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How Francisco Franco Utilised Spanish Football To Consolidate His Power

Spanish Football

There were not many men in Adolf Hitler’s time that the Austrian would yield to without consequences, but Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was one.

Hitler famously had declared that he ‘would rather have three or four teeth pulled out’ than spend more time with Franco. The infamous Nazi leader had attempted in 1940 to persuade Francoist Spain to join the Axis Powers, but to no avail. Despite Franco’s unyielding refusal, his use of both Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s forces during the Spanish Civil War to defeat Leftist Republicans had not gone unnoticed by the rest of Europe. Having only established an autocratic dictatorship in 1939, embedding fascist ideologies throughout Spain, Franco’s costly mistake had left the country’s international relations in ruins. It was through football, incredibly, that Franco enabled his regime to flourish…

Barcelona, as capital of Catalonia, stood as the biggest Republican opposition in the war. Its people detested Franco’s regime and they strived to separate from Spain to assert their independent identity as part of Catalonia. Not only this, but the football club’s president Josep Sunyol had been brutally murdered during the war by Franco’s nationalist forces, which only heightened the hostilities. ‘El Caudillo’ as he was known had further enraged Barcelona by executing 25,000 of its people after the ceasefire in the city before assuming command. Similarly, in the Basque Country stood a football team in Athletic Bilbao whose fans, like Barcelona’s, used the club to demonstrate their desire to separate from the state. From within Spain, Franco had to ascertain control over these two rebelling provinces, as well as having the problems associated with the country’s international relations. The people were uneasy and Franco’s regime was failing.

Perhaps it was through his association with dictators who had wielded the power of sport to their advantage, but Franco realised that football could consolidate his power and regime. It was said that to manipulate football is to manipulate the masses, and Franco began to do just that. El Caudillo had banned the use of any other language but Castellano, which had heavy consequences for both Catalonia and the Basque Country. Franco began to oppress these provinces through their most famous football clubs, being of course Barcelona  in Catalonia and Athletic Bilbao in the Basque Country. In 1941, as Athletic is a Basque word, Franco ordered to club to change its name to a more Spanish sounding ‘Atletico Bilbao’.

Bilbao were also forced to abandon their policy of allowing Basque-born only to play for their club. In Catalonia, Barcelona’s name was altered to ‘Barcelona Club de Futbol’ and the club’s crest, the Senyera, a Catalan symbol, was removed. Four bars of red on a yellow background had been reduced to two. A simple change, perhaps, but one that embodied the reminder that anyone who did not support Franco’s centralising regime would be suppressed. The Catalan language was now only spoken within Barcelona’s grounds due to Franco’s new law. Franco’s mission to consolidate his power through football had well and truly begun.

Spanish Football
Barcelona fans could not always be so colourfully decorated as they are now during Franco’s reign.

However, he seemingly decided he needed a football club in Spain which reflected his ideologies, a club of Castilian identity. Naturally, a centralising regime is built upon the country’s capital, and Franco’s was focused on Madrid. There resided the most successful football team of Castilian ties- Real Madrid. Franco’s reasons for selecting Real as his adopted outfit were twofold. Firstly, as aforementioned, Spain’s international relations had been hampered significantly by the Civil War. Real Madrid’s success, in particular on a European scale, portrayed to the rest of the world an image of a flourishing Spain. Franco’s regime was hugely concerned with Europe’s notion of the country and Spain was being ostracised by the Vatican and the United Nations. Real Madrid served as the perfect PR tool. Fernando Maria Castiella, Franco’s Foreign Minister at the time, regarded the club as ‘the best embassy we ever had’.

That was one reason Franco decided to ally with Real, but the other was a political, rather than diplomatic, move. Even then, a rivalry existed between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Franco used Madrid’s Castilian image to oppose and criticise Catalonia and the Basque Country for expressing their cultural identities and openly resisting the regime. Franco’s backing of Real Madrid was an open rejection of Barcelona, and by extension Catalonia. This way, Franco had developed a plan to oppress those within Spain whilst at the same time highlighting the prestige of a huge Castilian symbol of power, consolidating his own in the meantime.

The 1943 Copa del Generalisimo semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona served as an indicator of Franco’s reliance on football to consolidate his power. Barcelona’s commanding 3-0 lead from the first leg made Real’s chances of progression near impossible. However, before the second leg one of Franco’s officials paid a visit to Barcelona’s players, delivering a stern reminder that they were only allowed to play due to the generosity of the regime. Real Madrid won the second leg 11-1. I was told by Richard Fitzpatrick, author of ‘El Clasico: Barcelona v Real Madrid: Football’s Greatest Rivalry’ that Barcelona’s goalkeeper ventured out as far as the halfway line for the majority of the game.

