Words by Danny Brown
When most people think of ultras in Europe, they think 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 ex-pats are doing things very differently.
A trendy port city on Spain’s Costa Del Sol, Málaga is best known for it’s lush beaches, restaurants and holiday resorts. The home of Málaga Club De Futbol, who have been playing their football on the south coast since 1904, la Boquerones are one of Spain’s more historic and well-supported clubs. Málaga also happens to be home to around 40,000 British ex-patriots who have decided to ditch the doom and gloom of the UK in favour of the sunshine and beaches of España – and when you stick a bunch of footy-mad Brits and a 115-year-old football club together on the same coast, a love affair is just waiting to happen.
Meet the Guiri Army, a rowdy gang of British ex-pats who have followed Málaga CF home and away for the best part of two decades. Loud, proud and typically English in that they never take themselves too seriously, the group represents one of largest and most active foreign followings of any club in Europe. We caught up with the group’s leader, Dave Redshaw, to find out how the group first fell into existence, plus the story behind their unique name…
“We didn’t actually set out with the intention of forming a group. It more or less just snuck upon us. I first started watching Málaga in 1989 and there has always been a good group of us going to game but I suppose it really kicked off when Málaga got promoted in 1999 and people got interested as they could now see the big teams at La Rosaleda after 10 years out of La Primera. The club folded in the early nineties then re-formed, so the fans had been starved of top-flight football for a while.
I started getting a coach for games instead of us driving our cars and we were filling it regularly. I remember about this time that I was walking back to the bar we use near the ground with one of the lads and I said to him it was about time we got ourselves and identity. I’d been watching the cricket and the Barmy Army, so I suggested we call ourselves the ‘Guiri Army’ as a way of poking fun at ourselves – ‘Guiri’ being a Spanish slang word used to describe a foreigner – typically one who is as white as a milk bottle and wears socks, sandals and Union Jack shorts when on holiday!”
With the name decided on, there was only one thing left to do – the group purchased a giant St Georges Flag complete with their new name with the England and Málaga badges printed either side and the Guiri Army had officially been born. Twenty years later, the group (and flag) are still seen at virtually every Malaga match, home and away – but what exactly does a typical match day look like the Guiri Army? (It’s what you’d expect – a lot of drinking and the odd bit of mischief).
“On a match day we meet in the Lounge Bar in Benalmádena before we set off on the coach, always around two-and-half-hours before the game.
We take our own DVDs and beer with us on the coach, the driver Paco is a good friend of mine so he basically let’s us get away with murder. When we get to Malaga we use a bar called Hermanos Madrid, it’s 10 euros and that includes as many bottles of beer as you want, before and after the match. Bargain!”
Part of the Guri Army match day experience is some of the wacky traditions the group have adopted over the years – from fancy dress to doing a dozen laps of a roundabout near the stadium in their coach on match days (to the bewilderment of the Spanish locals), by far the funniest is one bloke who used to whip off his shirt off before kick off and run the entire length of La Rosaleda holding a giant flag. Fair play.
“The roundabout tradition started when we got our own bus, everyone used to stand and look at us. The driver still does it, he goes around it a dozen times some days! A bloke called Rick used to run with the flag, he’d strip his shirt off and run to one end of the stadium and back, with all the fans egging him on. He doesn’t do it now as the police sort of take a dim view – they actually banned him from doing it at Champions League games!
There’s obviously quite a few characters in the group, all different in their own right. Rick is obviously a real character, a funny guy who is always taking the mickey out of anything and everyone. Then there’s Spider (whose real name is Graham Rimmer), at one time he was in the pop group Chumbawamba (“I get knocked down but I get up again”), although he left before they had their big hit. He’s an absolute lunatic. There’s also a guy called Dutch Tom, who is very funny as well.”
