Franco, Real Madrid and Spanish football’s eternal power struggle

DID General Franco like football? Although born in Galicia, in the northwest, Spanish folklore has it that the fascist dictator could recite Real Madrid teams going back through the ages.

According to Paul Preston, his biographer, he twice won Spain’s football pools, which he signed for a while under a pseudonym, Francisco Cofran. “It is somehow difficult to imagine Hitler or Mussolini doing the pools,” wrote Preston.

Spanish historians challenge the notion that he was an avid football fan, however, pointing out that Franco listened to a programme on Sundays that listed the pools but wasn’t exclusively about football. “Franco was very dour and boring,” concludes Santiago Segurola, Spain’s most authoritative football writer. “He was bloodthirsty. He liked to watch movies at the El Pardo palace, but had no special interest in football. He preferred to sign death sentences to playing football or watching a game.”

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

When General Franco took control of Spain at the end of the Civil War in April 1939, he began an oppressive national centralising project. His ascent to power came after three years of conflict, with Barcelona being the last fortress to fall. In one week alone in the last year of combat, 10,000 members of the anti-Franco brigade were executed in Barcelona. A further 25,000 were shot after the ceasefire in the city. Executions continued into the 1940s and 1950s, casualties of what Nigel Townson, a Madrid-based historian, claims was the harshest peacetime repression in any country in Europe, bar the Soviet Union.

How much of a Madridista was Franco? According to Raimundo Saporta, Real Madrid’s press secretary during the Franco years, El Caudillo never betrayed any emotion during Real Madrid matches. Maybe he was bored.

Did he ever try to influence the outcome of their matches? Real Madrid failed to win a league title in the first 15 years of his reign. If anything, in the 1940s Atlético de Madrid – who were called Atlético Aviación at the time because of their merger with the Spanish Air Force – were more closely aligned to Franco’s regime. Several of the club’s players were from the air corps. From the 1950s though, Atléti – as the club is referred to – have been eclipsed by their city rivals.

Real Madrid’s five European Cup triumphs at the end of that decade, culminating in a ten-goal classic against Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960, gave madrileños and the club’s fans in the pueblos around the country something to cheer about. At the time, Spain was knackered economically, more impoverished than Iraq. “Spain in this moment was so dirty,” says Guillem Martínez, an author and El País journalist. “I remember Manuel Vázquez Montalbán once wrote that ‘Spain and its stadiums smelt of anís’, of cheap liquor. People used to walk around wearing calcetines a cuadros, ugly, square-patterned socks. We didn’t have blue jeans until 1978. It was a poor country, but spiritually poor, too.”

Real Madrid was the standard-bearer for Spain overseas. Their successes were exhilarating, their natural aristocratic ascendency a throwback to the halcyon days of Philip II’s empire in the 16th century, a time when he plundered vast tracts of the world with an army of mercenaries for Spain just as Real Madrid, with a team of glamorous foreign talents, led by the Argentine Alfredo di Stéfano, pictured, conquered all before them in club football.

The club, as Ignacio Zoco, Real Madrid’s midfield enforcer during the 1960s and early 1970s, suggested, was an invaluable tool for diplomacy. After the Spanish Civil War, Spain had been ostracised in the international community, unwelcome at the doors of the United Nations and the Vatican until well into the 1950s. Because of Real Madrid’s panache, Spain were no longer pariahs. “Real Madrid is a style of sportsmanship,” maintained Fernando María Castiella, Franco’s foreign minister at the time. “It is the best embassy we ever had.”

The world had never seen a team like Real Madrid before. “I thought, these people aren’t human,” said a baffled Bobby Charlton after his Manchester United team-mates had just lost to them in the semi-final of the 1957 European Cup. “It’s not the sort of game I’ve been taught.”

The team was an assortment of attacking talents, with Di Stéfano and the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas wreaking havoc alongside, among others, Raymond Kopa, who spent his youth down the coalmines in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France beside his Polish father, and Gento, the speedy Spanish outside left, the only man to have won six European Cup medals and, it is said, Franco’s favourite player. El Caudillo basked in their glory, his favouritism evident in the manner in which he bestowed the Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows on the club’s players in 1955. It was part of the regime’s honours’ list, awarded for their success in that year’s Copa Latino, a precursor of the European Cup. Barcelona, who had won the trophy twice before – the only other Spanish team to win it – remained undecorated.

Simon Kuper, the football writer, has an interesting theory about the hand of Franco – and dictators in general – in the affairs of football. It is silly to think that Real Madrid was a fascist team, he argues, or that Franco rigged games and paid off refs. He didn’t need to, but he created the environment in which Real Madrid, the team of the capital, could thrive. Dictators tend to concentrate their resources – generals, secret police and bureaucrats – in their capital cities. Todo se cuece allí – everything is cooked there, to borrow a culinary expression.

Each team that has won the European Cup from a dictatorship comes from a capital city, as Real Madrid did six times during the Franco era. Real Madrid’s palco, the VIP box, was always full of people who gave the orders, the country’s decision-makers in policy and economics.

In contrast, nearly every team from a democracy to have won it comes from a provincial city. Barça, for example, Real’s eternal rivals, won their first European Cup in 1992, 17 years after El Caudillo died. If the Royal Palace of El Pardo, where Franco lived, was in Barcelona, Barça would have enjoyed the fruits of his patronage, claim the club’s supporters. But (unfortunately for them) their city, as one Barça club member said to me, wasn’t “where the apple fell down”.

• From El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry by Richard Fitzpatrick (Bloomsbury, £12.99).