A symbol of Spain's internal battles

Spain must be one of the most football-crazy countries in Europe. Social issues and conflicts, such as Catalonia’s potential secession from the Spanish state, are often mirrored on the football pitch. The traditional El Clásico duel between the capital’s most famous club, Real Madrid, and the Catalan team FC Barcelona has become a symbol of Spain’s internal battles over issues of nationality, as well as being a magnet for 400 million fans worldwide.

By Julian Rieck

Interest in La Liga, the Spanish equivalent of the German Bundesliga or the English Premier League, is as strong as ever, despite the clubs’ dubious machinations, multimillion-euro debts, and financial and fiscal scandals, not to mention the often violent encounters between their die-hard fans. 'Marca', Madrid’s football daily, has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the country apart from 'El País', reaching an estimated readership of 2.5 million via bars and cafés. In the era of smartphones and social media, it seems likely the real figure is even higher.

The traditional El Clásico duel between the capital’s most famous club, Real Madrid, and the Catalan team FC Barcelona has become a symbol of Spain’s internal battles over issues of nationality, as well as being a magnet for 400 million fans worldwide. It is unclear whether the millions of international fans who tune into the game really understand the politically charged nature of this match. If we want a better understanding of how football has become such a mass phenomenon in Spain, we need to go back in time and examine the role played by three clubs in particular: FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao. If football has become politically and symbolically charged in Spain, then it is these three clubs that are at the epicentre. They also happen to be the only clubs that – coincidentally? – have never been relegated from the Spanish Liga.

The importance of football in Spain is closely tied in with the socio-economic changes that affected the country during the 20th century. As in many other countries, football was imported into Spain from England and to some extent from Switzerland. The first reference to football dates back to 1870 in Jerez. British miners working in the Rio Tinto copper mine used to play cricket and football in their spare time, as reported by the local daily newspaper 'El Progreso'. The new sport took off and was soon played in many parts of the country, particularly in coastal regions. From its beginnings as a minority sport, by the 1950s it had ousted bullfighting as the country’s biggest spectator sport.

The first official football club, the Recreation Club, was founded in 1889 in the small western Andalusian town of Huelva. Another region that was central to the development of football on the Iberian Peninsula was the Basque Country. This area was also strongly influenced by the English, who came as students or on business, and this was also reflected in the playing style of the Basque teams. No clubs of any note were established in Madrid and Barcelona until the turn of the century. Atlético Madrid, who won the Spanish league in 2014, started out as an offshoot of Athletic Bilbao in 1903. Meanwhile, it was a Swiss immigrant, Hans Gamper, who was behind the founding of F.C. Barcelona in 1899.

In 1898 Spain lost Cuba and the Philippines, the last major colonies of an empire that had once spanned the globe. This loss was viewed as a source of national shame and, as in many other European countries, it led to football becoming an important symbol of national strength.

Initially, football in Spain was organized along regional lines. From the 1920s the game became more professional, including the establishment of a national league, the Primera División, and the first professional footballers. Spectator numbers and revenues started to grow, while games against non-regional opponents became easier and more practical as transportation became better and faster. As a result, regional rivalries also became more pronounced. In these early days, there were also the first signs of the friend-foe atmosphere that would later prevail between Madrid at the centre and the ‘peripheral nationalism’ of the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia. In spite of this initial politicisation of football and the natural crossover into state and economic institutions, this proved to be merely a foretaste of the social divisions and conflicts that were to develop during the 20th century and which would be mirrored on the football pitch.

Spread of Catalan nationalism

From 1923, Spain was ruled by a military dictatorship under Miguel Primo de Rivera, backed by King Alfonso XIII. As part of the process of centralisation, many of Catalonia’s historic rights were curtailed in order to halt the spread of Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the 19th century. During a friendly match between FC Barcelona and another Catalan team, CD Jupiter, in 1925, an English marine band played the Spanish national anthem Marcha Real but also the British God Save the King. While the Catalan fans in the Les Corts stadium – the forerunner of the current Camp Nou – booed and whistled the Spanish anthem, they loudly and enthusiastically applauded the English one. FC Barcelona was banned from all activities for six months. As a result, the club’s Swiss president and founder Hans Gamper decided to return to his home country.

