Racing Santander tired of working for free

Players follow through on walkout threat amid continuing financial worries

Racing Santander players leave the pitch after refusing to play at the start of their King's Cup quarter-final second leg against Real Sociedad on Thursday. Racing Santander's players, protesting over unpaid wages, refused to challenge for the ball after their quarter-final second leg at home to Real Sociedad kicked off. The third-tier team announced on Monday they would boycott the game unless club president Angel Lavin and the board resigned and they formed a line on the centre circle immediately after the match began. Nacho Cubero / Reuters
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Headlines across Europe on the penultimate day of the transfer window are usually about individuals hiking up their salaries, clubs knocking off millions from a fee.

Part of the appeal of late-window negotiations is the element of billionaire brinkmanship. But in Spanish football, where in the previous trading session in excess of €180 million (Dh891.7m) was shelled out by Real Madrid and Barcelona on Gareth Bale and Neymar alone, the defining image of the last week has been one of penury, and the plight of Racing Santander.

Racing, a club with a hundred years of highs and lows in their history, were punching well above their weight simply to be in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey.

They are in the third tier. They trailed Real Sociedad, a Primera Liga club, 3-1 from the away leg but had already gained much admiration for defeating Sevilla and Almeria to reach the last eight.

The respect felt across Spain for Racing was all the greater because of the conditions under which their players were working. They have not been paid for four months.

On Thursday, at just past nine o’clock Spanish time, they said “Enough”. Following a squad meeting, consultation with the Spanish footballers’ trade union, the AFE, and talks with the club’s supporters’ groups, Racing’s players decided they would use the event to protest against the board, who they hold responsible for the decline of an institution that, until the first of their successive relegations in 2012, had spent 14 out of the previous 15 campaigns in the top flight.

Sociedad kicked off, but Racing players merely stood in a line around their half of the centre circle. When the ball went out of play 30 seconds later, the home XI walked off the pitch: Tie abandoned, Sociedad winners by default.

Yesterday, the Spanish football federation banned Racing from next year’s Cup while an emergency shareholders meeting was called, with president Angel Lavin’s position no longer tenable. He was not at the game, fearing embarrassment. By the end of the night, he could hardly avoid realising the huge support the players had garnered.

The gesture tapped into exasperation around Spain, where clubs’ debts have spiralled and the inequalities between the haves and have-nots yawn wider and wider.

Three years ago, Racing appeared the beneficiaries of the kind of investment from the Arabian Gulf that has transformed the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, albeit on a minor scale, when Ashan Ali Syed, head of Western Gulf Advisory, bid for a majority stake in the club. His commitment, and funds, quickly became less visible and the club fell to the third tier as it slid towards bankruptcy.

The symbolic protest was a desperate move by the players, the fans’ endorsement a sign of how far their anger stretches.

“We had to support the idea,” said Luis Rubiales, head of the AFE.

His union has plenty of members elsewhere in Spain chasing delayed wage payments. Several Spanish footballers watched their fellow professionals do something blatantly unprofessional, yet looked on with a great deal of empathy.