Passion Play: How conflict and civil war shaped El Clasico.

Prelude to the Passion Play

Prelude to the Passion Play

It’s a game oft-painted with the vivid colours of a cultural conflict played out on a green sward, feeding the hungry passions of people separated by history, but united by desire for gaining an all too brief and surrogated sporting victory. Red and yellow to one side and blood and gold to the other, champions donned in white or claret and blue vie for victory, honour and acclaim. “Mes que un club!” Perhaps. More than a game? Probably. El Clasico is the game that must shout. Born in conflict, intensified by war, it’s the game that cannot forget the past.

There have been many famous, and perhaps just as many infamous, encounters over the years when Real Madrid have squared up to Barcelona in the series of matches that have come to be labelled as ‘El Clasico.’ Whilst some have been closely contested, others have seen the pendulum swing fiercely to one side or the other, delivering a dispiriting result to the vanquished. Metaphorical sack cloth and ashes were then donned complete with a badge of shame that could only be assuaged by the next victory in the series.

For both infamy and crushing defeats however, surely no game in the series has ever surpassed the encounter that took place on 13th June 1943. The second leg of the ‘the Copa del Generalísimo,’ now renamed as the ‘Cope del Rey,’ took place at the Chamartín Stadium in Madrid. Days previously, the first leg had been played out at Les Corts in Barcelona, with the home team securing a 3-0 lead to take to the capital, in a game cheered by the Cules as their eponymous backsides hung over the walls of the stadium.

Cules at Les corts

Cules at Les corts

These were the days before the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid and the Camp Nou in Barcelona had been built, when the shadow of the Spanish Civil War still hung like an acrid pall over the Iberian peninsula. Real Madrid and Barcelona are antagonists born of conflict, but the encounter that took place just one week short of a year ahead of the allies landing in Normandy, was forged in the fratricidal encounter that tore Spain asunder leaving an open wound that would never truly begin to heal until the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The Generalísimo would never forgive the city of Barcelona for siding with the Republicans, and particularly the football club for being a symbol of Catalan nationalism. Allying itself with the elected government of the Second Republic and providing the base for the Syndicalist CNT and Anarchist FAI was already enough to provoke the unforgiving ire of Franco, but threatening his espoused belief of “España una, grande, libre!” damned Catalunya, and its quasi-national football club as traitors beyond the pale.

In the harsh days of post-war Barcelona, under the rule of the Movumento, all aspects of Catalan identity were suppressed. The language was banished with all education to be provided only in Castillian Spanish, and road signs and street names were changed to reflect the imposed tongue. The Catalan flag, the Senyera, with its four blood red stripes across a gold field was banned. The dictatorship even compelled the football club to change its name from FC Barcelona to the more acceptable Spanish ‘Club de Fútbol Barcelona.’ Such was the environment of the early post-Spanish Civil War years, but the seeds of Barcelona’s conflict with Castillian-ruled Spain were much older than that.

Founded just before the turn of the century the club was created by the Swiss football pioneer, Hans Kamper. He was later to restyle his name in the Catalan tradition to become Joan Gamper. The club’s official history has it that it was Gamper who, importing the colours of one of his previous clubs FC Basel, brought the famous Blaugrana colours to the club. As it grew, the club became increasingly a manifestation of the desires of the Catalans for an independent state of Catalunya. In 1918, the club attached itself to a petition demanding a state of autonomy for the region and in 1921, drafted its statutes in the Catalan tongue even though it was not an official language.

This leaning was inevitably to bring it into conflict with the government. In 1923, Don Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja, 2nd Marquis of Estella, seized power in a military takeover. Some have said that he was invited to take power byl the then monarch Alfonso XIII, who feared his country was falling apart under the sham-democracy then in place. Whatever the truth of that, Primo de Rivera controlled the destiny of the country for seven years, and FC Barcelona became an increasingly irritating itch that the centrist government felt compelled to scratch.

