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Explaining the drama of Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey round of 32 venue

Real Madrid will play Unionistas de Salamanca next week at their tiny home ground. Spanish stadiums expert Chris Clements spoke to Managing Madrid about this interesting situation.

Copa del Rey Semi-Finals draw Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Last Tuesday lunchtime, a roar erupted in Salamanca. The players of Unionistas de Salamanca – a fan-owned club in the city of the same name that was born as recently as 2013 – were watching the Copa del Rey draw. As one of the Segunda B teams left in the tournament, they had a chance of drawing one of the four Spanish Supercup teams in the round of 32. They ended up drawing the Supercup champions. They ended up drawing Real Madrid.

“Zidane must be sh**ting himself right now out of fear,” joked one of the players of Unionistas, the club that was born following the disappearance of Unión Deportiva Salamanca, the city’s main club, due to financial reasons. This club that was only created six and a half years ago – which is more recently than 10 members of the current Real Madrid squad joined the capital city club – had just been awarded the biggest match in the institution’s history.

That’s when the problems started. Was this match perhaps too big? Not necessarily for Unionistas as a club, but for their modest little stadium. You see, there is a pretty big stadium in Salamanca, called the Estadio Helmántico. Its capacity is just over 17,000 and it was the home to Unión Deportiva Salamanca for four decades since its construction in 1970. Unión Deportiva Salamanca then disappeared in 2013 and a new phoenix club was created with the aim of replacing the original team. Originally called, Club Deportivo Club de Fútbol Salmantino, it’s now called Salamanca Club de Fútbol UDS and this club plays at the 17,000-capacity Estadio Helmántico.

It’s quite confusing with all the different-but-quite-similar club names, but the important point to note here is that the club facing Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey next Wednesday night is Unionistas de Salamanca, the fan-owned club that is explicitly not an offshoot of the club that disappeared in 2013. They wanted to be different. They wanted to be run for the fans. They wanted to play at a different stadium. And that’s what they did.

The different stadium is called the Estadio Las Pistas del Helmántico and it literally means The Running Tracks of the Helmántico Stadium. That’s because it is located just 50 metres away from the larger stadium. It’s basically part of the same complex and is little more than a football pitch surrounded by a running track. There is just one stand. It doesn’t really have the sufficient lighting for staging a night-time match on TV. It’s one of the most modest stadiums Real Madrid will have played at this century.

As Spanish stadiums expert Chris Clements, the man behind the Estadios de España blog, explained to Managing Madrid: “Las Pistas remained nothing more than an enclosed athletics stadium with a single stand, but it did host regular track and field events, including an event on July 29th 1993 when Javier Sotomayor broke the high jump world record. In recognition of the Cuban’s record, the stadium was renamed in his honour until 2000. Terracing was extended and changing and team facilities in the south-west corner date from the early 2000s. At a push, Las Pistas holds 3,000.”

For Unionistas, though, this modest ground is their home. “This is our stadium,” explained Unionistas president Miguel Ángel Sandoval in an interview with MARCA. “We either play there or we play somewhere outside of Salamanca. We know that playing at our home stadium will earn us less money, but I want to make clear that this doesn’t matter to us.” The president said that they’d even rather play at the Bernabéu, some 200 kilometres away, than play 50 metres away in the 17,000-capacity stadium of a club that has become a rival.

Salamanca Club de Fútbol UDS didn’t want their rivals’ fixture to be played at their stadium either. “We always do what’s best for the city of Salamanca and the stadium is available to the city council…” they said in a statement, “…but there has never been any interest on our part in hosting the fixture”.

There’s also the fact that their stadium isn’t in great condition, even if it does have 17,000 capacity. “It has had its problems,” Clements added. “It’s in good enough shape for the third tier. That said, it would also require a considerable upgrade, particularly in relation to media facilities if it were to host football above this level. It could have muddled by for this Copa game if circumstances were different.”

In the end, the local council reached an agreement for the game to be played at Las Pistas, at the home of the club that has earned the right to host Real Madrid in a competitive fixture. The way most feel it should be.

“They’ve won their way here on the pitch and that’s precisely why they have the right to play at the stadium that they want to, to take their own decisions,” wrote the always eloquent Fernando M. Carreño in MARCA. “The strangest thing about all of this is that there was any controversy at all.”

The controversy is now in the past. Six-year-old Unionistas de Salamanca will play 13-time European champions Real Madrid on Wednesday and they’ll do so in front of their fans at their stadium. It promises to be quite a spectacle.

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