The Politics of 'Futbol'

Duncan Shaw looks at how the entry of Spain into the EEC in 1985 furthered its process of integration into the European community. During the Franco years, the ostracised regime used football to initiate this gradual road towards acceptance. The Catalans and the Basques, however, used football as a means of popular protest.

On June 21st, 1964, an ecstatic crowd of 120,000, awash in a sea of red and yellow, cheered and applauded Generalissimo Francisco Franco as he stood up to leave the Madrid summer evening gathering. This was no mass rally of political affirmation that the dictator was leaving, but a football match. Spain had just beaten the Soviet Union in the Final of the European Nations' Cup; so much more than just a football victory: a triumph for international co-operation over Cold War hostility, but, conversely, perhaps also a triumph over the old Red enemies of the Civil War.

The conservative ABC newspaper was moved to comment the following day:

After twenty-five years of peace, behind the applause could be heard an authentic support for the Spirit of July 18th. In this quarter of a century there has never been displayed a greater popular enthusiasm for the State born out of the victory over Communism and its fellow-travellers ... Spain is a nation every day more orderly, mature. and unified, and which is steadfastly marching down the path of economic, social and institutional development. It is a national adventure.

And this appeared on the sports page.

The euphoria surrounding this 1964 win goes a long way way to illustrate a crucial aspect of the politicisation of football in Francoist Spain, 1939 to 1975: how the regime skilfully derived the maximum advantage from the many international triumphs achieved by Spanish teams. Football re-established many links - with the Soviet Union for example- and these were important for a country that was largely regarded as the last bastion of fascism by a hostile outside world. Franco quickly saw in the game a means of purifying his foreign image, of painting a lighter picture of Spain to replace that of a brutal dictatorship.

In addition to using international footbail success for external prestige, the Franco regime boosted its domestic position by basking in the reflected glory of these victories. But then Franco is hardly alone as a dictator who has cashed in on the international football successes of his country. The Medici regime extracted enormous political profit from Brazil's flamboyant 1970 World Cup win, as did Videla and the Argentine generals in the same way in 1978. Not to be outdone by their bigger neighbours, the Uruguayan military hit their own jackpot with the 1981 Gold Cup win.

Despite Franco's exploitation of international competitions, however, he was less shrewd on the domestic football scene. To gain prestige both at home and abroad, the dictatorship clearly identified itself with the spectacularly successful Real Madrid club. In order to make progress in their careers, ambitious junior ministers and army officers jostled to get themselves noticed at Real's magnificent Bernabeau stadium, cheering on Madrid against some provincial also-rans; this was the place to be, more than any theatre or opera house. This semi-official support for Real Madrid dovetailed well with Franco's zealous policy of centralism, of concentrating all power in the capital. And it was in this respect that football began to work against the regime, since regionalist resentment to this obsessive centralism naturally found its fooball focus in 'Franco's team': Real Madrid. Rancour towards Madrid emanated most powerfully from Catalonia and the Basque Country, and manifested itself through frenetic support for the CF Barcelona and Atletico Bilbao clubs. These fierce regional rivalries in the domestic game constitute a second major aspect of the politicisation of football in Francoist Spain.

Under all political dictatorships, with open opposition silenced, dissent tends to find expression through safer channels, such as theatre or literature. The tremendous mass appeal of football in Spain and the lack of cheap alternative entertainment during Franco's time permitted popular disaffection with the regime to be reflected through the game. Support for Barcelona and Bilbao - effectively the 'national' teams of Catalonia and the Basque Country - implied a safe regional and political stance against the Madrid regime. It was strictly forbidden, at pain of brutality and imprisonment, to speak any other language but proper Castilian, to fly a regional flag, or even to hold a meeting of more than seven people. In this context, the home matches of Barcelona and Bilbao became regular expressions of anti-Franco regionalist sentiment, where the Catalan or Basque could safely talk to his fellows in his mother tongue, always provided that the police were out of earshot.

Flying regional flags, of course, was a more obvious offence, and though there were many arrests for this at the Barcelona and Bilbao grounds the supporters prudently preferred to sport the colours of their actual teams, which really amounted to the same thing. Every Spaniard, of whatever political or football persuasion, knew that the red and blue of CF Barcelona were a substitute for the red and yellow of Catalonia, just as the red and white of Atletico Bilbao stood for the red, white and green of the Basque Country: Support for these two clubs was huge and passionate, and reached fever pitch when Real Madrid came to town. To stand on the terraces and whistle and jeer at 'Franco's team' was probably the most popular form of political protest against the dictatorship.