In June 1925, at Les Corts, in an apparently spontaneous gesture against the power of the dictator, the crowd jeered when the national anthem, the Royal March, was played. They then compounded this misdemeanour by cheering a rendition of God Save the Queen, played by a visiting band of the Royal Marines. It was a display of friendship shamefacedly betrayed by the British government a dozen years later, when not only did they refuse to aid the stricken democratically-elected Second Republic government, their shameful adherence to a sham-neutrality agreement, cynically ignored by the Fascist powers of Germany and Italy as they poured men and materiel in to help Franco crush the Republic, they also prevented others from aiding the Spanish government as well.

Primo de Rivero took the opportunity to exercise his powers. Accusing the club of promoting Catalan nationalism – which was probably true, or being supporters of it at least – the stadium was closed down for six months. The dictator also decreed that Gamper should be removed from the presidency of the club. A few years later, Gamper suffering depression brought on by financial and personal worries committed suicide. He was buried in the city at the Cemetery of Montjuïc. The episode was a foretaste of the conflict to follow, but only served to intensify the feelings of oppression and rebelliousness in the region. Such sentiments were often given life by the city’s football club.

Primo de Rivera left office in 1930, as economic problems and general unpopularity in his rule grew.  General Sanjurjo, head of the army, who was later to die in a suspicious ‘plane crash in Portugal, as he sought to fly in and lead a coup, then informed Alfonso that the army’s loyalty to the throne could not be relied upon. On 14th April, Alfonso XIII fled the country, without abdicating however, and settled in Rome.

In his wake a Republic was formed that, following elections characterised by the formation and fracturing of political alliances, produced governments that veered left, then right and then left again. It was this last government, a Popular Front administration, led by Indalecio Prieto that the armed rebellion, in the interests of the forces of reaction, sought to overthrow. Although at its inception Franco was merely a follower, through various intrigues and mysterious deaths, he rapidly assumed leadership of the Nationalist forces.

Alfonso had initially supported the rebellion from afar, but once the war was engaged Franco quickly made it clear that a Nationalist victory would not restore him to the throne. Ever the pragmatist, the Generalísimo was keen to keep his allies onside and the valuable fighting unit of the Requetes from Navarre, Carlist adherents to the rights of a pretender to the throne, were an important element of his forces.

The war saw a series of brief victories and then crushing defeats for the forces of the government. In Barcelona, citizens had put down the rebellion arising from the Pedralbes barracks in the city, as the government released arms to the people to defend themselves and the new won democracy. It was a move that, had it been repeated across the country, and particularly in Madrid, may have seen the uprising quickly supressed, and three years of internecine war avoided.

In Barcelona itself, shortly after the war began, a number of players from the football club joined up with the forces fighting against the military. Some reports suggest that this movement was mirrored in the Basque country as members of Athletic Bilbao also committed themselves to the defence of the government. The club was to lose a number of its people in the conflict, but perhaps the most infamous incident was the murder of Josep Sunyol. At the time, as well as being president of the club, Sunyol was also a representative of the pro-independence left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya political party. He was captured and killed near Guadarama, just outside Madrid. It was Sunyol who coined the slogan of ‘sport and citizenship’ to try and cement the link between the club and its cultural and social links in the region.

Various reports have suggested that Sunyol was captured by police loyal to Franco, under his orders, rapidly tried to give a veneer of respectability, and then executed as a ‘traitor to Spain.’ Others hold that he was merely seized by members of the blue-shirted Falange, and shot on the spot. Whatever the truth of it, Sunyol became a martyr to the cause of Catalan independence and ‘Barcelonisme.’

Memorial plaque to Sunyol

Memorial plaque to Sunyol

In 1935, Barcelona had appointed an Irishman, Patrick O’Connell to be the club’s manager. Often affectionately known as Don Patricio, it was O’Connell that led the club on what was to become a vital tour of Mexico and the USA in 1937. The Irishman, from working class stock in Drumcondra in Dublin, may have been the man that kept the club alive and allowed it to prevail at the end of the war. Mexico was a staunch supporter of the beleaguered Republic, and the team were received as ambassadors of the country. The tour was a double-edged sword however. Although it provided financial security, it also led a number of players to seek asylum, rather than return to the horrors of the war. The whole episode probably saved the club from financial extinction, but the weakening of the team made success in winning trophies much more difficult.

