INT’L FOOTBALL Part 4: Franco, the Soviets and the Rise of the ‘El Classico.’

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021. 

One country who had been a notable absentee from the 1938 World Cup were Spain.

As the country was preoccupied by the Civil War – fought between Republicans and Royalists – the nation was crumbling, but in the aftermath of the Second World War, their Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, also realised the manipulative power of football.

What had made his tyrannical victory on the domestic front successful was the fact that he was aided by Benito Mussolini’s troops and the German Luftwaffe.

This was decisive intervention against the rebel cause in 1939, but with Spain opting for neutrality during the war and with the fall of both Hitler and Mussolini, Franco had become somewhat isolated.

“Spain has no foolish dreams!”

In the post-war era, Spain had become secluded territory and the animosity of the Catalan people – predominantly based in Barcelona – was preparing itself to resurface. 

Like his (now-deceased) fellow Fascist leaders, Franco had no particular interest in football. Knowing how much it could gather support for his regime however, he adapted the Real Madrid club as a symbol for his autonomous and oppressive rule.

The people of Barcelona still lived under mass persecution. They were banned from using their own language, from waving Catalan flags and with the sights of bullet-holes still adorning the walls of their churches and cathedrals, reminders of Facist massacres were still all too visible for them.

In 1936, Barca’s club president – Josep Sunyol – had been dragged from his car and murdered by Franco’s troops and, perhaps naturally, the citizens of Catalonia gravitated to the Camp Nou stadium in support of their team.

Thus, their ‘Mes Que En Club’ (‘More Than A Club’) mentality was given its rise.

Despite the fierce opposition to his power, Franco still believed that football could be utilised as a means of useful diversion and distraction.

He began to arrange club fixtures that he could broadcast through the advent of television and anytime a degree of social unrest was afoot, a match would come on the screens to tempt peoples’ focus away.

Even though Franco kept a firm hold on the goings-on at Real Madrid, it’s fair to suggest that this didn’t bring any form of immediate success to the club. 

Between 1939 and 1954, they didn’t win a single league championship and perhaps more disparagingly, they had to watch Barcelona lift five titles during that time.

It was time to redress the balance and the opportunity came along when both Real Madrid and Barcelona joined in a race to sign Argentinian star, Alfredo DiStefano. 

“The Blonde Arrow”, as he was known, had a superb goal-scoring record with his club in Colombia at the time; scoring 267 in 292 games. 

Initially, it was Barca who approached him and it looked as though a deal was about to be brokered. The move was, some might say, commandeered by Real Madrid who swooped in and stole his signature away at the eleventh hour. 

It was to be revealed years later that Franco’s troops had abducted the new Barcelona president, Marti Carreto, from a hotel and threatened his textile industry – where he had amassed his fortune – with very heavy tax inspections.

If he left DiStefano to move to Madrid, then he was in the clear.

It’s also believed that Real Madrid, possibly in a bid to quell any further unrest, offered Barcelona an olive branch. They stated that DiStefano could play alternate seasons for each side, but as an act of defiance against the regime, Barcelona refused the offer; irregardless of how talented the player actually was. 

Alfredo DiStefano joined Real Madrid and in his first game against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, he scored four goals against the club he came so close to signing for.

To his credit, DiStefano spoke about the bureaucracy that went on behind his signing in a 2003 interview with the BBC. Speaking then as Honorary President of Real Madrid and having only recently signed David Beckham, he told:

“I never played for Franco. I never played for a political system. I only played for the people. I thought I was joining Barcelona and then I wasn’t.”

Real Madrid’s recruitment of his profound talents was to transform the club. Between 1956 and 1960, they won no less than five European Cups in a row. Their success, on the field, had promoted a glamorous and endearing image of Spain to the world. Something which Franco would have been most pleased with. 

“Masonry and Communism … the two evils which must be dispelled from this land.”

Despite being accepted into NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), Spain was still very much a secluded nation in western Europe. It was holding firm to the ideologies of fascism, long after the Allies had ended the reigns of Mussolini and Hitler. 

Franco though, was very aware of how football could shape perspective.

He set about making Real Madrid an international brand. By bringing in players such as Ferenc Puskas, it gave the club a reputation for giving a new lease of life to players who had previously suffered under Communist rule in the east.  

This courted him a degree of favour with the United States and for as much as Franco disliked Catalonians, he despised the communist leanings of the Soviet Union even more. This would come to a head – not once but twice – on the international stage during the 1960s.

The Soviets had sympathised with and supported the Catalan rebellion during the Civil War years and when the two nations met at the 1960 European Championships – perhaps anxious about the possibility of a defeat to an enemy nation – Franco withdrew Spain from the match. 

Four years later, Spain and the Soviets would cross paths again. This time in the Euro ‘64 Final. With Spain being the host nation, Franco was advised that withdrawing the team again would cause national embarrassment; particularly as this was the Final.

Spain won the game 2-1 and, as it later emerged, the players had been told in no uncertain circumstances that it wasn’t just a team they were playing against. They were told that they were fighting as soldiers against the evils of communism.

“Tot el camp. És un clam.’ 

In 1975, following 36 years of power, Franco died. His body is buried in the outskirts of Madrid – the Cementerio Municipal El Pardo (‘The Valley of the Fallen’). 

A man-made reserve built by the very people he oppressed and killed. It’s believed that his final words were “I am accountable now only to God and to History.” 

Those who congregated at the Camp Nou just four weeks later had other ideas. 

On 28th December, Barcelona took on Real Madrid in a stadium that was still reverberating amid the celebrations of Franco’s death.

Barcelona, equipped with Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff, enjoyed the raptors of a 2-1 win over their great rivals and it is estimated that, in defiance of Spanish law, somewhere in the region of 700 Catalan flags were smuggled into the ground and waved proudly that night.

An emotion which still resonates heavily with the supporters to this day. Although, it must be said, that it’s certainly not the case that Real Madrid fans should ever be tagged or generalised as fascist sympathisers.

For even Barcelona club historian, Joan Barau wrote, when discussing Real’s record 11-1 win over Barca in 1943:

“The memory of the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s memory. It was not their fault that they fell under a military dictatorship, so it’s never a result that they tend to boast about.”

After all, the Real Madrid club had been thriving for almost four decades before Franco suddenly took an convenient interest in them.

The era of fascism controlling football may have been over, but that’s not to say that politics in general had ever stopped in its bid to manipulate the game. 

For, as we will see in our next article, the role of communism and its difficulties with democracy would forge an important reality for a highly-skilled and evolutionary Hungarian side during the Cold War.

A side, who many still believe to this day, helped change the face of how club football was to be played in Britain forever more.

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