Footy Times

The notorious history of El Clásico: General Franco, Santiago Bernabéu and the repressed past of FC Barcelona.

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Modern football has been home to myriads of rivalries since its inception. Clubs and nationalities placed on opposite poles, in part due to accidental history or in part due to the makings of history, have always led to an intense showdown across the world. Owing to this complex combination, football rivalries remain a spectacle of the highest sorts, a game that is calendar-marked, discussed, and debated more than the rest.

Geography, demography, culture, economics, politics, religion, or a mix of these have served as the reason for various historical divides. Whatever it is, the game I am about to talk about arguably, stands out from the rest, and hence my plans to contest. Because there are rivalries, and then there is El Clásico. The historic clash between Spain’s two footballing giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona—a match raised in hell.

The notorious history of El Clásico

So, what is the interesting story behind El Clásico? Why is it the most-watched football derby in the modern era? What specific events or series of events have contributed to its ferocity?

Some of you, I suppose, may have seen the tip. But there’s more to the mountain which lies underneath, hidden. Hence, let’s dive, without wasting any time, to explore the rest—the origin, spread, and culmination of El Clásico’s turbulent history.

“Catalonia is not Spain”

The notorious history of El Clásico

A banner often paraded in the El Clásicos by Culers or Barça fans. Catalonia, or Catalunya in the Catalan language, is, in fact, a province situated in the northeast of Spain. A region and people that asserts a distinct identity, resembling a self-reliant country. Barcelona, its vibrant capital, houses FC Barcelona, while Madrid serves as the core of Spain, home to Real Madrid CF, the mainland’s premier football club.

Both clubs, equally successful and dominant since their establishment, have represented and advanced their respective sense of nationalism and self-identification. If Barça is a proud Catalan club, Madrid is a proud Spanish one. A historical underpinning, a significant pre-condition that helped set the atmosphere for the intense rivalry. Because Spain has never liked Catalunya and Catalunya Spain.

Spanish Civil War: General Franco’s Entry

The notorious history of El Clásico

The pre-civil period the era of Primero De Rivera (the fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1923-30), whom the Catalans scorned due to his totalitarian onslaught against their calls for independence. Even though he recognized Barça as a pioneering symbol of Catalan pride, Rivera didn’t care enough to damage them or promote Madrid to further his agenda. Football, luckily, wasn’t his primary tool, unlike his successor.

In reality, the real seeds of the epic strife were sown upon the commencement of the Spanish Civil War and Generalissimo’s reign. All hell broke loose, and chaos thundered over everything under the Catalonian skies.

While other clubs faced adversity due to the stoppage of football and player recruitment during the war, Barça found itself at the mercy of General Franco’s most harrowing actions. Because Franco, as cunning and cruel as he was, comprehended the immense power football could wield and cleverly utilized it to the fullest extent, strategically promoting Madrid while intentionally demoting Barça.

Soon enough, the first damage was done. On the warm nights of 6th August 1936, Franco’s Falangist soldiers went straight for Josep Sunyol, the Barça President who was also a representative of the pro-independence political party. A cold-blooded murder, a wound still fresh, the martyrdom of Barcelonisme became a defining moment in the history of FC Barcelona and Catalan identity.

Unyielding in his misadventure, Franco, along with the Fascist Italians and Nazi forces of Germany, unleashed a devastating bombardment upon Barcelona, obliterating their stadium and club offices and tragically claiming the lives of approximately 1,300 people while leaving around 2,000 others injured.

In the midst of these relentless assaults, Franco also sought to crush all signs of Catalan pride, eradicating their language, flag, and anthems—the very core of their culture.

Within the hallowed walls of Barça’s stadium, the Catalan spirit sought refuge, but even in this sanctuary, the club faced the unyielding might of Franco’s iron fist. Barça were now forced to change their very name (to the Spanish Club de Fútbol Barcelona) and stripped of the cherished Catalan flag on its crest, enduring an oppressive regime determined to erase their identity and existence.

In other words, General Franco’s assaults on Barça are a metaphor for his punches, kicks, and bullets against the very concepts of democracy and cultural diversity.

Yet, Franco’s hunger remained insatiable, his desire to crush the spirits unabated. He found another special opportunity, one to dismantle their morale and football aspirations—the 1943 Copa del Rey Semi-Final—the biggest insult of them all.

11-1: The Day When Madrid Played the Ghosts

The match happened at the height of Franco’s power, and he personally has renamed the tournament to ‘Copa De Generalissimo.’ However, that couldn’t do much to stop Barça, as they secured a comfortable 3-0 victory against Madrid in the first leg. All set to travel to the rival arena, Estadio Chamartin, with the confidence of marching towards the final.

But the preludes to the second leg painted a different picture than what they expected, says Joan Barau, a historian specializing in Barcelona history. According to him, the pro-Madrid media started disseminating a series of offensive and threatening stories against Barça, which resulted in their fans hesitating to travel and watch the match on Madrid’s turf.

