Real Madrid is one of world football’s biggest clubs. Its home stadium holds among the biggest capacity crowds in Europe, it tops the social media charts for followers and boasts hundred of million fans worldwide. In a unique expression of this fandom, many fans across the globe have started fan clubs called peñas. These peñas have developed from an ordinary fan club to something more.
At its most basic level, a peña is a group of friends with a common interest, be it books or wine. A “peña culture” has existed in Spanish football for over a century, however they became a central part of the game in Spain during the 1950s and 1970s, cropping up across the Iberian Peninsula and, later, worldwide.
No club in Spain better encapsulates the popularity of football peñas than Real Madrid. Spain’s most successful football club boasts 2,136 in Spain alone, the most of any team. The very first was founded in September 1920 in in El Nido’s bar in Madrid. It started out merely as a group of the bar’s local patrons gathering to talk about their favourite team, “Madrid players, the Marquis of Bolarque and numerous journalists and fans, among them my father-in-law Mariano, would meet up in that bar. One evening while chatting with his friends there, they decided to create a fan club to support Real Madrid” president Jesús de Lucas told Real Madrid’s website in 2015.
The Mariano peña was founded by 100 members, its statues have meant that it has never exceeded that number. In 1960, it moved its headquarters to the Tirso de Molina square where it remains a hub for local Real Madrid fans “When matches still weren’t being broadcast on radio, we would write the results up in the doorway of the bar and loads of people would come by to check the scores and see how they had got on in the pools”.
Across a century of supporting the club, the Mariano peña has witnessed every LaLiga campaign Real Madrid has played and celebrated all 13 of the club’s Champions League victories, “Our first trip abroad was to Paris in 1956 to see the final of the first European Cup. It was unforgettable”, De Lucas told Real Madrid “Whenever we won a European Cup we would provide massive drums of lemonade for everyone to drink from”.
Worldwide, Real Madrid have 2,267 peñas, of which 151 are endorsed and officially associated with the football club. No different than the very first, these peñas support Real Madrid from their local bars or from the stadium itself.
Christian Paredes is a founding member of La Peña Madridista Sur de California. The peña is based in Los Angeles and represents Madridistas across southern California and boasts 100 members. Paredes was inspired to found the peña when he saw 20,000 Real fans supporting the club at an exhibition match in 2012, “At that moment I decided it was time to create an authentic and traditional peña to bring Madridistas in this region closer to the Club and assist in expanding the values of Madridismo for the Club.”
“The literal translation of peña is rock. A looser translation which is applied in this case is “foundation” or “supporters’ club,” Paredes explained to me when I asked for his definition of the word, “This tradition started almost 100 years ago in Madrid when peñas were created to assist the Club to bring Madridistas to each home game where the full capacity topped 120,000. Peñismo is a subculture where Madridistas in a specific neighborhood, city, region, or country gather to share the passion for Real Madrid, support the teams in competition, promote the values, and serve the community.”
Community values are a key element of a traditional Real Madrid peña. The club, particularly under its current president Florentino Perez, prides itself on being fan owned and community oriented and strongly believe it’s the key to their success.
To spread and, in some ways, enforce Real Madrid’s community values amongst its fanbase, the club endorses peñas that fulfil certain demands.
Ruben Skjerping is president of Peña Madridista Noruega (Norway), this 750 member strong peña runs a website on the club’s dealings and Ruben explained to me how the unique demands of being an official Real Madrid peña can impact the running of their website “In contrast to normal fan clubs, we have to follow certain guidelines. While normal fan clubs can run their sites with total freedom, we are supposed to follow Real Madrid’s values, create bonds between our members, be respectful towards rival clubs and supporters and other things. Obviously, we don’t think too much about these things in our day-to-day work, as most of it comes naturally to us. By following these guidelines, Real Madrid give us advantages by making it easier for us to obtain tickets, meet players, watch training sessions etc. We get to do many things which normal fan clubs wouldn’t be allowed to.”
I have enjoyed these advantages firsthand, travelling with Ruben’s peña on one of their annual trips to Madrid to watch the 3-1 victory over Real Sociedad and Castilla’s 2-0 win over Real Oviedo, a game I wouldn’t have been able to attend without the peña.
Of course, peñas aren’t just about club sponsored advantages. Gonzalo Martinez is president of Dublin’s own Real Madrid peña, Peña Madridista ”El 7 de Dublin”. It was founded about seven years ago and is based in the Woolshed bar on Parnell Street.
“I came to Dublin about 3 years ago,” Martinez told me as he explained how he joined the peña “I did not know anybody in the city so I decided to start meeting people that had the same passions as me, so I contacted them on Facebook. Dublin is a really easy city for foreigners, which is really positive because makes people come for a few months but it also complicates the proposition of maintaining strong groups (and a fan club is a group of friends as well).
“The main advantage that the peña gives to its supporters is the possibility of joining a group of people that have the same passion as you, especially in the beginning when you are about to watch the games alone.” Martinez explained “you can feel at home and make friends that can help you if you have some difficulties in the city (some of the members are in Dublin for a really long time so they would be able to help out).”
This sentiment is echoed across those who I have spoken to “One of the advantages is meeting people who share the same level of passion for the Club. New friendships are created and cultivated,” Christian Paredes told me.
When asked for his favourite peña memory, Ruben Skjerping reminisced about the night Real Madrid won their 10th Champions League title and his peña’s recent trip to Madrid “We had filled one of the biggest cinemas in Norway up with both Real Madrid and Atlético fans, and the change in atmosphere (in both fanbases) when we (Real Madrid) scored the equalizer in the 93rd minute was surreal. A neutral friend described it as being inside a plane which was about to crash.
I also have to mention our recent trip to Madrid, where around 50 people in total participated. We watched the games vs Real Sociedad and Paris Saint-Germain and did a lot of fun stuff around the matches too. Getting to know people who you already have interacted with on a weekly basis in social media is quite a unique experience. I don’t think it’s possible for people on the outside to understand the special bond which occurs when everyone in a group shares the same extreme love for a club. It’s highly recommendable.”