The introduction of a national league at the time when peripheral nationalism was being suppressed – not only in Catalonia, but also in the Basque Country and Galicia – led to these regions developing a stronger sense of regional and nationalist identity. As a result, Real Madrid was increasingly viewed throughout the country as a club with an all-Spanish identity. Santiago Bernabéu, who was president of the club for 35 years and who is seen by many as the very incarnation of Real, is said to have celebrated every one of his team’s goals during his active career with a cry of 'Viva España!'

Republic without Real

When the country became a republic in 1931, the designation Real was initially dropped from the names of clubs and associations. Real Madrid reverted to being Madrid Football Club, its original name when it was founded in 1902. However, sport in general was treated fairly liberally under the Republic. Sports associations were given a substantial degree of autonomy and were not subordinated to state institutions. All this was to change with Franco’s coup in the summer of 1936. However, the advance of Franco’s troops was successfully halted at the gates of Madrid in November 1936, and the capital remained in Republican hands throughout the country’s three-year civil war. The revolutionary forces of the anti-Fascist parties seized control of the city, as they had in Barcelona. For sport, this meant integration into the Federación Cultural Deportiva Obrera (Cultural Federation of Workers’ Sports). The result was that the clubs, stadiums and the whole infrastructure of the sport effectively came under the control of the trade unions.

Even the former royal club in Madrid became de facto a ‘proletarian’ club. Meanwhile, the two most important individuals in the club’s recent history – Bernabéu, who has already been mentioned, and Ricardo Zamora, who was widely recognised as the best goalkeeper in the world in the 1920s – both openly supported the Franco camp, with Bernabéu even serving as a volunteer on the front in Catalonia.

When the Republican government fled from Madrid to Valencia, the headquarters of the Spanish Football Association was relocated to Barcelona. Other cities with first division football clubs such as Seville and Oviedo ended up in the rebels’ zone of influence. With the outbreak of civil war, it was no longer possible to run football in a regulated way, so the Campeonato de Catalunya was set up in October 1936 to help clubs continue to generate income. An attempt by Madrid Football Club to join the competition was vetoed by FC Barcelona, who felt their participation would destroy the regional character of the tournament, and who perhaps also wanted to exclude additional rivals.

In 2009, FC Barcelona called for the title they had won in 1937 as champions of the Mediterranean League to be recognised as an official Spanish title (the clubs from Madrid and the Basque Country had declined to play in the competition). So far they have been unsuccessful. FC Sevilla, on the other hand, were allowed to claim the official Spanish title for 1939, even though the competition they won was only played in the Francoist zone. So, in spite of the war going on, football continued to be played by both sides and was effectively pressed into service by the warring parties. An Euskadi team from the Basque Country set off around the world to canvass support for the resistance against the national forces and for the Basque regional government.

Two days after the team set off in 1937, the Basque holy city of Guernica was destroyed by the German Condor Legion. That same summer, Francoist troops took Bilbao. The team travelled through several Latin American countries, taking part in and even winning the Mexican league. Very few of the delegates returned to Spain in the end, with most of the players staying in Mexico and signing for local teams. FC Barcelona also travelled to North America to raise money in the summer of 1937. Only 8 of the original 20-man delegation eventually returned to Spain.

In 1937 a new football association was also set up in the ‘Nationalist Zone’ as an alternative to the existing Republican organisation, in an attempt to create a sense of normality. The successful tours undertaken by the Catalans and Basques and the positive response they received around the world motivated the insurgents to also use football for propaganda purposes, though only in their fascist ‘brother nations’ of Portugal, Italy and Germany. As FIFA still only recognised one association per nation state, neither Republican nor Francoist teams were accepted by the organisation. However, once it became clear that the advance of Franco’s troops would not be halted, the ‘Nationalist’ football association was soon recognized as Spain’s official organisation.

