Paco Jemez has won admirers around Europe for turning humble Rayo Vallecano into one of the most attractive teams in the Liga, yet his most impressive decision came away from the world of football.
When 85-year-old widow Carmen Martinez Ayuso was evicted from her home of 50 years by police last November, it was her local football club, lead by Jemez, who rode to her rescue. Although posting the second-lowest budget in the Liga, Rayo’s squad, coaching staff and fans raised €26,000 to pay for the rent and furniture in a new flat nearby.
Jemez recounts the story in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report at the club’s training ground in Vallecas, south-east Madrid, just around the corner from the house where Carmen was evicted.
“A friend of mine called me up to see if we could make a statement to the media but when I saw the pictures I thought we had to do something, simply saying ‘this is unjust’ would have been no use,” he said.
“So we met up with Carmen, talked to her and discussed how we could solve the problem. I’ve been to visit her at the new flat—she is living where she should live, near her family and in her neighbourhood.”
Carmen remains eternally grateful. She posed for a photo for Marca in the new flat wearing a Rayo shirt, and in January donated part of the money the club had bestowed to her to the family of former goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonavbare, who passed away from cancer in February.
“This is a beautiful gesture that they did not need to make,” she told Marca. “The next time I see Paco, I will give him 40 kisses.”
Carmen is not the only one besotted with the balding 44-year-old.
Pep Guardiola admires Jemez’s brand of attacking, positional play, likening Rayo’s style to that of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. And the current Barca boss Luis Enrique has been effusive in his praise of the coach, remarking in a press conference: “I never imagined that behind that tough centre-half there was a coach with such an attacking mentality.”
Jemez’s commitment to attacking football is the hallmark of his identity—he is on a one-man mission to convince the world it is not only the footballing elite who can excite fans with adventurous play. The son of a flamenco singer, entertainment is in his blood.
“There was always a spectacle going on in my house, and perhaps the fact that I grew up surrounded by flamenco, that happiness, has something to do with the football I try to play,” he said.
Of course, Jemez’s loyalty to his attacking philosophy sometimes has disastrous consequences: This season Rayo have lost 4-0 at Malaga, 4-2 at Villarreal, 5-1 to Real Madrid and 6-1 to Barcelona, while Rayo’s defence has been among the three leakiest back lines in the league in Jemez’s three years in charge.
However, he has never considered changing the way his team play: he sends his players out to try to dominate possession, to take the initiative, whether they are playing at home to Levante or at the Bernabeu or the Camp Nou.
On Wednesday (April 8), Real Madrid visit the Estadio de Vallecas. Los Blancos have beaten Rayo in each of their seven meetings since Rayo returned to the top flight, and although teams such as Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have managed to beat Carlo Ancelotti’s side this season by ceding them the ball and looking to hit them on the break and from set pieces, Jemez is not about to employ any such tactics.
“I don’t think that that would benefit us in any way,” he insisted.
“Perhaps it works with other teams but I am talking about what I have at my disposal.
“There is a cliche that the small teams have to play defensively, but not us,” he added, with a tone of defiance.
“Sometimes it goes wrong but the fact we’re a small team doesn’t mean we have to play like one. We try to play like a big, important team, and it’s going very well for us.”
It certainly is. Despite having the second-lowest budget in the Liga—only behind Eibar—Rayo are on course to clinch survival for a third successive year under Jemez.
In 2012/13 his team broke the club’s own points record for a Liga season, and only missed out on a European spot due to the league’s financial regulations. Last season they finished 12th and currently sit 11th in the Liga table table on 35 points ahead of the visit of Madrid, having won their last four home games.
Working on a shoe-string budget is nothing new for Jemez, who has worked his way up the Spanish football ladder since taking charge of Alcala in 2007. He went on to coach Cartagena, Las Palmas and Cordoba before getting the job at Rayo, the club where he hung his boots up.
Working within Rayo’s financial constraints tests his capabilities as a coach throughout the season and especially each summer, when he is forced to radically reconstruct his squad when faced with players leaving en masse.
He has signed 63 players in his three seasons at the club and waved goodbye to 60, including losing his top scorer each year, with Michu departing for Swansea in 2012, Piti joining Granada in 2013 and Joaquin Larrivey moving to Celta Vigo last year.
“It happens a lot unfortunately—we encourage players to play our way and do important things for our team that they had never done before, and then they leave us,” Jemez said with regret.
Rayo’s slender finances oblige them to use the loan system efficiently, and fortunately for them, Jemez and sporting director Felipe Minambres are experts in this field. Their most astute signing last summer was Gael Kakuta, who is finally starting to realise his potential in his sixth loan spell since joining Chelsea in 2009.
“We are probably seeing his best ever season—we have managed to revitalise these types of players,” said Jemez.
“That’s why lots of clubs send their players to us on loan, because we know that we’re going to look after them.”
But does he ever wonder what he could do with a bigger budget at a bigger club?
“Yes, but who knows, it could turn out to be a disaster. The normal situation for a club like ours is to be in the Segunda Division for a very long time but we are still in the Primera Division. No one in football has the magic formula. Big teams also have their problems, their unique situations.”
Nonetheless, Jemez believes the pressure on coaches of smaller clubs such as Rayo is grossly underestimated.
“These are teams with huge financial problems, a lack of players, teams always living with the threat of being relegated,” he said. “Real Madrid and Barcelona are under pressure to win but if one year they don’t win the league, nothing happens. They get a bunch of angry newspaper headlines but they remain huge clubs and they can win the league the following year. But if one year Rayo go down, the club disappears. Finito. That is the worst type of pressure to be under.”
He is not exaggerating: Xerez were in the Liga as recently as 2009/10 but have since tumbled four divisions down the ladder; and Salamanca, who were last in the top flight in 1999, were dissolved in 2013.
Jemez has excelled under that pressure, and other clubs have taken note. Like most of his players, the coach’s contract with Rayo runs out on 30 June and he is unlikely to remain at the club beyond the summer.
Championship side Brentford have spoken to his agent about hiring him in the summer, while Bleacher Report understands other English clubs have also spoken to Jemez’s agent about hiring him next season. However, no agreement has been signed and no decision will be made until Rayo mathematically secure top-flight status.
Jemez is careful not to comment on any speculation but does not hide his admiration for English football.
“I love the mentality of the football in England, the way they live football there,” he said. “I love the way the fans conduct themselves inside the stadium and deal with the results, and the stadiums are stunning. I love watching English football and of course I’d like to work there. I have spoken with [Mauricio] Pochettino about it and he has told me spectacular things.
“But I know nothing. My preoccupation is here with Rayo. When I finish my contract here and my agent tells me there’s a team that’s interested then we’ll see, but right now I don’t have any agreement with any team. After 30 June I’m a free man.”
Wherever Jemez ends up, entertainment will be guaranteed.
All quotes were gathered firsthand, unless otherwise stated.