As well as being a focus for Basque emotions at home, the Atletico Bilbao club became a pole of resistance to Francoism right across. the country. Hundreds of local supporters' clubs were established by workers who had never visited the Basque Country, but who saw in Atletico both a successful, friendly working-class club, and a powerful symbol of opposition. Barcelona never became such a symbol outside Catalonia because of the ambitious middle-class atmosphere of the club - the great majority of working-class immigrants to the area, mostly from Murcia and Andalucia, sided instead with the rival Espanol club - and also because of the traditional Spanish antipathy towards the prosperous Catalans.

The third aspect of the politicisation of football is far less specific than the two described above. It concerns the extent to which the regime deliberately built up the game to a mass spectator sport that would channel the energies and the passions of the masses, as part of what Raymond Carr called a 'culture of evasion'. One of Franco's major objectives was to de-politicise Spanish society by turning the workers away from politics, and so prevent another mass popular mobilisation such as preceded the Civil War. The stability of his regime was firmly built upon the pillars of social apathy and passive acceptance. At first this de-politicisation was achieved by savage repression. Later on, however, in the 1950's, the regime gradually began to realise the potential of football as a means of social pacification. As Raymond Carr points out:

With his TV set and Match of the Day (which he himself never missed) Franco asserted that most of his subjects and nothing to complain about.

To understand how football could have had such a pacifying effect it must first be understood how important the game was to the ordinary man in the street. Most Spanish fans treated futbol as a religion, and this fanaticism was reflected in the existence of three daily football papers in Barcelona and two each in Bilbao and Madrid. These papers, and the prospect of the next match, helped the worker to get through his daily lowpaid drudgery. Without the game, and the other manifestations of this 'culture of evasion' which occupied the free time of the workers, such as radio and TV serials, the cinema and photo-novels, Franco would almost certainly have had to face an angrier and more politically mobilised working-class in the 1950s and 1960s. To keep the masses off the streets on May Day, there was even a round-the-clock feast of riveting Brazilian football on television.

Thus it can be seen that football worked both for and against the Franco regime. It immersed the workers and so kept them away from politics, and was used as a catalyst for Spanish nationalism. But, on the other hand, football worked against the regime by providing a safe arena for regional and political protest.

The victors of the Civil War allowed the professional Liga to start up again immediately afterwards, simply insisting upon the Castilianisation of all club names. So Athletic Bilbao grudgingly became Atletico and Sporting Gijon changed to Deportivo, when they were re-formed by the members who had survived the war and the purges that followed. But it was impossible for football to relieve the misery and drabness of post-Civil War Spain. For a start, the level of real wages had fallen to around 1900 levels, and so the people in general, not only the working class, simply had no spare money to buy football tickets. Except for the new industrialists and entrepreneurs, the wealthy landowners and the top military and government personnel, life in the 1940s was a grinding struggle to avoid starvation, police repression and unemployment. Not surprisingly, football crowds were well below pre- 1939 figures. Transport was a further problem for the clubs, as many roads were in a dreadful state of repair or even terrorised by guerilla attacks.

Despite all this, the Liga kept going. It is rather ironic that the dominant clubs in the 1940s, when doctrinaire Francoism was at its most brutal, were Barcelona and Bilbao and not Real Madrid, 'Franco's team'. Until the ascendancy to the club presidency of Santiago Bernabeu in 1943, Real Madrid was a second-rate, unsuccessful outfit. The autocratic new president, however, sometimes likened to Franco himself in personality and style, had great ambitions for the club, beginning with the construction of a mighty 120,000 capacity bowl. As Bernabeu' s club gradually became more successful, so another tier of the stadium bearing his own name was added, paid for only by the advance subscription of the members and built by the cheap labour then available.

It was when Real Madrid was developing into greatness in the early 1950s that the regime and its personalities more and more associated themselves with this club that was beginning to supercede the provincial giants, Barcelona and Bilbao. This ill-concealed favour for Madrid fed Barcelona's chip-on-the-shoulder claim that they were being constantly persecuted by officialdom on and off the pitch. Indeed, the authorities were almost paranoid about what went on at the club. In 1949, Nicholas Casaus, a member of the club board and a former militant of the Catalanist Esquerra Republicana, had come close to being exiled for allegedly abusing a portrait of Franco; all he had done in fact was to take it down from above a door from where it used to fall whenever the door was slammed.

Then in 1952 a bitter row broke out between the Barcelona and Madrid clubs over who had signed the great Argentine forward Alfredo Di Stefano. The claim of Barcelona was the stronger, but football federation and government officials frightened off the Catalan club president Marti Carreto, with telephone threats and private detectives. The federation ruled that the player should be shared by the two clubs, season by season. Barcelona were understandably appalled and angrily sold off their half-share to Madrid. With hindsight, this shabby affair can be seen as the turning-point in the struggle between the two clubs for, with the outstanding Di Stefano in command, Madrid won their first Liga in 1954, and from then on there was no holding them.