By March 1938, Barcelona was under siege and in a new innovation of warfare the city was subjected to aerial bombardment by the Italian air force. It’s widely reported that more than 3,000 people lost their lives to the bombers dispatched by Mussolini, and in one raid, a bomb reportedly hit the football club’s offices. Just a few short months later, the city and Catalunya as a whole fell under the Nationalist yoke, and Barcelona was occupied. It was at this time that the club reached its lowest ebb. The four blood red horizontal stripes of the Senyara, featured on the club’s crest were replaced by the two vertical ones of Castillian Spain. Club membership fell to less than 3,500, and but for the resources garnered from O’Connell’s tour, it may have folded completely.

The war ended with a total victory for the Nationalist forces of Franco and his axis allies in 1939, a few short months before the Second World War began. By 1943, however, the defeated Republican areas were still being compelled to digest the bitter cost of defeat. Barcelona’s 3-0 victory at Les Corts was secured in this atmosphere, and must have given the Cules at least a small measure of joy in the defiant victory.

Real Madrid’s current chairman Florentino Perez has said that “If Barcelona didn’t exist, we would have to invent them.” It was not a task necessary in 1943. Barcelona had survived the years of oppression as Franco sought to wring from the Catalans any vestige of a desire for independence. The regime’s bête noire was already a prime target, and the result of the first leg was not to be tolerated.

Before the game, a famous journalist of the time, Eduardo Teus wrote a rousing piece imploring all Madridistas to show conviction and determination to wipe out the result of the first game. Many feel he succeeded. Aware of the tensions being stoked, the president of Barcelona sent a letter to Madrid to try and ease the poisonous atmosphere that was brewing. Its effect was quite the reverse. Incensed Madrid officials used it to further inflame the mood of Madrid fans.

Back at Les Corts, the Cules had heckled and jeered the Madrid players. It was a misdemeanour that brought a fine from the authorities. Greater retribution was to follow at the Chamartín however. Accounts differ as to how it happened, but what is clear is that whistles were handed out to Madrid fans with instructions use them long and loudly. Barcelona manager Angel Mur is reported as commenting that the noise was so loud, he thought his eardrums would explode.

The truth of these things is always misted by time, but a number of reports say that prior to kick-off an official – some say the Secretary of State, others say Franco himself, others again mention no names – went into the Barcelona dressing-room with a loaded gun to ensure the players understood what should happen.  Some say however, that it was the referee, at a pre-game meeting with both captains who passed on the threat. Whichever is true, if either, it’s clearly safe to say that the atmosphere was intimidating for the players donned in the Blaugrana. I’ve read a report that Miro, the Barcelona goalkeeper, was under so much fire from objects thrown from the crowd that he rarely stepped into his area. I’m unsure of the truth of this however, as a couple of stills I have seen, purportedly from the game, show him between the sticks as goals are scored.

Press cutting reporting the result

Press cutting reporting the result

By the time the game started the eleven Barcelona players must have considered themselves to be in the loneliest place on the planet, and surely many of them would have been reluctant to take the field. If the reports of intimidation are to be believed however, they probably felt they had very little option. Although it’s not mentioned in all of the reports of the game that I’ve read, some suggest that a Barcelona player was sent off in the first half, and as the break came the Madridistas would have been hugely satisfied with the 8-0 score line. As contests go, this clearly wasn’t one. The second half continued in a similar vein, and before Martin scored the single Barcelona goal in the 89th minute, the home team had netted a further three to make the final score 11-1.

Barcelona fans past and present may rejoice in the fact that following the infamous semi-final, Los Blancos went on to lose the final 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao. That Real Madrid went a further ten years after this game before they lifted the La Liga title again is interesting to note. Doubtless some would call it a kind of divine retribution. Strange to say however, as it is normally the victors in conflict that claim to have had God on their side. Perhaps what that fact does suggest however, is that whatever intimidation there was at this game, it may not have been repeated again.

I’m not sure if there was a more vehement version of ‘what goes around, come around‘ in Catalan in 1943, but if there wasn’t, they may well have created one after that particular game and Madrid’s loss to Bilbao. Purely given the score line, it’s perhaps ironic that much more is written about the 11-1 game in the histories of Barcelona than of Real Madrid. Some may consider that in an historical context, accepting the yoke of the oppressed is a somewhat easier burden to bear than that of being the oppressor.  An 11-1 defeat against your fiercest rivals it’s not normally a badge of honour. That it is in this particular case, may speak volumes.

