This is a Barcelona fan’s exploration into the fascist history of Real Madrid and the indelible black mark left on the all-whites by Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco.
The telling of this history begins with a song.
It is one of those lays which mimic an original version, adding to it their own pinch of popular sentiment along with sheer mockery of the initial edition they draw from.
The sentiment is one of democratic resurgence over an era of fascism in Spain where things of this nature have oft been carried out under the conduit of a sport.
Football, unsurprisingly takes the centre stage in this narrative. It will again come as no surprise that the song which introduces this history has a lot to do with a football club called Real Madrid. In fact, it happens to be a parody of the club’s own Hala Madrid song, and was initially sung among the anti-Madridistas with a passion much deeper than that displayed by those who have chanted the verses of the original version along the stands of the Bernabéu.
Hala Madrid, Hala Madrid, el equipo del gobierno y la vergüenza del país!
When translated to English, the verse reads something like this:
Hail Madrid, the team of the government and the embarrassment of Spain!
The team of the government.
The embarrassment of Spain.
The phrases somehow sink in, compelling one to think how such political hostility and cynicism could be so explicitly directed towards a football club. Well, ask a Catalan or go seek out a Basque to answer your query. They will tell you about a dictator-general by the name of Francisco Franco who once ruled all of Spain and who, along with his bunch of fascist cronies, landed punches, blows and gunfire upon the ideas of democracy and cultural diversity. They will then go on to mention how the fascist brute of a general tamed the all-white wearing, all-winning football club from the Spanish capital and how even after the much celebrated demise of the dictator and therefore his regime, the said club would go on to wave his fascist flag with its own touch of aristocratic pretension.
The Catalans and the Basques may not have a morsel of sympathy for their footballing rivals who tread the turf at the Bernabéu – a noteworthy detail for someone seeking an unbiased opinion on the political accusations Real Madrid are burdened with – but I’ll allow myself a moment of unearthing herein certain narratives which will hopefully throw light upon the unfortunate prejudice which revolves around the club in the anti-Madrid lobby.
To clarify, my sympathies towards Real Madrid are not those of an admirer, owing to the simple fact that I am a Blaugrana faithful. In fact, my emotions are not of sympathy at all, falling more along the lines of whispered disappointment, which when screamed out loud, sound somewhat like an encouragement: Come on! You should have done better than that! And I believe that when Franco came marching up in Spain, Real Madrid could have indeed done better.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother
– King Henry V in Shakespeare’s Henry V
In the Spanish Civil War, the city of Madrid, like Barcelona, had taken arms to defend the democratic foundations of Spain’s Republican government. From over the centre of the nation to where the beaches of Barcelona dissolve into the Mediterranean Sea, a cause united the two cities, like a band of brothers to be remembered for ages.
When resistance in both Madrid and Barcelona was conquered by the fascist troops, Franco declared that the war had ended and established the foundation of his regime all over Spain. It was at this point that Madrid transformed from a city of rebels to that of Franco’s stooges, guilty of burying into oblivion it’s own democratic connections to the Republican cause. This is where the earliest signs of a blemish began to appear, which even Real Madrid’s all-white garments have been unable to conceal in totality.
So before we continue this reunion
Let us stand to our glorious dead.
– from the Reunion Version of the song ‘Jarama Valley’
It all began with the authorities at Real Madrid’s offices completely ignoring certain characters in their history, who during the Civil War had been instrumental figures on the Republican front. Something of this nature is likely to compel even the neutral observer to draw comparisons between the all-whites and their more politically expressive rivals – the Azulgranas. Once that occurs, the contrast is quite stark.
The wartime president of FC Barcelona, Josep Sunyol, who was arrested and murdered by Francoist troops during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, has had the privilege of having been honoured as the club’s ‘martyr president’ and is still remembered by the Blaugrana faithful. In that, Barça – as a people’s club – have bravely stood to their glorious dead.
When the war was well over, a tragedy similar to the one which claimed Sunyol’s life is said to have befallen another football club president.Only this time, the outfit in question was Real Madrid.