Just as Real Madrid were taking-off in the 1950s, so too was Spanish football itself. Wages had risen sufficiently to allow workers a small expenditure on leisure; life for the vast majority was no longer a relentless battle for survival. Attendance figures duly rose, and in consequence Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico Madrid - the capital's second club, with a very mild anti-Francoist reputation - followed Real Madrid and built glorious new stadia. Traditionalists inside and outside the regime bemoaned the eclipse of bullfighting as the premier attraction, but the more astute of Franco's ministers, amongst whom Gonzales de la Mora was the foremost, began to grasp the potential of football as a social drug.

The Golden Age of Spanish football ran from 1956 to 1964, when the club sides almost completely swept the board in the new European competitions. Real Madrid were at the head of this assault, capturing the Champions' Cup five consecutive times with football of exuberant quality. And, of course, there was Franco to bask in the glory of it all, especially at the 1957 Final played in Madrid. The regime tried to use Madrid's victories as a focus for Spanish nationalism, cooly overlooking the fact that this wonder team was built around Di Stefano of Argentina, Puskas of Hungary, Kopa of France, Canario of Brazil and Santamaria of Uruguay.

In addition to giving Franco every opportunity for propaganda, Real Madrid also served another purpose: that of rebuilding broken diplomatic bridges. On Christmas Day 1955, the players of Partizan Belgrade were allowed by the regime to enter Spain clandestinely to play Madrid, even though there were no formal diplomatic links with Yugoslavia until some years later, illustrating how footballing contacts helped to ease some of the hostile barriers around Spain.

In the 1960s, as Madrid's impact on Europe faded with the retirement of the old foreign stars, the focus of the regiine's footballing hopes became the national team. Until the 1964 European Nations Cup win the success of Spanish clubs in European competition had not been matched by the national Seleccion, as it is known. In 1960 Franco, usually so clever in these situations, scored a notable propaganda own-goal when he refused entry visas to some members of the Soviet party that was about to come to Madrid for a Nations Cup match. Spain, which had just convincingly beaten England, would most probably have won, but in the event the Soviets were given the chance to denounce internationally the 'fascist dictator' who was afraid to come out and play.

The regime wisely did not repeat this mistake in 1964 when Spain was chosen to host the final stages of the same competition. It turned out to be a considerable coup for Franco, because Spain, without any star foreigners, beat Hungary and then the USSR to claim the trophy. Franco's domestic popularity consequently soared, and Spain's overseas image received yet another boost from football.

Four years later, however, there was a shock in store for the fans and ministers in the same Bernabeu stadium, when Barcelona surprisingly beat Madrid in the domestic cup final, supposedly played on a 'neutral' ground. Spare a thought for Franco, having to force a smile as he presented the cup bearing his own name to the Catalan captain, the whistles and jeers of the crowd.

But it was the Basque Country and not Catalonia that gave the ageing dictator the last of his footballing headaches in September 1975, just two months before his death. The question of who or what would succeed him had created a profound crisis for the regime and the country as a whole. But even whilst lying in his hospital bed with a huge team of doctors in permanent attendance, Franco personally insisted upon the execution of five Basque ETA gunmen. The following Sunday the Bilbao and Real Sociedad de San Sebastian players ran out wearing black armbands. The police intervened against this blatant anti-Madrid gesture, and the matter was eventually smoothed over by the clubs each claiming that the armbands were to commemorate the death of some extremely obscure figure in their histories. The international indignation at Franco's final major action was reflected in the decision by the Lazio club of Rome to withdraw from playing Barcelona in the UEFA Cup, ironically unaware that the Catalan club had, in fact, been a powerful pole of opposition to the dictator throughout his thirty-six years of ascendancy. Many people inside the game expected and hoped that this political dimension to football would disappear with the demise of the Franco regime. This has only partially happened. Since 1975 the regionalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country have been able to come out into the open with their support, and their identification with, the Barcelona and Bilbao clubs and vice versa. Regional leaders like Taradellas and Garaicoechea have realised the importance of the football match as a gathering of regional sentiment, and so have made themselves noticeable there. The fans, too, have come out into the open with their flags, and now there is as much red and yellow as red and blue at Barcelona and similarly at Bilbao. But football has changed in the sense that though the clubs are now, more than ever before, open vehicles for regionalism, they no longer line up for or against the central power in Madrid. Years of democratic government from the capital have gradually taken the heat out of this situation, with the result that Real Madrid have finally been relieved of the awesome burden of being 'Franco' s team'.



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