Football and war may not be the uneasy bedfellows that they should be and playing out age-old antagonisms on a pitch is not a safety valve for animosity. Adherents to the Blaugrana often portray the club as being the object of persecution in an eternal battle for freedom. Much as in war however, in the fiercest of football rivalries, truth is often the first casualty.

Was any Franco-inspired – if indeed that was the case –intimidation back in June 1943 at the Chamartin stadium in favour of Los Blancos, or was it merely a continuation of the anti-Catalan sentiments of the regime? Of course the dictator was only too quick to conscript the successes of Real Madrid to his cause and bathe in the reflected glory offered by their silverware, but was Real Madrid ever, truly ‘Franco’s team.’ One report suggests that he also made strenuous efforts to assist the fortunes of the capital’s other team Athletic de Madrid, firstly merging them with the air force team and renaming them Athletic Aviacon, then compelling the country’s best young players into military service so they could play for a team in competition with Real Madrid. Perhaps his actions were defined more by who he was against, than whom he favoured.

Some Barcelona fans may argue that the Generalísimo would favour Real Madrid over their club because of the events in the Civil War. The truth however would not support that view. Yes, the popular resistance in Barcelona did put down the uprising in that city. It was a centre for radical left wing thought and independence and it did suffer a stifling of its natural culture under occupation. But Madrid was not a centre for Francoism either.

After Barcelona fell, Madrid stayed in Republican hands for thirty long months, many of them under siege and aerial bombardment before it fell. Of course more resistance in men and materiel from the Republic’s meagre reserves were channelled to the defence of the capital and they had the benefit of reinforcements from the International Brigades and Russian aid, but the fierce battle could hardly have endeared the people of the city to Franco’s cold heart.

Sid Lowe’s outstanding book covering the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid acknowledges that there are circumstances reinforcing the seemingly obvious history, supported by the inglorious events of 13th June 1943, of Real Madrid being Franco’s team.

For example, it would probably be incongruous for fans of Los Blancos to say their club was never associated with the regime, and therefore untainted by its excesses both during and after the war. Once Franco had draped himself around their domestic and European domination, there was no backlash or rebellion from the fans. In contrast, Barcelona clearly identified the fortunes of the club and culture directly to the antipathy of the dictator. Polls also indicate a skewed political allegiance to the two clubs. Left-leaning Spaniards appear twice as likely to prefer Barcelona, whilst voters for the more right wing People’s Party are three times more likely to support Real Madrid. It’s a narrative that both clubs, but particularly the Catalans give much credence to. But as Lowe also points out, there are other issues that show the story to be more complex. He cites illustrations that cross-cut the apparently simple picture of Franco taking Real Madrid to his heart and aiding them against Barcelona. The picture is less clear than some would seek to paint it.

It’s little known for example that Real Madrid was founded by two Catalans and a former president of the club was imprisoned by Franco’s regime for “military rebellion.” Meanwhile, in Catalunya a recent board member of Barcelona also belonged to the Francisco Franco foundation. I say these things are little known, and of course that is probably true, but the reasons why may be even less clear. It would be folly to pretend that there’s not a purpose in maintaining a hold on a history that defines not only a club, but also its raison d’etre. Perez’s comments about Real Madrid needing to invent Barcelona if it didn’t already exist could probably be mirrored in Catalunya.

The Spanish Civil War provided the bellows to stoke to a furnace heat, the fire of an antagonism that already existed between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The combinations of red and yellow, and blood and gold, seem not that different to the naked eye. Viewed through the prism of history however, the contrast is much more extreme and, perceived in such terms, it’s difficult to appreciate the the passion and infamy of El Clasico without understanding the defining influence of conflict and Spanish Civil War.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for The Football Pink, and is printed in Issue 5 of the magazine).



One response

  1. […] All Blue Daze even allude to accounts which feature a loaded gun, ensuring the players understood the seriousness of the situation. […]


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