Not only that, “Those ‘warnings’ made some of the Barcelona players wonder if it was worth putting up any resistance at all,” Barau says, “and, in the end, they didn’t”.

With the media performing their off-pitch duties well, it was now time for the on-field mission, aided by the Spanish director of state security. According to the narrative, the Spanish police, with the support and advice of Franco, threatened Barça players to let go of the game. And the result? Madrid won 11-1.

In other words, Barça was coerced to be invisible. To be non-existent on the pitch. A team that had a walk in the park in the first leg ended up facing the baptism of fire in the second. Seems believable? Not for me, says Barau.

“It’s obvious that in order to score 11 goals, you have to play against a rival that is absent because it is not something normal at all.”

“It is remembered as the match of shame,” Barau explains. “A result that Real Madrid has never boasted about because it hides one of the worst ghosts from Spain’s darkest days.”

The on-field assaults were even worse as Barça hurled all kinds of insults, verbal and non-verbal, such as the labelling of ‘Catalan Dogs’ along with outrageous stone pelts.

Francisco Calvet, a Barça player on the field at the game, recalls the unsettling scene, “They were shouting: Reds! Separatists!… a bottle just missed Sospedra that would have killed him if it had hit him. It was all set up.”

All things considered, it is apparent to the observer that the goal was to humiliate Barcelona, a club unlike any other, for representing a new way of thinking that was far closer to the ideals of Catalanism, concludes Barau.

In simpler terms, it was on that shameful night of June 13, 1943, that the flames were forever fanned, marking the notorious birth of El Clásico.

Now, that isn’t all. There’s one more small episode. Another stain that contributed to the epic rivalry shedding light on Madrid’s not-so-nice past and heritage. Let me walk you through the last aisle.

Santiago Bernabéu—The Real Man Behind the Veil

Sport, Football, pic: circa 1970, Real Madrid President Santiago Bernabeu, He was the Club President from 1943-1978, The famous Madrid Stadium was renamed in his honour. In this photograph, he appears to be using a trophy as an ashtray for his cigar (Photo by Bob Thomas/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)


Do you know that Santiago Bernabéu was named after their former president, that goes by the same name? Are you aware of his resounding significance in the Madrid history books? Yes or no, there’s more to it.

Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid’s “greatest” president for 35 years from 11 September 1943 until his death in 1978, possesses a history that very few are aware of, including the Madridistas. Before the Civil War, he played forward for Real Madrid; during the War, he served in Franco’s Nationalistas army; and after the war, he became the club’s president. Bernabéu, in Madrid’s very essence, was adept at shaping football to fit Franco’s agenda.

At the helm of Real Madrid stood Santiago Bernabéu, the renowned president, and political persona, who was closely allied with General Agustín Muñoz Grandes. A prominent figure in the Francoist era that had deep connections with the Nazi regime. An outright Nazi who directly collaborated with the German military, including the formidable Wehrmacht, their unified armed forces.

Both Muñoz Grandes and Bernabéu shared a passion for football and played instrumental roles in the development and success of Real Madrid during that era. Also alleged is the fact that the friendship between General Muñoz and Santiago Bernabéu deepened the bonds between Real Madrid and the Franco regime.

If you are still with me, imagine a German club, a present Bundesliga side, naming their football stadium after a Nazi? Also, would it look good on an Italian turf to be named after Mussolini? No, I guess, and that’s where the problem lies.

Not only that but Santiago was also accused of pulling off the controversial and much-debated signing of the Argentine legend Alfredo Di Stefano, whom Barça had already signed had already played a match in the Blaugrana colours in a friendly match.

Because Franco’s influence, facilitated by the schemes devised by Bernabéu and his wealthy associates, spoke louder than words. Through the support of the Spanish football federation, they orchestrated the departure of the Argentine, who soon found himself bound for Madrid—a gift stolen by the sheer power of fascist authority.

To top it all off, revealing his appalling history is his racially offensive statement about the legendary Portuguese player Eusebio, which goes like this: “Mientras yo viva, aquí no jugará ningún negro ni un blanco con bigote” (English translation: “As long as I’m alive, here no black player or white player with a mustache will play”).

All in all, Madrid is non-hesitant to adorn a president plagued with a series of actions and attitudes that are condemnable and despicable at every cost.

That much being said, none of these efforts are intended to portray Madrid negatively but rather to lay bare the facts, figures, and history of the claims, denials, and suppressions, which are worthy of our attention and doubts. It is to bring you to the grounds beyond the numbers, to discern that football is intertwined with human history and politics, unlike the popular conception.

Not only money but also power, authority, threats, and violence have played a significant role in acquiring squads, building stadiums, and influencing match outcomes, as writer David Goldblatt once opined.

To conclude, El Clásico, in its very essence, embodies something more than football. In a way, it reminds us of the struggle of David against Goliath, with Barça being David, the representation of Catalan pride with no privilege, facing off against the might of Madrid, the Goliath. Beyond the visible realms of goals and victories, this epic clash captures the spirit of nations and regions, making it a timeless symbol of aggression and resilience, of right and wrong, that needs to be discussed and confronted.

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