Bournemouth’s loss is Liga’s gain as Íñigo Pérez’s Rayo hold Real Madrid | Sid Lowe

Íñigo Pérez had nothing to offer the Premier League, they said, so he returned to Spain and revived La Liga and a people instead. The man from Navarre with the gentle voice, privileged mind and impeccable manners should have spent this weekend sitting on the Bournemouth bench at St James Park, taking on Newcastle United – trophies since 1955: zero – but the Home Office and an FA panel declared him incapable of competing, a man who couldn’t contribute to English football, even as an assistant. So he spent it back in the barrio, the new head coach of Rayo Vallecano taking on Real Madrid – trophies since 1955: 85 – and matching them too, making this a better place for everyone.

“There is a league,” ran the front of one of the country’s sports dailies on Monday morning, an old favourite dusted off for the day. It might have been an exaggeration, it may prove just 24 little hours, and it was “only” a draw, but if there is, it’s thanks to Pérez’s Rayo team, who on Sunday afternoon, his first ever in the job, managed to do what only Atlético Madrid have done in 2024 – get something from Carlo Ancelotti’s side. In the other Madrid derby, out to the east of the city where worlds collide and the best seats in the house really are in the house, Raúl de Tomás equalised Joselu’s opener to leave Madrid just six points clear. With Girona playing on Monday, there’s a title race again, a week after there wasn’t, or so it goes.

“The league wakes up”, ran the headline in AS. “Rayo keep the league alive on Inigo Pérez’s debut,” claimed Diario de Navarra. Above all, though, Rayo kept themselves alive, a little sunshine let into Vallecas at last. They had needed it: Rayo had won just once at home and that was way back in September, despite Vallecas supposedly being a place it is difficult to go to with its tight stands, tighter pitch, bumpy surface, and wall at one end. The team that were once rock ‘n’ roll, all organised chaos, the most fun you could have in Spanish football, had only outscored Cádiz in the whole of primera. Worse, beaten three weeks running and six times in eight, having won just once in 14, they had started to slip towards relegation, pessimism taking hold. Which is why in midweek they sacked Francisco Rodríguez and brought in Pérez, the former assistant now handed control.

There was “sadness” there, Pérez said; it was his job to change that. It just wasn’t a job he had planned for.

Aged 36, two years younger than Radamel Falcao, who finished the match up front for him, and less than two years after he made his last appearance as a player, Pérez’s first ever game as head coach was Ancelotti’s 1,324th. Pérez had only been given three days to prepare, except that he had been preparing for years. He had watched his team go a goal down after three minutes but got a win that altered everything. That at least was what De Tomás said afterwards, the Freudian slip saying it all. “This victory – erm, draw – will be good for us,” the striker insisted, having scored his first this season, a smile returned to Vallecas. Sure it was only the first day, only a draw too, but it was a start. Something unpredictable, but in the end it was right.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. Pérez wasn’t supposed to be here at all. Assistant coach to former Rayo coach Andoni Iraola, he had every intention of continuing that role. When Iraola left for Bournemouth, Rayo had offered him the head coach’s job but he didn’t feel “ethically comfortable” taking the role, believing it it wasn’this to take or what he wanted, and he turned it down. He planned to remain part of Iraola’s staff and Iraola wanted that too. In fact, Pérez was all the Bournemouth coach wanted. Far from taking a half a dozen men with him, Iraola chose two: Pérez and fitness coach Pablo de la Torre.

That at least was the plan. But Pérez didn’t fulfil the Home Office criteria required to get a work permit as assistant coach: he had not yet been working for two years and didn’t have the Uefa Pro licence. If that verdict was expected, automatic, what followed was not. Pérez’s case was taken, as most are and usually successfully, to an exceptions panel, led by a lawyer and two former players. There were hearings in June, July and August. Bournemouth argued that his Royal Spanish Football Federation qualification was the equivalent of the Uefa Pro – the Titulo de tecnico deportivo superior en futbolrequires more than twice as many hours of teaching and practical training – and provided references from figures at Marseille, Osasuna, and Sevilla. Rayo confirmed they had wanted him as head coach, never mind assistant. Iraola wrote explaining why he was so important.