The national team’s colours were also changed from the former classic red, symbol of both the Republic and the hated communism, to a Francoist blue. The choice of colour was an allusion to the uniform shirts worn by the fascist Falange, whose militias had supported the military coup from the very beginning, and which was officially recognised as the ruling party in 1937. The fact that the Selección went back to playing in classic red after 1947 can be seen as part of the Franco dictatorship’s attempts to cover up its fascist origins after the Second World War and present itself as a Catholic, authoritarian and anti-communist regime.

When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with the victory of the Francoists, efforts were made to create a major team in the capital under the name Aviación Nacional. It was to be a symbol of centralism and act as a counterweight to the successful regional teams. The idea was to merge Real Madrid, who regained their name in 1941, and local rivals Atlético Madrid. At that time, Atlético were playing under the name of Atlético de Aviación and were sponsored by Franco’s airforce. The latter were extremely unpopular in Madrid, as the fact that they had bombed the capital – and particularly the workers’ neighbourhood – was still fresh in everyone’s memory. Real were able to resist this takeover attempt thanks to the power struggles between different factions within the regime, and the club’s good relations with the leaders of the ‘New State’.

Franco’s regime was, of course, extremely hostile towards Republican institutions, including the football clubs from the former Republican Zone. In the first edition of 'Marca' in October 1938, the sports journalist and Basque Falangist Jacinto Miquelarena described the football during the time of the Second Spanish Republic as a ‘red orgy of the lowest and vilest regional passions […]. Almost all of them acted in a separatist and rude way when Spanish championship games were being played.’

The country’s new rulers decided to restructure sport along Italian and German lines to reflect a fascist ideology. Sport was seen as a way of strengthening the nation and preparing it for potential wars. Julián Troncoso, the new president of the Spanish Football Association and a lieutenant-colonel in the army, referred to the role of sport in restoring the country’s greatness when he stated in 1939: ‘We must all get used to the idea that in future sport will no longer be a leisure activity, but an essential tool for making the men of this country stronger and preparing them for particular types of actions and acitivities, whenever they may be called upon to carry them out.’ To this end, sport was put under the direct control of the Falange, the fascist ruling party. The Delegación Nacional de Deportes, a national sports authority similar to the NS League of the Reich for Physical Exercise, was set up under the control of General José Moscardó, who was venerated as a war hero.


This institutional restructuring was accompanied by the ‘Hispanicisation’ of Spanish football – by assimilating peripheral nationalism into the central state. Fútbol Club Barcelona had to change its name to Club de Fútbol Barcelona, while Sporting Gijón Deportivo became known as Gijón. Madrid Football Club had to change its name too and was initially know as Madrid Club de Fútbol. The Falange sought to exert its influence on practically all aspects of public life, including sport. The new regime secured the necessary control over football by insisting that the board of directors of every club include a minimum of two Falange members.

After the Civil War, Real Madrid was initially anything but successful, although they did manage on a couple of occasions to win the Copa del Generalísimo, as the Spanish cup competition was then known. Indeed, in 1943 and 1948 they only just managed to avoid being relegated to the second division. During this period, other teams were much more successful than the Madrid club that would go on to win so many titles.

The current polarisation between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona can probably be traced back to this time, and many observers believe it was particularly triggered by the cup match in 1943. Barça had won the first leg at home 3:0, but Real beat their Catalan opponents 11:1 in the return leg in Madrid. It is said that police officials went into the Barcelona changing room before the match and pressurised the players. The bad blood between the two teams was subsequently made worse by some controversial refereeing decisions and the transfer of Alfredo di Stéfano to Real after he had already signed a contract with Barça.

The demeanour of Santiago Bernabéu was also a source of major irritation for many Barça fans, who considered him to be persona non grata following his wartime activities on the Catalonian front. After Real lost to Barça in the 1968 cup final, Bernabéu is reported to have said: ‘I admire Vila Reyes [President of Espanyol Barcelona]; if only for the fact that he is president of a club in Catalonia that has the word Espanyol in its name. And anybody who suggests that I don’t like Catalonia is wrong. I love and admire it, despite the Catalans.’ This kind of statement was, of course, just what many of the supporters of FC Barcelona liked to hear, as it was only when Madrid saw them as the enemy that they could raise their profile – in their own eyes at least – not only as a Catalan club, but as a club of opposition, including during the years of the dictatorship.

