next season and it will be interesting to see if the club is able to better capitalise on the excitement that will go with that this time around.

While they might not admit it publicly, Leganés, Getafe and all the other clubs in the south Madrid area will be keeping a close eye on each other as they try to figure out how to further raise the bar. Fuenlabrada offer adult season tickets for the price of a single match at one of the bigger Madrid clubs, and while the experience may be like chalk and cheese, there is a growing sense that winning over at least sections of their own communities is no longer an impossible task. There is also now at least a blueprint in place for Fuenla, Alcorcón and perhaps eventually even a newly-reformed Móstoles to climb the Spanish football ladder all the way to the big time.

One thing that should aid them in that rise is Atlético Madrid’s recent move to the Wanda Metropolitano. Atléti fans in the satellite towns to the south-west of Madrid can no longer make the relatively short trip into the city to watch their team play at the easy to reach Vicente Calderón. Instead, they must cross the Spanish capital to reach their team’s shiny new home on the north-eastern fringes of the city. It’s a journey that takes more than an hour by public transport from any of those towns and is a 40-mile round-trip by road from parts of Móstoles and Fuenlabrada.

It’s too soon to properly judge how much of a long-term difference this will make to the respective fan bases of Atléti and their smaller neighbours, who have for so long lost thousands of potential supporters to the club from the city. However, this certainly feels like a window of opportunity, particularly for top-flight outfits Leganés and Getafe, to properly establish a genuine following of their own.

Football fans tend to be a fiercely loyal breed and we are unlikely to see many lifelong Atléti supporters jumping on the Lega or Geta bandwagons anytime soon, however inconvenient the location of the club’s new stadium may be. A far more intriguing and ultimately significant question is that of where the loyalties of future generations will lie in this cluster of towns to the south of the Spanish capital.

With both of the Madrid giants now located north of Puerta del Sol, the city’s widely accepted centrepoint, it’s possible they will settle for an increasingly appealing option closer to home. Therefore what is perceived to be something of a golden age for football in south Madrid may only be the beginning of a small but significant shift that could permanently alter the Spanish football landscape.

By Mark Sochon @marksoc1

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