“We tried everything,” Pérez admitted this week. They even tried applying for him to be youth-team coach, which didn’t work – or go down particularly well. Maybe a different club in a different context could have got a different outcome but this time the panel did not move an inch, unsatisfied that Mr Soto, as they called him, was “of the highest calibre and is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in England”.

In his first game in charge, Íñigo Pérez found himself up against the familiar shadow of Carlo Ancelotti. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The son of a fruit seller, Pérez was always a bit different, organising everyone even as a kid. Yet there is a lightness to that leadership, a quietness, something not very football about him. He made his debut for Athletic in 2009 – against Rayo – but when Marcelo Bielsa took over he was one of eight players immediately left out. Pérez won his place back, he and Bielsa ended up close and the Argentinian’s influence was huge. So too was Ernesto Valverde’s. And then there was Jagoba Arrasate under whom he played seven years, at Numancia and Osasuna.

When Pérez left his loan at Mallorca to return to Athletic aged 26 in 2014, it was, Valverde said, more for his sake than theirs: he had struggled with stress. The day he retired, still only 33, he published a startlingly honest, poetic open letter, a reflection of an awareness and sensibility that set him apart. One member of staff at Athletic Club recalls how the first time he met him, unbeknownst to him, wasn’t the first time at all. Íñigo immediately thanked him – a former temporary teacher – for a class delivered eight years earlier. Asked for an opinion on Pérez this weekend, one man who has worked with him simply says: “He’s the best.” Another adds this that “no one has a bad word to say about him”, and that is borne out. Try these: “the nicest guy I have met,” “a phenomenon, so bright; you’ll never find anyone more polite.”

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illarreal 1-1 Getafe, Valencia 0-0 Sevilla, Celta Vigo 1-2 Barcelona, Osasuna 2-0 Cádiz, Atlético Madrid 5-0 Las Palmas, Real Betis 0-0 Alavés, Real Mallorca 1-2 Real Sociedad, Granada 1-1 Almería, Rayo Vallecano 1-1 Rea Madrid 

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In that letter, Pérez said he had left “without pity and without glory”, both “grateful and ashamed” at taking more than he deserved. A committee of experts would give him a 5.7 out of 10, he said, which looks quite prophetic now. And yet, he noted, there was something there, a role in the dressing room – which, he admitted, is the kind of thing “that tends to be valued when the real objectives for which you sign a player are not met” and which, nonetheless, was true. One day, Arrasate asked him to give the team talk; it stayed with all of them.

“When he speaks, everyone listens,” one attendee says. “He has a great ability to communicate, to reach people. He took down everything, analysed everything: all the sessions, every drill. He is super-intelligent; he see things differently, analyses opponents; he’s passionate about football, does everything naturally. It’s a vocation. He understands the game like few do, and is absolutely capable: he has everything to be a great coach.”

Those that saw him saw. When he retired, Bielsa wanted him as assistant coach. Osasuna opened the door too. Perez instead joined Iraola. A colleague describes him like this: “analytical, reflexive, an excellent manager of emotions, a profound knowledge of the game. Intelligent, with empathy, a superb communicator.” They were a successful partnership until the split eventually imposed upon them this summer, even if it was resisted for a while. At some Bournemouth games he could be seen sitting in the stand behind the bench and he and Iraola spoke often, almost like he was an on-call consultant. But it wasn’t the same. And as the results slipped away back home and the pressure built at Rayo, the coach sacked, the players pushed. There was only one man they wanted, and it was him.

And so there he was this weekend: Íñigo Pérez was back in Madrid and not on Tyneside, a contribution to make, against the biggest club of them all. “Sometimes life brings things you never even imagined,” he said. “I was excited about working with Andoni: we tried, but it wasn’t to be. You find yourself here and then this opportunity emerges. It’s proof that you have to look at life with happiness and be ready for whatever comes your way.”

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