Spanish Football
It was ‘an extraordinary match in Madrid’ indeed.

It was not just through oppressing football teams that Franco was able to consolidate his power through the sport. Franco appreciated the usefulness of sport as a distraction to the masses, and wielded its large popularity amongst the Spanish people to great personal gain. In times of unrest and unhappiness with the regime, Franco would broadcast games live throughout Spain, with Real Madrid often the side on show. The Spanish people would become so preoccupied with the entertainment that they would ignore everything else, much to Franco’s benefit. In Richard Fitzpatrick’s book, a memorable quote from the father of Guillem Martinez, an El Pais journalist highlighted this manoeuvre. ‘Bastards! They’re talking about football. They should be talking about politics’. Martinez’s father’s insight from the time is a striking example of the effectiveness of Franco’s technique. In times of severe political problems, a big game would be fixed. Of course, the attention on the political problem vanished as soon as an outrageous incident or result occurred from that particular game.

They would go on to serve Franco incredibly for the purposes he intended, but when El Caudillo adopted Real Madrid at first, their success was somewhat limited. The transfer of Alfredo Di Stefano to Madrid in 1953 had a gargantuan impact, revolutionising Spanish football and the success of Real Madrid. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid were intensely interested in Di Stefano after he starred in a friendly tournament in Spain for Colombian side Millionarios. To the dismay of Franco, it was Barcelona who approached first. Complications existed from the onset, in what would become one of the most controversial scandals in football history and perhaps the integral moment of Franco’s regime. Di Stefano’s former club, River Plate, claimed the Argentinian had joined Millionarios illegally. Undeterred, Barcelona struck a deal with River Plate around the same time that Real Madrid agreed a counter deal with Millionarios. Despite FIFA’s blessing to Barcelona’s deal, the negotiations reached an impasse with the Spanish Football Federations stepping in as mediator.

Incredulously, it was decided that Di Stefano would alternate playing for both clubs over four years, a proposal which Real president Santiago Bernabeu and Barcelona president Marti Carreto agreed to. Ostensibly, Barcelona changed their minds within a week, surrendering their interest in Di Stefano in exchange for the 4.4 million pesetas they had given River Plate. The reason why the Di Stefano transfer is integral to Franco consolidating his power is because of the regime’s sudden intervention. Although Franco did not directly broach the topic of di Stefano, he did pass a law banning foreign players. A loophole was seemingly found incredibly in order to accommodate the talks. As yet unsubstantiated are the claims that Franco engineered Di Stefano’s move to Madrid himself, but the new recruit proved to be a masterstroke. Madrid went on to win five European titles in a row after the competition’s creation in 1955. Thus, the positive image of Spain that Franco had yearned for came to fruition, whilst also defeating a major opponent in Barcelona to his regime through football.

Spanish Football
The infamous Alfredo di Stefano transfer saga is synonymous with Franco’s rule.

Finally, Franco set about consolidating his power on the international stage. The Soviet Union had supplied ammunition to the Catalonian Leftist Republicans during the Civil War, so Franco would be incensed if the national side lost to them. El Caudillo actually withdrew Spain from the 1960 European Championships to avoid a defeat against the much superior Soviet side, but in 1964 a withdrawal was impossible – Spain were hosts.

In similar fashion to his utilisation of Real Madrid, Franco nationalised the world’s best players to project a positive image of Spain to the world, and hence consolidate his position of power. He had also encouraged footballers such as Ferenc Puskas to come and find refuge in Spain, as many were defecting from Communist nations. As a result of this, if Spain were forced to play the Soviet Union it was more than a game of football- it was Fascism versus Communism. Fortuitously for Franco, Spain defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 in the final and Franco’s regime was hailed as glorious.

By deploying Real Madrid as a political and diplomatic tool, Franco simultaneously antagonised and oppressed those resisting his regime, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country whilst also projecting an outstanding image of Spain on a European platform. The manipulation of the Spanish people’s love of football through the medium of television was revolutionary. In addition, the regime’s intervention in the Alfredo di Stefano case as well as the national team’s defeat of the Soviet Union were all huge contributing factors to Franco consolidating his power through football.

El Caudillo’s utilisation of sport to attain his objectives was unrivalled by any leader, past or present. Francisco Franco’s rule may have been oppressive and bleak, but it was ruthlessly efficient thanks to football.

Callum Connolly, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.