Pitchside Europe

Spain’s strangest rivalry returns as Canary Islands do battle

A sweating yellow mass is moving steadily from the sea to the stadium. It emits the noise of a tweeting canary: "Pio! Pio! - Pio! Pio!" as it climbs through the streets of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Two thousand travelling Las Palmas fans have ignored the plea of their club president not to travel to their rivals for fear of trouble.

Flanking them are the flashing lights of police vans, ambulances and police in riot gear - some of whom have been flown in from the Spanish mainland to control the crowd at the biggest Canary Islands derby. The visiting fans are in high spirits and happy to stretch their legs after 90 minutes crossing the Atlantic on a fast ferry between the volcanic islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife.

With a population of 250,000, Santa Cruz is the size of Plymouth, yet it manages to escape the radar of the 3.4 million Northern European tourists who holiday in Tenerife annually.

Most consider Tenerife's football culture to be little more than Lineker's Bar, adverts for televised Premier League games or the British football shirts worn by many on holiday, yet football is serious business in the Canaries, the home of David Silva, Pedro and Juan Carlos Valeron. The 38 year-old has now returned to his home island to play for Las Palmas after 13 years at Deportivo La Coruna.

The noise of the visitors reverberates around the deserted streets of this busy port city. It may be a warm Saturday afternoon, but the shops are shut and the closed shutters of the apartment blocks indicate that residents of the island’s capital are indulging in siesta, rather than heaping gratuitous abuse on people from their neighbouring island.

As the Las Palmas fans close in on C.D. Tenerife’s Heliodoro Rodriquez Lopez stadium - a typically graffiti-ridden steep-sided Spanish city centre venue of exposed concrete stands overlooked by apartment blocks - their confidence and its accompanying tweeting swells. "Pio! Pio! - Pio! Pio!"

Some Las Palmas fans let off flares, others gesticulate towards the few Tenerife fans offering token vocal objection to their presence. Lord Nelson would have envied such limited resistance when the British attacked Santa Cruz in 1797 and he lost his right arm as he tried to land amid the hostile locals.

Among the welcoming committee today are members of the Armada Sur (South Army), the well-organised international Tenerife supporters club that is comprised largely of British ex-pats who live at the opposite south end of the island around resorts such as Playa de las Americas.

Chris Todd formed the Armada Sur in 1992. “There were quite a few British people who travelled to games in cars,” he explains. “I started running a bus to games and it grew from there. When we played Real Madrid in a cup game and took four coaches.”

Tenerife need the support of the Armada Sur.

Todd continues: “800,000 people live in Tenerife, but a lot of people support Barcelona or Madrid which is quite sad. Tenerife have a hardcore of 9,000.”

As the Las Palmas fans are finally escorted into the away end, the Armada Sur, clad in their 'Tenerife: Pride-Passion-Loyalty' t-shirts and led by Todd, hang a stuffed yellow canary (the Las Palmas symbol) from a tree. A fuse projects from the bird’s backside, which is then lit. The group stand back as the bird explodes, its singed feathers floating slowly down to the baking pavements as observers cheer.

"Until the 1990s, the rivalry with Las Palmas was relatively friendly," ventures Todd. "Then there was a game when it kicked off between the two sets of fans and it has been bitter ever since."

Tenerife and Las Palmas are unique: a derby with teams from separate islands. They’re playing tonight in Santa Cruz, a second division game with Tenerife promoted last season and Las Palmas a second division side for the last eight years. The home team are 17th while Las Palmas, who will bring over 1,000 fans across a stormy sea, are fourth.

The weather has been so bad that the fans may have to suspend the tifo display and a midweek game in December isn’t ideal, but the stadium will be close to capacity.

Las Palmas, as their fans like to remind those from Tenerife, have spent 31 years in the Primera Liga and are 19th in the important all-time Spanish league table ahead of teams like Mallorca, Villarreal, and, crucially, Tenerife, who are 27th with 13 top flight seasons.

Las Palmas may have been playing in the third division when Tenerife were playing in Europe in the mid-90s, but with stars like locally-born Valeron, they rose through the second division, reaching the top flight in 2000. Tenerife didn’t have the luxury of islander Pedro playing for them. He left for Barcelona at 17, but their 20-year-old forward Ayoze Perez is attracting attention from bigger clubs.

The rivalry between Santa Cruz and Las Palmas goes beyond football. Both are by some distance the biggest cities in the Canaries – the ninth and 10th biggest in Spain. Both boast that they have the best carnivals in a country where such a statement matters. Gran Canarian residents drink Tropical beer, Tenerife’s go for Dorada. Both claim the other tastes like rat’s urine.

Every away game from the Canaries necessitates an air trip to the Spanish mainland and a flight of two to three hours. Away support is largely comprised of Canarians living on the Spanish peninsula; students from Tenerife who live in Madrid will watch the away game at Real Madrid Castilla or ones in Barcelona Barca B, yet the Armada Sur also travel. Fans from the Armada Sur have done plenty of away games.

"We’ve been to places like Numancia (which is closer to Glasgow than Tenerife) and the home fans can’t work us out," says Chris Todd. "They think we’re British tourists and can’t get their heads round the fact that we’re Tenerife."

Tenerife took over 1,000 fans to Hospitalet in Barcelona, a three-and-a-half hour flight away, for a play-off game in June and the club appreciate the support.

"The club have been great with us," adds Todd. "One of our board members was invited onto the Tenerife board a couple of years ago."

Malaga, Tenerife and third division Torrevieja all boast a significant British following within their support. Las Palmas have British fans too. They’ll come face to face with the Armada Sur tonight.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten