Rayo Vallecano have never been better, but divide between owner and fans has never been greater

This was the best night they had in 40 years, and there was no one there, not to start with. As they warmed up out on the smallest, bobbliest pitch in Primera, preparing to play for a place in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey for the first time since 1982 and only the second time in their entire history, Rayo Vallecano's players were all too aware that something was wrong. Something else at a club where every day brings a new problem, where players admit this isn't the way it should be, and the team's president and fans are engaged in open warfare.

Problems are "a habit," their captain admitted later, the way things are this week more than ever before.

When the players had arrived at the ground down in the neighbourhood of Vallecas -- the Independent People's Republic of Vallekas, as they like to call it -- the fans had been waiting for them, gathered on Payaso Fofo Street. There had been fireworks, drums, banners and songs, a lot of noise. Now, it was oddly quiet, which wasn't right. In the stand behind the goal, above the cramped dressing rooms, there were empty seats and hardly any people, never mind the megaphones.

The supporters who were going to make this special were stuck outside. Players noticed it and talked about it, feeling almost like they had been lied to. At the gates to the stadium, fans were being stopped and checked, more than ever before, the whole thing grinding to a halt. That felt deliberate, consciously obstructing supporters' way in. As the game started, they still weren't there. No flags or scarves or shirts that referenced the Bukaneros were allowed in so when they did finally get through, the game 25 minutes in, some did so "semi-naked" in order to still see their team.

It was Feb. 2, and it was cold.

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The Bukaneros are Rayo's ultras, although "ultra" is a word as abused almost as much as it is used in Spain, an easy tag with which to justify the unjustifiable. They make a lot of noise and have a singing repertoire unlike any other fans' group. They are consciously left-wing, supporters of social causes, quick to make a stand. They protest, a lot. That day they would do so, too, particularly about the club's president, Raul Martin Presa. But they weren't there, not yet; instead, they were stuck outside.

The club denied that they'd deliberately sought to block hardcore fans' entry at the end, in this week of all weeks, claiming that this was down to stadium security. Though it smelled like revenge and repression that fit a pattern of provocation and retaliation, the relationship between president and fans not so much broken as way, way beyond that. And the rest of the ground knew whose side they were on. How could they not?

"Bukaneros yes, Presa no," they chanted.

Many of them had only got their tickets the day before. Some had queued outside at 5 a.m., in the cold and the dark. Which, yes, could be presented as an expression of loyalty, of cup fever, of the excitement over a historic moment. And there may even be an element of that, but really this was something else more symbolic of the whole sorry mess. The biggest game in Rayo's history, and they hadn't even released ticket information until two days before.

They went on sale one day before, and only at the ground, in person. That, too, could be a seen as a good thing: this way, tickets only go to the truly loyal, the community, the heartbeat of the club, a way of ensuring that only those who really deserve to go, go. If that was a decision, you could defend it, maybe even celebrate it, but it isn't. It is incapacity, the absence of the means or the will to do it differently. Sales are never handled any other way.

Still, the stadium filled. Eventually. And when Vallecas fills, it's arguably the most fun in Spanish football. Although perhaps not for the president. Every game, fans turn and demand he leaves. "Presa, vete ya," Presa go now, is a recurring chant. It is not some of the crowd, although it often starts with the Bukaneros; it is all of them and all of the time. Right in his face, right in front of the directors' box. He sits and listens to it, the most unpopular man in the neighbourhood, one they can't stand.

This time, the protests were set to be even more powerful, after a week in which Rayo employed Carlos Santiso as the coach of their women's team, despite the fact that he had been forced out of his previous job because of a leaked recording in which he tells his coaching staff that the best way to build team spirit between them would be to rape a girl together.

Fan groups demanded the club sack Santiso, one statement insisting: "We can't allow a person with such grave thoughts in their head to sit on the bench and represent Rayo Vallecano." A banner hung at the training ground declared: "Respect for women: Santiso out of Vallecas." Santiso then released a statement apologising for "an unforgivable sexist joke," but also complaining about how long he would have to carry this around for. Rayo, though, decided not to take action. "We sign professionals, not people here," Presa said, according to Cadena SER radio.