However, we should not overstate this view of themselves as being anti-Francoist. For example, Miró-Sans, who was president of FC Barcelona for many years, was not antipathetic to the Franco regime and had also enjoyed good relations with Real Madrid’s board members.

After their 11:1 victory in 1943 Bernabéu’s Real Madrid was regularly portrayed as ‘Franco’s club’. And it is true that there were close links between the club and certain representatives of the regime. But this was true of other clubs too. However, it was Real Madrid that carried out certain official tasks that the state was not able to do itself, especially from the mid-1950s onwards. After 1945, Spain was classified as a fascist country by the United Nations and excluded from all UN organisations. It only had diplomatic relations with a handful of countries at that time and was starkly divided into winners and losers of the Civil War.

At a time of hunger and deprivation, football became a welcome distraction from the hardships of everyday life. Ticket sales and tours abroad made it possible to pay for expensive stars such as Alfredo Di Stéfano in 1953 and Ferenc Puskas in 1956. Another potential source of income was soon to open up when, in 1955, Real Madrid was actively involved in setting up the European Cup, now known as the Champions League. Real went on to win the first five of these championships.

Politically, the 1940s and 1950s represented a period of nationalisation in Spain and the victorious Francoist regime also tried to use sport as a political lever in the movement towards centralised national integration and political socialisation, especially where the younger generation were concerned. The aim was to crush separatist aspirations once and for all. Catalonia and the Basque country were accused of being loyal to the Republic and were punished by being deprived of some of their special, historic rights. Ultimately, however, subordination to the central state was not brought about by destroying regional identities but by manipulating them. This meant they lost their historic, official special status, while being allowed to maintain regional traditions in order to underline the diversity of Spain – meaning Castilian Spain – as a whole.

This type of policy was also mirrored in the regime’s approach to sport. On 16 March 1941, the Spanish Football Association organized two matches on the same day: in one match a team of Castilian footballers played against a team of Catalan players in Madrid, while in the other, the national team played against the Portuguese national team in Bilbao. The intention was clearly to highlight the fact that regional traditions were not so much being wiped out as subordinated to the idea of a greater Spain.

During the 1950s Real Madrid was increasingly viewed as ‘the’ Spanish team and, as such, the symbol of Spanish identity as a whole. As Real enjoyed more and more international success, their domestic rivals became increasingly convinced that they not only had to compete with Real on the pitch, but that Real were backed by the official might of the state.

The growing perception of Real as being Spain’s (football) ambassadors in the world resulted from the fact that, after qualifying for the World Cup in 1950, the national team failed to qualify again until 1962. The European Championship was first held in 1960. The Spanish national team also played very few friendlies during the years of international isolation. Football was also seen as a way of channelling the nationalist sentiments of the Basques, Catalans, Galicians and Valencians – a kind of safety valve for social tensions. During the early days of the dictatorship, the football stadium was one of the few public places where people were still allowed to speak regional languages that were prohibited elsewhere. There was a gradual relaxation of this language policy in the early 1960s, and in 1960 Barça’s club newspaper even published its New Year greetings in Catalan.

Football was also meant to help dissuade the Spanish people from becoming politically active. For example, matches were played on 30 April and 1 May in order to avoid potential worker protests. Vicente Calderón, then President of Atlético de Madrid, described this attempt to give football a depoliticising role during a TV interview in 1969: ‘It is hoped that football dulls people’s brains and that they (the people) spend the three days before and after the game thinking about football. Then they won’t be thinking about dangerous things.’ It is hard to say whether this policy of national integration and the attempt to dumb down the people through football actually worked. It seems unlikely that football matches could stem or even halt dissident activities. Of course the regime had plenty of opponents who had no interest in football or sport in general, so they would not have been affected by such measures, and some will have deliberately avoided sporting events for precisely this reason.

