In Spain, football and politics are inseparable; since the late 19th century when the majority of professional football clubs were formed, football fans have used their clubs to display their political views with the help of the media attention that the sport receives.
Similarly, the government of any given time has seen the impact that football has on the public and has therefore used it as a key tool in creating new images and perceptions of the nation, both internally and externally.
Franco and the European Cup
Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain from 1936-1975 saw football as the perfect way for Spain to regain some positive global attention in the 1950s. Since the Spanish Civil War had ended in 1939, the country was in a terrible state economically and financially but General Franco felt that the sport could help his nation turn a new leaf on a global level and aimed to use Real Madrid as his way of showing the world a new, centralized Spain.
The European Champion Clubs’ Cup (today’s UEFA Champions League) was formed in 1956, created by French newspaper L’Equipe, with the aim of determining the best team in Europe. Real Madrid dominated the early years of the competition, winning it five times in a row with Franco regularly in attendance of Los Blancos’ 80,000 seater stadium alongside then club president and to whom the stadium is now named after, Santiago Bernabeu.
“Real Madrid’s unprecedented success acted as an invaluable ambassador for the country, lending it a sheen that hid a more prosaic and even grim reality. Franco had seen that football could be used to sway public opinion during the hard times and spread an image of broad of a nation of stylish achievers worthy of being back in the international fold. Madrid and Spain conjured up an image of a great football team, instead of a politically repressive and financially rickety country.”Phil Ball
A prominent sign that this new perception through football was paying dividends was the easing of commercial and diplomatic isolation in 1958, notably Spain allowed the U.S to build army bases on Spanish soil.
There was no doubt that Franco had benefited from the success of Real Madrid but what the club had gained in return depends on who you ask. Some say players were offered monetary incentives upon success, some say it was due to the highly controversial signing of one of the best players of all time and others claim referees were under pressure by the mere presence of the dictator watching over their every move.
The Alfredo Di Stéfano case
In 1953, Alfredo Di Stéfano signed for FC Barcelona after leaving his Colombian side Millonarios without their permission. The Spanish Football Federation would not authorize the transfer until Millonarios and Argentine club River Plate, who owned the player’s rights, struck an agreement. In May of that year, Di Stéfano arrived in Barcelona to conclude his transfer but while the negotiations between the Federation continued, Santiago Bernabeu stepped in and convinced the Argentine to join Madrid instead.
In September 1953, the Spanish FA concluded that it was only fair if the player would be allowed to play in Spain for four years, two with Real Madrid and then two with FC Barcelona. The agreement led to such anger from the fans and staff of the club that club president Marti Carreto resigned a week later feeling aggrieved that his club were conned by higher powers outside if football. Di Stéfano ended up playing eleven seasons with the Madrid, scoring 216 goals in 282 appearances, winning five European Cups and was voted the greatest player in the club’s history.
The reasons mentioned above may have all played a role in Madrid’s dominance but from either a Catalan or Basque perspective, the reason goes much deeper.
The Catalans and Basques’ fight for independence
In 1898, due to the financial problems of the country, Puerto Rico and Cuba were granted independence, signifying the end of Spain’s reign as a major power as it gave up the last of its overseas territories.
This sparked the Catalan’s and the Basque’s surge for independence as they had always felt separate from the rest of Spain; with their own rich history of culture, language and national flag, they believed it was only fair that they were given the right that Spain had given to its overseas territories.
FC Barcelona of Catalonia (Catalunya) and Athletic Bilbao of the Basque Country (Euskadi) are not just football clubs to the locals; they serve as emblems of their beliefs, like a national team. Their demands for independence were constantly neglected and when Franco came into power in 1936, he used his position to ensure these ‘nations’ were never given the right to self-determination and would do so by suppressing not only the people but also the football clubs which played such an important role in their cause.
“The clubs entered a period of decline in which political conflict overshadowed sport throughout society. A month after the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, several players from Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao enlisted in the ranks of those who fought against the military uprising. On 6 August, Josep Sunyol, the club president and representative of a pro-independence political party, was murdered by Falangist soldiers near Guadarrama.