And so, on Wednesday, a few hours before the men's team faced Mallorca in the quarterfinal of the Copa del Rey, he was there on the touchline leading the women's team.

This was just another episode. The former captain of the women's team Alicia Gomez told El Confidencial: "He's been trying to sink the women's team since he took over; now he is leaving it to die."

During one game, the fans at the end where the Bukaneros congregate held up a banner calling for "respect and dignity for the women's team." That came after a player had to be treated by doctors from opponents Athletic Club because they do not travel with medical staff of their own. (There was a repeat incident a month later, when two Rayo players needed to be treated by Barcelona physios for the same reason.)

Presa claimed that they didn't need one and if they had doctors for their women's team and all their youth teams, then "we would leave the national health service with less supply of doctors."

They also have no access to gym facilities, and at the start of the season players refused to train because their contracts had not yet been signed. Players have told stories of sad-looking out-of-date sandwiches on away trips, of the rent on their accommodation going unpaid. The president of one players' union for women accuses them of "repeatedly breaking the labour agreement," insisting: "What he is doing to the club is very serious."

The whole club.

In the summer, the finance officer left, so did the ticket officer. The men's captain Oscar Trejo admitted in one autumn interview with Cadena SER: "If I was a fan, I would shout and swear because it's the only way to open eyes and 'heat' ears," because Rayo is a place where it's "problem after problem," where the ground is falling apart and the club shop is the size of a cupboard and usually closed. One B-teamer told the story of how he was signed by the club, only to find that when he got to Madrid from France, his contract was halved and went unsigned. He lived in a club flat with six others and only two beds.

The divide between supporters and club is deep. Rayo is the only ground in Spain to have been closed for chants from the fans. Not, in their case, for racism, but for chanting against the arrival of Ukraine striker Roman Zozulya, whom they accused of being a Nazi because of social media posts he'd made. Consciously anti-fascist, left-wing supporters who see this as a club embedded in a working-class and diverse community, separate from the rest of Madrid, they did not want Zozulya at the club.

Then, during the pandemic, Presa invited Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right populist party Vox, to a game. At a time when no one else was allowed in the ground, he sat in the directors' box with Presa and watched Rayo against Albacete -- whose striker just happened to be Zozulya. Fans, by the way, responded by turning up the next day to "disinfect" the ground. That seemed almost deliberately provocative, which is how the appointment of Santiso felt to many too, with one fan group noting that: "back then we opposed the appointment of a Nazi, now we oppose the appointment of a degenerate misogynist."

With Presa, there is one question that keeps coming back, and it is the simplest question of all: Why?

Every game brings chants of "Presa, go now," and on some levels it's baffling that he doesn't. It is hard to understand him hanging on -- not just for them, but for him. It is hard to understand what is in it for him, what satisfaction he can take from it, how it can ever feel worth it. For anyone.

The fans despise him and he appears to despise them back. At times it seems entirely deliberate, like there's actually a desire to fight, or to self-destruct, as he has done regarding Santiso, Abascal and the Bukaneros. Sometimes it can feel like some bizarre attempt to bring the club down. None of this helps, that's for sure. "The reality is that Rayo gets talked about more for what happens off the pitch than on it," midfielder Mario Suarez admitted this week, when what happened on the pitch was better than anything they have seen in 40 years, maybe ever. And yet, he said, they couldn't enjoy it the way they would have liked, "all together.

"It affects you," Suarez admitted, and on Wednesday night in the quiet of those opening 25 minutes until the supporters got in, you could really feel it, the feeling that something was broken on this night of all nights. And yet despite everything, this is a brilliant team on the pitch, flying in the league, beaten only once at home all season, and now in the Copa del Rey semifinals having defeated Mallorca 1-0.

Despite all that, the women's team is still standing. Rayo resists. Even Presa couldn't bring them down entirely. In the end, all that couldn't ruin all this.

"The management isn't good. With everything that's going on, all the problems -- this is not an easy club, day to day -- this win is oxygen," Trejo said on Wednesday night. "It's sad that this can't be celebrated the way it should be." Only they did. At the end, the players, semifinalists, stood before the stand at the end of the ground. It was the end of the biggest night in 40 years and it was full now, and so they sang.