From the Champions League to the Second Division, Chumbawamba and partying with Gazza, meet the Guiri Army – Spanish football’s craziest fans.
Words by Danny Brown
When most people think of European football ultras, they imagine balaclavas, pyro, smoke bombs and tifos – not boozed-up Brits with beer-bellies, sunburnt heads and cans of lager. But in Malaga, one group of British expats are doing things very differently
Nestled on Spain’s sun-drenched Costa del Sol, the trendy port city of Malaga is best known for its lush beaches, restaurants and holiday resorts. Home to over 40,000 British ex-patriots who have ditched the doom and gloom of British shores for sunbathing and drinking sangria, if there’s one thing these Brits love more than la cerveza lager, it’s football.
Meet the Guiri Army, a rowdy gang of British expats who have adopted Malaga Club de Futbol as their own, following the club home and away for the last two decades. Loud, proud and as daft as you’d expect, the group represents one of the largest foreign followings of any club in Europe. Dave Redshaw, the group’s leader, explained just how the unique supporters group first came about.
“It was a complete accident. I started watching Malaga in the nineties, around the time they got promoted was when things really began tokick off. There was a good group of us going to every game so I decided to put a coach on, mainly so I didn’t have to drive and could get drunk at the games. It began to sell out every week and that was where it all started.
Walking back to the bar after one of the games, one of the lads said it was about time we got ourselves an identity. I’d been watching cricket with the ‘Barmy Army’ so I suggested we called ourselves the ‘Guiri Army’ as a way of poking fun at our ourselves – ‘Guiri’ being Spanish slang used to describe a foreigner – typically one white as a milk bottle who wears socks with sandals and Union Jack shorts on holiday.”
As the name would suggest, the Guiri Army don’t take themselves too seriously and match days are typically an opportunity for banter, mischief and drinking aplenty. The Guiris occupy the south-west corner of Malaga’s crumbling La Rosaleda stadium and frequent Hermanos Madrid, a bar just a stone’s-throw from the ground (where the owner has alleged framed two bullet holes left in his wall, left by fans of Malaga’s arch-rivals Sevilla).
Drinking begins early in the day in Benalmadena before the coach, driven by Paco (“a good friend who I’ve know for years, he let’s us get away with murder”), takes the Guiri Army to wherever that day’s game is. One tradition before home games involves the bus doing up to a dozen laps of a roundabout near the stadium, beeping the horn as it goes. “At first I think the Spanish thought we were mental, but now they stand and cheer us around as we go!”
The bizarre traditions don’t stop once the gang are inside the stadium either, from fancy dress to flag-runs. “One bloke called Rick used to strip his shirt off before the big games and run from one end of the stadium to the other with a big Malaga flag. The fans all used to egg him on, but the Policia took a bit of a dim view towards it -they actually banned him from doing it at Champions League games.
There’s quite a few characters in the group, Rick obviously being one of them. There’s also Spider (who’s real name is Graham, from Burnley). He actually used to be in the pop group Chumbawamba (who sang ‘I get knocked down but I get up again’) but of course he left right before they had their big hit. There’s Dutch Tom as well, he isn’t Dutch but he is a proper good laugh.”
Alongside the regular faithfuls, the Guiri’s are usually bolstered by visiting Brits fancying a bit of football whilst on holiday, even including the odd famous face. “We actually had Paul Gasgoine come along to a game with us earlier this season, which was surreal. He’s fairly well known around Malaga and wanted to come down to see a match with us, so of course we said yes. He’s a really down-to-earth bloke and he was some footballer back in the day. Before that, the most famous person we’ve had was Benny from Crossroads!”
Malaga have had a more turbulent time on the pitch than most in the last two decades, bouncing between relegations, promotions, European qualification and financial troubles. The club’s best period in recent history came under the management of Manuel Pellegrini, withLa Boquerones remarkably managing to reach a Champions League Semi-final in 2013, fielding the likes of Santi Carzorla, Nacho Monreal and Isco along the way.
However inevitable financial troubles which have plagued Malaga in recent times struck again the following season, seeing them banned from Europe by UEFA and forced to sell key players due to huge debts racked up by the club’s owners. They’ve since endured a steady decline on the pitch, sliding further and further down the Spanish league table until their timely relegation to Spain’s Segunda Division in 2018.
“We’ve had some amazing times over the last few years supporting Malaga, the Champions League run in 2013 will be difficult to top. I remember being on the coach driving back from the game against Porto and one of the wheels fell off. It ended up rolling right past us and demolishing a brand new BMW parked at the side of the road -apparently it had been in for a service and the mechanic had forgotten to tighten one of the wheels!
Obviously things haven’t gone well and Malaga are currently playing in la Segunda, but we’re actually kind of enjoying it in this division. There’s quite a few nearby fixtures against Cordoba, Almeria, Cadiz and Granada as well as games against Mallorca, Tenerife and Las Palmas in Gran Canaria where we get to go on holiday for a few days at a time! Last time we played Tenerife there were 76 of us there, so that was a bit chaotic.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking a large group of drunken Englishmen is not something typically welcomed by most Spanish natives. However the Guiri Army’s good-natured humour and enthusiastic support for Malaga has seen the Malaguians at La Rosaleda stadium adopt them as their own. Whilst the group don’t associate with the club’s main ultras group, the Frente Bokeron, there is a clear respect between the two sections of the Malaga support.
“We congregate in one corner of the ground, whilst the Frente are behind the goal so we don’t really mix with them. Despite that, we are members of the Malaka Hinchas supporters group (I’m not sure why they changed the ‘g’ to a ‘k’ but I know it means something rude in Greek!) and by and large we do get on well with the ultras, we even know one or two of them now they’ve moved to our end of the stadium.
The Malaga fans in general love the fact that we all support the club. I think they’re actually quite proud that they’ve got the largest contingent of British ex-pats in Europe who go to watch their local club. We have our own chants which we sing in English and we also join in with a few of the Spanish ones -you sometimes get banter with the English and Spanish Malaga fans singing chants back-and-forth to each other which is always a laugh.”
However not everyone in Spain is familiar with the Guiri Army, and the negative stereotype of English football fans which still exist in Europe can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. “One time on the train back from Madrid, one of the lads accidentally put a beer-soaked flag over the conductor’s computer. Understandably he went abit ballistic and then called the police to have us chucked off the train at the next stop.
When we got to the platform, there were around 50 police waiting for us in full gear with riot shields etc. -I think they were expecting Millwall or something and got the shock of their lives when a load of middle-aged blokes showed up who had been drinking since 7.30am! They saw the funny side of it and even showed us where the bar was before we bought our tickets for the next train back to Malaga.”
With football one of the many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting people worldwide, Spanish football has currently ground to a halt, meaning the Guiri Army is having some rare time off. “Obviously with everything that’s going on, football’s currently been put on hold and it doesn’t look like fans are going to be back at games for a while. The most important thing is people’s lives though, and we’ll continue to support the team in the meantime.”
You can be sure that the first game when fans are allowed back, the Guiri Army will be noisier than ever.
Dave has written a book dedicated to the turbulent history of Málaga (available in both English and Spanish) which is well worth a read if you’re interested in learning more about the club. Check it out on Amazon here.