“Dubbed the martyrdom of barcelonisme, the murder was a defining moment in the history of FC Barcelona. In the summer of 1937, the squad went on tour in Mexico and the United States, where it was received as an ambassador of the Second Spanish Republic. That tour secured the club financially, but also resulted in half the team seeking asylum in Mexico and France. On 16 March 1938, Barcelona came under aerial bombardment, resulting in over 3,000 deaths; one of the bombs hit the club’s offices.”Phil Ball
Catalonia was taken over soon after and under the influence of Franco FC Barcelona began to be stripped of its identity. No club was allowed to have a non-Spanish name therefore the club was renamed ‘Club de Fútbol Barcelona’ and was forced to remove the Catalan flag from the club logo.
In Catalunya and Euskadi, their respective languages were banned, any civil servant caught in the act of speaking in those languages risked being fired instantaneously and their national anthems were prohibited. It is well documented how mass burnings of books written in Catalan and Euskera took place in an attempt to erase all traces of their national characteristics.
During those years of oppression, Camp de les Corts (then home to FC Barcelona) and San Mames (Athletic Bilbao) served as sanctuaries to their identities and is widely believed that they saved the characteristics mentioned above: language, songs, flags and anthems.
On home matches, fans would gather at the stadium donning their flags, singing Catalan and Basque songs and simply exchanging conversations in their native languages with the crowd being so great in size that the police could not stop them.
The 2008 Copa del Rey final between FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao proved Catalan and Basque feelings towards the Madrid based government has not changed as the Spanish national anthem was booed and jeered by both sets of fans. One of TVE’s (Spanish public TV network) top directors Julien Reyes was sacked for cutting away the scenes of this incident as his bosses believed it was wrong to stop the public seeing such events unfold.
In terms of visual media, things were not as they are now where all Spanish teams can be viewed on the weekend, albeit in unfair proportions. Up until the early 1980’s the government controlled TV broadcasting and only showed Real Madrid. So whether you were a Real Betis fan in Andalucía, Celta Vigo fan in Galicia or an RCD Espanyol fan in Catalonia, people across Spain were forced to watch Real Madrid each weekend.
Barcelona vs. Espanyol in the Spanish civil war
Barcelona may be famed for its long rivalry with Real Madrid stemming from the history they had since the Franco Regime and being the two great powers of Spanish football in terms of success, but local rivals Espanyol have been a true enemy since the early 20th century and notably throughout the Franco regime.
Most of Barcelona’s citizens saw Espanyol as compliers of Franco’s reign whereas FC Barcelona were the revolutionaries looking to gain autonomy for their land. As the issue of independence became more important, Espanyol made a petition against the movement in 1918 further aggravating tensions between the two sides and during the civil war, a prominent Espanyol supporter group joined the side of the fascist Falangists.
To determine whether someone favors right-wing or left-wing politics in Spain can be found out by asking them which is their second favorite team. If they answer ‘Real Madrid’ they are right-wing and if they answer ‘FC Barcelona’ they are almost certainly left-wing.
In 2008, during the build up to Real Madrid’s game versus Barcelona, Mariano Rajoy, the right-wing leader of the opposition (and current prime-minister) was seen sporting a scarf of ‘Los Blancos’ and confidently predicting a 2-1 victory on national television. Rajoy had lost the last two elections to José Luis Zapatero, the left-wing politician who happened to be the first ever Spanish prime-minister to declare himself as a FC Barcelona fan yet he has never been seen at the Camp Nou watching over his beloved team as Franco so often was.
Politics have been rooted into the Spanish game from the very beginning and has been embedded into the culture of each football fan ever since. For those who have not lived it, it is difficult to comprehend.
It would be difficult to imagine what Arsenal’s rivalry towards Liverpool and Manchester United would be like if decades ago England was under a London-based dictatorship which banished the rights of Liverpudlians and Mancunians to express their identities. In Spain, this has very much been a reality since the early 20th century therefore football has offered so many people the opportunity to express their feelings, views and ideologies through the attention that this sport receives on a global level.
Spain, with 17 autonomous communities each sharing unique beliefs, is an extremely complex case. The political climate can be summed up, metaphorically, to a tee by V.S Pritchett who said “England is packed with little houses, France lies clearly like green linoleum, a place of thriving little fields; but cross the dark plot of the Pyrenees and Spain is reddish brown, yellow and black, like some dusty bull restive in the rock and sand”.