If one were to visit Real Madrid’s official website and look for the list of the club’s commanders-in-chief, one would eventually come across the name of Rafael Sànchez-Guerra, President, 1935-36. The description that follows eulogises his period as president for being ‘brief but fruitful’ and appears to commiserate with Señor Sánchez-Guerra’s inability to build a new stadium for the club due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
What it doesn’t tell you is that Rafael Sánchez-Guerra was a Republican supporter who refused to escape from a city which had fallen well under Franco’s control. Neither will it mention the tortures which Señor President was subjected to once Franco’s cronies got their hands on him.
Thankfully, the fascists didn’t murder Sánchez-Guerra right away, and the Republican president managed to sneak away to Paris. However, the club’s vice- president, Gonzalo Aguirre and the treasurer, Valero Rivera weren’t as lucky as Sanchez-Guerra, and were murdered by the fascists after being arrested.
There’s another name which the club has seemingly cast into obscurity for reasons best known to the ones responsible for the snub. Antonio Ortega, a colonel in the leftist militias who fought against Franco is somewhat of a faintly written about character in the official records of Real Madrid, which mention him as acting president of the club on behalf of Sánchez-Guerra between 1937 and ‘38.
It is the other historical records which do more justice to Ortega than those of the club itself, by labelling him as a significant character in the defence of Madrid. However, despite being one of the club’s most prominent members who was arrested and murdered by Franco’s troops, Ortega joins the ranks of the glorious dead for which the club never stood in solidarity.
This is merely the beginning of the club’s bad behaviour which allowed them to slip into Franco’s grips with relative ease. However, when one looks beyond the war years, things become clearer. For then, one directly comes across Francisco Franco himself and, of course, the devil’s advocate – Santiago Bernabéu.
For many, Real Madrid still bring back the memories of the Franco years when phrases like ‘Franco’s pet team’ were quite popular among the oppressed population. The dictator, however, was not the keenest football fan one is likely to encounter in Spain. The oppressive measures of the Generalísimo may have accounted for Real’s lack of fearsome rivals from Catalonia and the Basque country, but besides that it was Franco himself who was having quite a party owing to Real Madrid’s domestic as well as European success.
What was more dangerous was the fact that Franco knew where the feast was coming from. Through the triumphs of Madrid across European competitions, the Generalísimo projected an image of Spain that was far from reality. A nation recovering from the nightmares of a civil war was being put across as a land of champions. In Franco’s quest for power, everything else was merely a means to an end. Real Madrid, Football Club Barcelona, both mere instruments of the dictator’s larger scheme.
However, it was the Catalan club which stood firm upon its values while Real Madrid fell for Franco’s subtle plots. Bathing in triumphalism they allowed themselves to be puppeteered by the rules of fascism, drifting ever apart from the cause for which their city had once fought in unison with the rest of Spain, like a brother gone astray. They could not have dared to have expressed any political sentiments as explicitly as the Catalans and the Basques did for perhaps the fear of losing the orchestrator of their unstoppable success, Santiago Bernabéu.
A forward for Real Madrid before the Civil War; a soldier in Franco’s Nationalistas army during the War and the club’s president after it, Bernabéu knew how to mould football in a manner that would suit Franco’s scheme of things. In doing so, Bernabéu got himself the services of a bunch of Spain’s most influential people who together were to change the story of European football by roping in an Argentine by the name of Alfredo Di Stéfano to play for the Blancos.
As if playing by Franco’s rules wasn’t disgrace enough, Bernabéu and his men fanned the air of hatred brewing between Barcelona and Madrid by using the Generalísimo’s favouritism to steal Di Stéfano from the awnings of Camp Nou. It seems that the Catalan club had already sealed a deal with River Plate, the Argentine’s legal employers at the time, and had even seen him feature for them in a couple of friendlies. But Franco’s power, channeled through the plots hatched by Bernabéu and his rich sidekicks, did the talking, and with the intervention of the Spanish football federation, which strangely imposed bans on foreign players in Spanish clubs just as Barcelona were gearing up to launch Di Stéfano, the Argentine found himself packing his bags to leave for Madrid.
The rest as they say is history.
In the archives of the European Cup, the years between 1955 and 1960 were to bear an all-white sheen across the pages they would cover as Di Stéfano, toiling at the Blancos’ helm, would steer the club’s prow to five consecutive wins in the competition. Their domestic exploits would see them go on to claim eight Primera División titles between 1953 and 1964, including the club’s famous run of four consecutive title wins between 1960 and 1964.