It is worth mentioning that while Real Madrid was increasingly associated with national identity, foreign players such as the Argentinian Alfredo Di Stéfano, the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas and the Brazilian Didi, and even footballers from other regions of Spain such as the Basque goalkeeper Ariquistáin, were also generally accepted when they committed themselves to Madridismo. In 1966 Puskas even stated on TV that he was going to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum on the final Francoist constitution, the 'ley orgánica'. The regime presented the vote as a plebiscite on Franco and the dictatorship, and it amounted to a definitive institutional legitimisation of the regime. To the outside world, Real’s foreign players made the club seem almost cosmopolitan and created the impression that Spain was actually a free and open country.

For many supporters of the Francoist state, Athletic de Bilbao was the true Spanish team because of its rule of only employing Basque players. Franco himself is said to have admired the Basque club for ‘maintaining the purity of its blood’, even if Basque separatism made it impossible for him to say such a thing in public. Following FC Barcelona’s cup win against Athletic de Bilbao in Madrid in 1953, the Spanish-Filipino journalist Eduardo Teus mused all the more openly about the cultural, religious and linguistic construct of the concept of 'Hispanidad': ‘In footballing terms, the raza española can be compared to the crusaders from Athletic de Bilbao, the very essence of a Spanish club, without foreign influence... FC Barcelona did not want to be associated with Spanishness, so it decided to create an international team, a concept that calls to mind so many degenerate ideas’. By ‘degenerate ideas’ he meant the political theories of liberalism and communism, which were considered very un-Spanish in Francoist ideology and could only have been introduced from abroad. The Civil War – which had been given the status of a ‘crusade’ – was meant to allow the Nationalists to drive these kinds of ideas out of Spain.

Despite having one or two players of non-Spanish origin, the image of Real Madrid was very important to the regime, particularly on its travels abroad. This was not because Franco had pressured officials at the club or was pursuing a grand scheme relating to the sport, but more that the regime took advantage of Real’s participation and success to project an image of Spain. Looking back at the role of Real during the dictatorship, the Spanish journalist Alex Botines wrote in 1975: ‘For years Real Madrid was the team that was the bedrock of support for the Franco regime. The club demonstrated to the whole of Europe that Spain was still an important country, despite the fact that it was a late developer – both out of necessity and through its own choices. Real Madrid was regarded as the exception to this underdevelopment and allowed us to hold our heads high on the international stage.’

Here, Botines was expressing the concerns felt by many Spaniards during the 1950s and 1960s: the economic backwardness of the country; the worry of not being thought of as a real member of ‘modern’ Europe because of the Fascist dictatorship; and – after the Civil War and years of international condemnation – a desire to feel they could finally lift their heads a little higher. The Francoist ruling elite was well aware of the fact that Real Madrid was playing an ambassadorial role for Spain. In 1959, the Secretary General of the Falange, José Solíus Ruiz, went as far as to say: ‘You’ve achieved far more than the many embassies that God’s own people have around the world. People who once hated us, now understand us thanks to you, because you’ve torn down so many walls. […] Your victories fill all Spaniards with genuine pride, in Spain and beyond the borders of our motherland. And when you return to the changing room after a game, you know that all of Spain is with you and by your side, full of pride because of your victory, which allows the Spanish flag to fly so high’.

Recording of the national anthem

Every time the influential Real Madrid official Raimundo Saporta travelled abroad, he made sure he had a recording of the Spanish national anthem and a Spanish flag in his luggage, in order to avoid any diplomatic faux pas. An example of such a blunder happened on 12 May 1955 at a friendly match between the Galician team Celta de Vigo and FC Toulouse. Thousands of exiled Spaniards lived in Toulouse and the city was even host to party congresses organised by left-wing groups such as the Social Democrats, who were banned in Spain.

Before the game, spectators apparently played the Republican national anthem and waved Republican flags, without the club making any kind of protest. Saporta wanted to be prepared for this kind of eventuality. And in 1963 he was also given the tricky task of ensuring that the two matches between the basketball teams belonging to Real and ZSKA Moscow went smoothly, particularly as this was to be the first official contact between the two countries since the Civil War. Only three years earlier, in 1960, the Spanish Minister of the Interior had prevented the Spanish national football team from travelling to Moscow for the first ever European Championship, and this political interference in the affairs of sport had provoked international outrage.

