Groundhopping in Madrid: Going to four matches in a weekend

“You must visit the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia,” insists the Madrid barman whose three-year period living in England has given him a Hector Bellerin-esque accent. “And also, tourists always love El Retiro Park.”

Both sound wonderful, although my agenda for the weekend is already sorted. For the first time ever, all four Madrid clubs — Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Rayo Vallecano and Getafe — have home La Liga games on the same weekend. The fixtures have fallen nicely: two games on Saturday, two on Sunday, and no frantic journeys across town required.

For us part-time groundhoppers, this could be a unique opportunity and I’ve convinced two friends it’s a worthwhile experience. One has declared he wants a home shirt from every club shop. The other wants four wins for Madrid sides.

The barman doesn’t appear to have any interest in football, so I don’t bother telling him the plan, almost out of embarrassment. To many, spending a weekend like this in one of Europe’s most culturally rich cities would be an awful waste, but this is a perfectly legitimate way of experiencing the true Madrid — four grounds in four vastly different states, in four vastly different areas, with four vastly different types of fans. Vamos.

The first stop is the rather unglamorous Estadio de Vallecas, in the east of the city, for Rayo Vallecano de Madrid’s Saturday lunchtime kick-off against Valencia. Rayo are a proud working-class club in one of Madrid’s poorer neighbourhoods, with a well-earned reputation for the best atmosphere in the capital.

When you watch Rayo on television, you see the white shirts with a red sash and think of River Plate, although when you make your way through the city to Vallecas, you see the shirts and think of Madrid’s taxis, which — entirely coincidentally — carry the same design. The shirts are a direct tribute to River, with whom they had a brief working relationship in the 1950s, while the taxis changed to that design in the early 1980s.

Rayo’s shirts are a nod to Argentina side River Plate (Photo: Ruben de la Fuente Perez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Vallecas is a glorious shambles. It’s adjacent to some abandoned, overgrown futsal pitches and is most famous for having only three sides — the fourth, behind the goal, simply backs onto a couple of apartment blocks.

And by the standards of a top-flight club, Rayo are an incredibly small-time outfit. There is no way to buy tickets online, a concept that even seventh-tier English clubs have managed to crack, and instead we arrive over an hour early and are subjected to a 40-minute queue for the two ticket booths. That’s 40 minutes that could have been spent in the club shop.

However, the club shop is smaller than my local newsagent and much of the floor space is simply empty cardboard boxes. Rayo have a very distinct brand — they’re vaguely the Spanish equivalent of St Pauli, although they have made absolutely no similar attempt to exploit their image in terms of merchandise. The shop closes before kick-off. Few fans are in official Rayo shirts, although I see a couple of supporters wearing black t-shirts depicting Eric Cantona’s infamous karate kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995 with the slogan “anti-racist”.

Rayo rarely showcase beautiful football but always play with tremendous energy and aggression. That proves to be enough to beat Valencia 2-1, a major boost for our chances of four Madrid wins. Rayo consistently press effectively when Valencia attempt to play the ball from defence into midfield, regaining possession quickly. They always hit set pieces along the ground to the near post, which brings both goals. They’re roared on by brilliant home support — the chants always originating from the lone man with megaphone behind the one “end”, then replicated by the supporters along the sides — and, seemingly, the lone fan perched on a balcony in the apartment block behind the other “end”.

Rayo Vallecano

Rayo’s solitary fan (top right) watches from above the empty “end”

Radamel Falcao comes on for Rayo midway through the second half and shortly afterwards during a brief stoppage in play, a young fan runs onto the pitch to ask the Colombian striker to sign his shirt, gets his wish, then hops back over the barrier with minimal censure from stewards. That is classic Rayo.

Also classic Rayo is the fact that the club shop remains closed after full time. Our attempt to procure a shirt from all four grounds has, sadly, failed at the first attempt.

There are no such problems when the metro takes us up to the north east of the city and Atletico Madrid. Print-at-home tickets are easy to buy online for a reasonable price of €40 (£35). Bizarrely, the tickets proudly state that the Metropolitano is home to “the biggest Atleti store in the world”, as if there would be much competition from elsewhere.

The contrast between Vallecas and the Metropolitano is staggering. The Metropolitano simultaneously carries a sense of history, having hosted the 2019 Champions League final, and a sense of modernness. From the outside, it still looks like a computer design of a future stadium rather than an actual real-life ground. On the inside, it is absolutely huge, more like a national stadium than a club stadium. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, although 25 per cent of those seats remain unfilled. Fans file into the ground to the sound of minimalist ambient music, the type you’d expect in a luxury hotel.

Atletico Madrid

Atletico’s Metropolitano stadium hosted the Champions League final in 2019 (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/UEFA via Getty Images)

The clientele is different — a few more tourists and many more families — without losing the sense that Atletico is a proper local club with passionate fans. A woman in front of me alternates between feeding her young baby and standing up to chant, which sums up the vibe.

Atletico defeat Celta Vigo 4-1 but are largely terrible. They create few chances — their four goals come from 0.7 expected goals (xG) — and depend on two huge deflections. The only thing they do well is switching the play around Celta’s narrow press, and, in fairness, their other two goals are excellent — first, a swift passing move rounded off by Angel Correa, then a solo dribble and finish from Yannick Carrasco.

Otherwise, this is typical Atletico, mainly notable for how seamlessly they evolve from a back four to a back five with Carrasco dropping to left-wing-back, then to a back six with Rodrigo De Paul into the right-hand channel. Their efficiency brings a second Madrid win this weekend.

The game’s other notable feature is Antoine Griezmann’s inevitably-timed introduction. Due to the nature of his loan agreement from Barcelona, it is believed Atletico are obliged to buy him if he plays in a certain number of games. And a “game” is determined according to him being on the pitch for a certain number of minutes, and therefore having been brought on in the 61st, 61st, 64th, 62nd and 61st minutes so far this season, we can tick another off the bingo card with a 63rd-minute introduction here. Also, slightly peculiarly, he appears to be more of a midfielder than a forward these days.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Griezmann is brought on against Celta Vigo (Photo: Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Atletico’s ground has been built to maximise matchday income. When the game is over, many fans stay around to drink in bars on the outside of the stadium complex, one of which features a live band. The club shop remains open — in fairness, it is huge — and we buy an Atletico shirt. It is an absolutely brilliant matchday experience and, as with Tottenham Hotspur’s ground, means that you no longer roll your eyes when you hear the words “modern stadium”. The only downside is that it’s very much on the outskirts of Madrid.

In contrast, visiting the Bernabeu the next day is an absolute delight — located right in the centre, in an affluent neighbourhood, it is surely the most central location of any major football ground in western Europe.

That said, it is currently a building site, in its pupal stage between historic old-school concrete ground and glitzy modern arena, with work scheduled to be completed sometime next year. The club shop remains open, although it’s quite pricey, and therefore the weekend’s second football shirt is bought from a stall outside.

Real Madrid

The Bernabeu is being renovated (Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP)

Notwithstanding the scaffolding in the upper regions, where a new tier is being added on both sides, the Bernabeu is an absolutely magnificent sight once inside. Some grounds are a bowl — the Camp Nou is an obvious example — but the Bernabeu is a box. I’m sitting on the highest tier (for now), six rows from the back, yet I’m confident I could volley a football from here onto the pitch. The stands are ludicrously steep, the steps absolutely exhausting. It’s an unbeatable ground in terms of vision.

Sadly, the Bernabeu is often rather lacking in terms of sound. This feels more like a theatre than a football ground; fans largely sit and wait to be entertained. The only serious noise comes when refereeing decisions go against Real, then the whistles are deafening.

Real Madrid dominate without playing well while opponents Real Mallorca inevitably concentrate on counter-attacks and set pieces. Then, they go on a counter-attack and, from that, win a set piece, and from that, score the opener. Suddenly, Real wake up a bit.

They’re still largely poor, however, with Karim Benzema absent and Eden Hazard unsuccessfully playing as a false nine. Real take pot-shots from long range and Mallorca don’t seem overly troubled by Real’s passing combinations.

Real, though, are historically about individual brilliance more than any other club in Europe and that proves vital here. Federico Valverde scores the equaliser by collecting the ball in his own half, dribbling past three players, cutting inside onto his left foot, and thumping it into the top corner from 20 yards.

Another direct dribble through the Mallorca defence, from Rodrygo, leads to him slipping in Vinicius Junior for the second, before Rodrygo does the same thing again but scores himself. Three outstanding goals before Antonio Rudiger volleys home a late set piece for the fourth.

Afterwards, you can really sense the Bernabeu’s central location by the fact supporters disperse in every direction.

We’re going south — very south — to Getafe, as they host Real Sociedad. As we get off the train, there are more Real Madrid supporters returning home than Getafe fans en route to the game. When we finally hear the echoes of chanting in the distance, they turn out to be Real Sociedad supporters. But that’s all fair enough: this is a proper community club, with support drawn from the local area.

Getafe is a quiet, leafy suburb and you could be forgiven for not noticing there was a La Liga stadium around the corner. The ground itself is generic and open. The attendance has improved over the last decade, although for this game, the ultras are boycotting as part of a protest against Javier Tebas’ running of La Liga, and the section behind the goal remains empty. Real Sociedad fans, though, are here in great numbers.

The club shop is on the corner outside the ground, with plentiful stock, but this match is the toughest test for our hopes of four Madrid wins. Getafe haven’t won all season while their opponents have just beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Getafe start well. They win a penalty but Alex Remiro saves Borja Mayoral’s effort, with supporters reacting as if that’s game over rather than simply a missed chance. But against a Real Sociedad side probably tired from their midweek European action, Getafe dominate. Both their wing-backs are excellent on the ball. Right-sided Damian Suarez performs such a good nutmeg that his opponent actually falls over, then left-sided Fabrizio Angileri produces such a good piece of trickery that his opponent has to be substituted with an ankle injury.

Enes Unal puts Getafe ahead with a superb free kick and, after half-time, Carles Alena adds a second. Real Sociedad get one back, however, and then suddenly, I realise I actually desperately want Getafe to win, despite having no attachment to them whatsoever, purely to complete the Madrid quadruple.

enes unal getafe

Enes Unal celebrates his free kick to open the scoring (Photo: Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Then I really go through the emotions — Getafe score but it’s disallowed for offside, then Real Sociedad hit the bar, and then the fourth official indicates seven minutes of stoppage time and the referee plays nine.

Finally, the whistle goes. We’ve done it. 2-1, 4-1, 4-1, 2-1. Four Madrid wins from four. Presumably, no one else in this city is pleased that all four Madrid sides have won — Real and Atleti fans want each other to lose and don’t care much about the other two — but we’ve witnessed a unique quadruple.

On Sunday evening, we end up in a sports bar watching Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz win his first grand slam. From the other part of the bar, there’s a load of shouting and chanting about another sporting event. It turns out to be a group of Argentinians watching the Superclasico, Boca Juniors 1-0 River Plate.

At full-time, a load of River fans quickly depart in their white shirts with red sash. It’s a harsh reminder of our only failure from the weekend: that missing Rayo Vallecano shirt.

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Groundhopping in Madrid: Going to four matches in a weekend

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