And now that we are on it, it can be said that the developments which marked the beginning of Real Madrid’s relentless success seemed to have stemmed from Franco’s powers and from adhering to the legacy of notorious bosses.
Di Stéfano was a part of that legacy; a gift stolen from Real Madrid’s Catalan rivals by sheer power of the Generalísimo’s regime and – of course – with thoughtful planning on the part of Bernabéu and his money-hoarding friends. Moreover, he was the vital cog in the machinery of Franco’s regime, which through his exploits on the field was churning out the dictator’s vision of a strictly centralised Spain, one beautiful goal at a time. Franco knew that, but Bernabéu had known that ever since the day he had set his eyes on the man from Argentina whose every move on the field got Real Madrid closer to dominance and the enemies of Franco further away from hope.
Di Stéfano’s heroics on the field have overshadowed the conspiracy that led to his arrival in Madrid. But several other incidents which occurred around football during Franco’s years are less obscure and remain undeterred by the expansion of the white army.
Francisco Franco’s legacy involves turning Real Madrid from one of the strongest Spanish sides in Europe to the strongest side through suppression of their Basque and Catalan rivals. With Franco announcing himself as the overlord of Spain, Real Madrid’s most powerful rivals from the country’s hotbeds of revolution were constantly being held in a fascist stranglehold.
The Copa del Generalísimo semi-final of 1943 between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona is evidence enough for how Franco’s shackles smothered a football club overbrimming with promises and with the hopes of an oppressed population. In the first leg of the tie, played at Barça’s former home ground Les Corts, the Catalan giants had overcome their rivals with a 3-0 advantage. The second leg, which was contested in Madrid was to narrate a different story altogether as the hosts beat Barça with an astonishing scoreline of 11-1. As it turned out, Franco’s director of state security had decided to pay a visit to the Barcelona changing room at half time to proclaim ‘the generosity of the regime’ which had given them allowance to even play a game of football.
With a dictator’s ‘threat’ hanging over them amidst a home crowd that looked ready to pounce upon the Catalans at any instant, no wonder Real Madrid exploited Barcelona’s situation to downright humiliation.
However, with time Franco was to learn a thing or two about football in Spain. In the years that followed, the devil would occasionally allow his victims a glimmer of hope by not meddling with the flow of wins the Catalans would be picking up.
But not just for the fun of it.
Franco understood that a certain amount of rivalry had to be essentially kept alive to keep the population occupied with football. In doing so, the Generalísimo pulled the most sublime of his tricks. He led the whole of Spain into believing that Real Madrid were the flag-bearers of his regime while the Blaugrana, plying their trade amidst oppression were the revolutionary heroes making bold statements on the pitch and expressing themselves through beautiful football. And while the Catalans’ bravery was gradually falling more along the lines of futility, it was Real Madrid’s sycophancy which did enough to help the cause.
Nevertheless, brilliant football was never a part of the dirty scheme. One has to give that to the Blancos. Narrowing down every successful campaign to Franco’s favouritism would mean being disrespectful to the generations of extraordinary footballers who have donned the all-white garments of the club.
But even then, one like me must not get carried away. Besides all the political murk which indeed is at the heart of the classic rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, I wonder how things would have been had Real Madrid, like Barca and Athletic Bilbao, dared to stick a finger up at Franco’s face. There perhaps would have been another outfit playing puppet to the devil’s scheme, for whom the rebels would have sung parodies and composed mockeries to be hurled from the revolutionary stands of their stadia.
Perhaps Athletic Bilbao, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid could have formed a holy trinity to irk the fascists right under Franco’s nose. However, as reality narrates it, just the Basques and the Catalans dared to have the temerity to stand against the oppressor. The third brother gave in to the authority that came with the title of El Regime team.
For this waywardness, one really didn’t have much choice but to croon a parting note to the black sheep of the family. And had I been there at that time and that place to watch Real Madrid join Franco’s bandwagon, I too would have sung, partly in mourning and partly as a warning the famous Jarama Valley song:
You will never find peace with these fascists
you will never find friends such as we