Real Madrid was a popular choice of opponent for international friendlies, and there were two main reasons why the team was important to the foreign policy interests of the Franco regime. Firstly, there was a lot of money to be made, and secondly, club officials would report back to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the situation in the countries visited after every international trip. The matches played in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia even served to establish the first informal contacts with two countries with whom Spain had no formal diplomatic relations.

Members of the opposition were able to draw a clear distinction between their passion for football and the obvious attempts by the regime to instrumentalise the sport. Occasionally the regime’s attempts to carefully manage its international image backfired when Real Madrid games abroad were used as an opportunity to stage protests against the Franco regime. As Real was not able to maintain its run of international success during the 1960s, and international relations started to normalise due to a general policy of détente, the regime no longer needed to rely on alternative, unofficial representatives to pursue its foreign policy objectives as it now had access to traditional diplomatic channels.

Even though Santiago Bernabéu was always at pains to stress that he and ‘his’ club served the people and Spain rather than the regime, Real naturally profited in many different ways from its close ties to the dictatorship. The club was accorded a range of political favours, including speeding up the bureaucratic process for granting naturalisation to foreign players, and conspicuous access to luxury goods. During the later stages of the dictatorship in the early 1970s, clubs like FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao started to use the ‘football stage’ to position themselves politically. The Catalan flag was officially flown at games played at the Campo Nou even before Franco’s death in 1975, and the team’s captain wore the Catalan colours as an armband. Barça’s 5:0 victory over Real in 1974, which helped the Catalan club to win the league for the first time since 1960, was seen as a political symbol, and for many it signaled the end of the dictatorship.

In October 1975, just a few weeks before Franco died, Athletic Bilbao players wore black armbands during a league game. They claimed they were wearing the armbands to commemorate the death of a member of the club. But it was quite clear that this was a silent protest against the death sentences passed by the already ailing regime, which had attracted international condemnation. At the Basque derby game between San Sebastián and Bilbao in December 1976, the two captains held aloft the Ikurriña, the Basque flag that was still banned, as an open demonstration of support for the special rights of the Basque people that had been denied under the dictatorship.

The public perception of the clubs from Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao during the Franco dictatorship still plays an important role today when it comes to both their support and their political significance. Athletic Bilbao has always had a policy of only playing native-born Basque players. Their squad currently includes Iñaki Williams, who has African parents but was born in Bilbao. This represents a certain softening of their policy as the club adapts to the realities of globalisation.

In October 2012, Barça fans demonstrated in favour of independence from the Spanish state after precisely 17.14 minutes of the Clásico against Real Madrid. This was a clear reference to the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, in which the Kingdom of Aragón, to which the County of Barcelona then belonged, lost its special rights.

This particular demonstration in favour of an autonomous Catalonia resulted in unprecedented media coverage of the separatist cause. Barça defender Gerard Piqué celebrated not his club’s victories, but and the Spanish team's World Cup and European Championship success by waving the Catalan flag, which guaranteed him a hostile reception in many Spanish stadiums.

Meanwhile, striker David Villa was celebrating the World Cup win with the Asturian flag. This provoked no such hostile reaction from football fans, but was actually seen as being very Spanish. Pep Guardiola stood as a candidate for the separatist alliance Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) in the Catalan regional elections in September 2015. In early 2016, a regional government was put in place that, for the first time since the end of the dictatorship, was in a position to draw up a concrete plan for independence. It remains unclear what this could mean in terms of a newly independent Catalonia becoming a member of the EU, or indeed FC Barcelona remaining in the Spanish league.

At European level, Madrid is threatening to block any attempt by Catalonia to join the EU. Perhaps Barça, like AS Monaco, could play in the French Ligue 1 as a non-French club. However, from a sporting and emotional perspective, this would not be a good option for the attractiveness of the Spanish Liga or for F.C. Barcelona itself.

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC, … (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC,... (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

Julian Rieck is a historian, and is currently studying for a doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Julian Rieck; photo: private

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