For years, at the heart of the Guri Army’s exploits (and making their roundabout shenanigans possible) was their customised bus – instantly recognisable wherever they went thanks to the 10-foot Union Jack plastered across one side. Sadly now-retired, the coach carried the gang on their adventures across Spain (and even further-afield into Europe), and was at the centre of more than a few hilarious tales for the group over the years:
“We’ve put the bus out to grass now as it’s 32-years-old and way past it’s sell-by date. I remember one time we were coming back from a home game on the coach and one of the wheels fell off, rolled past us and demolished a brand new BMW that was 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!
When Malaga played Porto in the Champions League we went on the coach and set off at 4.30AM on the Monday as we were staying overnight for the following day’s game. Coming back, we were just south of Porto when the bus broke down, meaning we ended up staying in a service station overnight. We eventually got back around 2.30am on the Thursday – it was a long trip, but one of the best ever!”
Unsurprisingly, some of the Guiri Army’s best times following Malaga was during the team’s remarkable Champions League run under Manuel Pellegrini back in 2013. Malaga made it within touching distance of the final but were cruelly knocked out by Borussia Dortmund – for the Guiris though, it was the adventure of a lifetime, with trips to Germany, Belgium, Russia, Italy and Portugal to name a few.
“We’ve had some fantastic trips over the years. We went all over Europe in the Champions League. The atmosphere is brilliant and Málaga fans always get behind the team, which isn’t always the case in Spain. It was unbelievable when we were in the Champions League. We had some great nights of European football, both home and away we’ve had even more fantastic trips over the years.”
While large groups of drunken Englishmen are probably a common annoyance for the Spanish locals, the Guiri Army actually have a strong bond with the locals at La Rosaleda and happily occupy their own area of the stadium away from the main Spanish ultras group, the Frente Bokeron. To outsiders though, the group sometimes still falls under the typical perception of English football fans as hooligans – until people quickly realise how different they are.
“One time we were coming home from Madrid on the train and one of the lads mistakenly put the flag over a steward’s computer. It was wet and the bloke went mad before calling the police to throw us off the train. On the platform the police were waiting with riot shields etc. – I think they were expecting Millwall or something and got the shock of their lives when they took us off and found out we were just a load of middle-aged blokes who had been drinking since 7.30am! They even showed us where the bar was before we bought tickets for the next train back to Málaga.
The Málaga fans love the fact we all support Malaga and I think they’re quite proud that we’re probably the biggest contingent of British ex-pats in Europe who go to watch their local club. We get on really well with them, although we don’t really associate with the ultras as we congregate in one corner of the ground, whilst they are behind the goal. Despite this, we are members of the Malaka Hinchas supporters club (I’m not quite sure why they spell it with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘g’. Mind you, I know what it means in Greek!) By and large we do get on with the ultras, especially now they are behind the goal at our end of the ground, and we know a few of them.”
While recent times for Málaga have been tough both on and off the pitch, with the club spending the last year playing in Spain’s Segunda Division following their relegation from La Liga and familiar financial troubles looming once again, you’d think it’d be all be doom and gloom amongst the Málaga fans, but think again – for the Guri Army this season has been one big holiday, with their support showing no sign of fading, no matter how much the team struggles.
“The current situation doesn’t look too good as I think the only way Málaga will go up this season is via the play-offs. There is also an ongoing court case with the owner Sheikh Al-Thani and Blue Bay Resorts, who claim he promised to sell them shares in the club which would have meant them becoming the new owners, but the mood amongst us that we are not overly bothered if they don’t go up as they’d more than likely come straight back down, as the Sheikh has not put any money in now for over six years.
We kind of like it in this division at the moment as we have a number of relatively near fixtures we get a bus to: Córdoba, Almería, Cádiz and Granada. And this year I’ve been to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, Mallorca and Tenerife, so we get a holiday for a few days at a time! In fact, when we went to Tenerife at the end of January there was 76 of us, including some who came over from the UK, so that was a bit chaotic.“
Dave has also 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.