El Clasico: the match which divides a nation. Castilla against Catalonia; nation against state; the status quo against the rebellion. While Real Madrid considered Atleti their biggest rivals early on in their history, significant events that took place around the time of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing reign of Francisco Franco transformed this competitive rivalry between Real and Barcelona into something much bigger.
After beating Athletic Bilbao – then Atletico Bilbao – in the 1942 final of the Copa de Generalisimo – now the Copa del Rey – Barca were defeated by Real in their attempt to retain the trophy, 11-1. It is still to this day the biggest victory in Real Madrid’s history. A match steeped in controversy early on in Franco’s reign was one which became symbolic of and perpetuated the rivalry between Spain’s two greatest clubs. Mark Houston looks back at a major point in the history of El Clasico.
Madrid, June 13, 1943; before the days of the Santiago Bernabeu and the Camp Nou. Real Madrid 11-1 Barcelona. Madrid’s Chamartin stadium hosted a 10-goal victory. It’s Real’s biggest ever victory, and against their biggest rivals no less. While it is documented and officially acknowledged, it isn’t a match that is referred to often. You don’t hear mentions of “the team of 1943” in the same way Madridistas celebrate the all-conquering sides of the Alfredo Di Stefano era or the Galacticos of the early-2000s.
“Eleven-one remains the biggest ever victory for Madrid and official history of the club calls it ‘majestic’, referring to the players as ‘heroes’, but there have been relatively few mentions of the game and it is not a result that has been particularly celebrated in Madrid,” writes Sid Lowe in his book Fear and Loathing in La Liga.
“Indeed, the 11-1 occupies a far more prominent place in Barcelona’s history. This was the game that first formed the identification of Madrid as the team of the dictatorship and Barcelona as its victims – a story still shrouded in mystery and crucial to the development of the rivalry.”
Barcelona won the first leg 3-0 at their then-home ground Les Corts, though the legitimacy of the victory was disputed.
Spanish sports media is often ridiculed today for being somewhat partisan – with Marca in particular referred to as being nothing more than Madrid’s mouthpiece – but back in those days it was surprisingly worse.
Eduardo Teus, a former Real goalkeeper, wrote a match report in Ya, a Catholic daily, which described the Les Corts crowd as a “boiling cauldron”. So intense was said atmosphere, that referee Jose Fombona was so intimidated by the crowd that he awarded “totally unfair” decisions in favour of the home side – namely a disputed goal and controversial penalty decision in the first half, as well as blowing half-time moments before a Real player had a shot on goal.
These were not decisions made by Fombona, but decisions made by the Cules in the stands, stressed Teus.
Regardless, the match was won by Barcelona, and it wasn’t the referee’s decisions but rather the atmosphere that greeted the Madrid players that caused the greater controversy and played a bigger part in the ensuing events.
The boiling cauldron was one of whistles and jeers, directed at the Real Madrid players. Many say – perhaps retrospectively – that it was like sticking the middle finger to the Spanish establishment. Others say it had more to do with the rough, physical tactics that Madrid employed throughout the match. Either way, it was unusual at the time for fans to constantly be booing and whistling the opposition – and it has also been interpreted by some as disrespecting the representatives of Spain – and Barcelona were fined 2,500 pesetas by the football federation.
While the Barca board assured the federation that the actions of the fans were not a pre-prepared “ambush” on the Madrid side, it’s unlikely the fans or players cared. The result was seen as a victory over the regime, particularly by those who had lost so much during the war. It was not just the people or the community who suffered, though, as Barcelona also lost its president.
Josep Sunyol – their last real president for some time as his successors were often hand-picked by the Franco/Nationalist regime – was murdered by Francoists in 1936 at a military checkpoint near the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range outside Madrid.
FC Barcelona (or, at the time, Club de Futbol Barcelona thanks to an enforced name change – like Athletic Bilbao – as the Movumento banned regional languages like Catalan, Galician and Basque and enforced a strict Castillian Spanish identity nationwide) by definition, and as the representation of Catalonia, were the embodiment of the opposition to Franco’s Spain based in the capital. Moreover, the city itself was viewed as one which sided with the Republicans and later had a communist presence, and in combination with Barca being the symbol of Catalan nationalism, it is safe to assume that it is not something Franco and his followers looked kindly on.
During the war years Franco had actually ordered the bombing of Barcelona, which was carried out by the Mussolini-led Italian Aviazione Legionaria in 1938. Over three days, from March 16 to 18, there were aerial bombardments every three hours on a city with minimal anti-aircraft defence and no fighter planes; the Spanish Republican Air Force didn’t send planes to Barcelona until the 17th; and the frequency of the attacks rendered the alarm system useless, as it was unclear whether it was signaling the end or beginning of an attack.
The Italians didn’t aim for military targets either, with bombs dropped on civilian homes in working class districts and records suggesting somewhere around 1,000 were killed.
With those losses still fresh in the memory, and some reports claim Les Corts suffered damage in the raids, a victory over Madrid would mean more than simply a sporting result for the Catalan people.
The tie was not over though, and Teus made sure that Madridistas would return the favour when Barcelona traveled to the capital a week later.
While on one hand decrying the conditions the Real players faced from the Catalan crowd, with the other Teus made a call to arms writing: “Ah, if [only] Chamartin would help Madrid on Sunday like the ‘boiling cauldron’ of Les Corts helped [Barcelona] in the first half!”
And they did.
Madrileños who wanted to “help” their side knew where to meet prior to kick-off for the return leg, where they were handed small, tin whistles. And there were plenty of them, motivated by the stories of incredible injustice in Catalonia. Other Real fans received a whistle when they purchased their ticket.
Barca’s president at the time, Enrique Piñeyro, described the media campaign against Barcelona – fuelled by Teus but continued and embellished by many others – as “terrible propaganda”, but it was not something the authorities or Real cared to change. In fact, Barcelona fans were banned from even traveling for the match.
Barcelona were being accused of “ambushing” the Blancos side at Les Corts. The opposite was now going to occur, tenfold, at the Chamartin.
The Barcelona side stayed on the outskirts of the city the night prior to the match for security reasons, and as they boarded the coach to the stadium they were greeted with an entree of what was to follow. Whistles, insults and stones were thrown at the team bus as it made its way into Madrid and as they approached the stadium, the welcome was defeaning. The noise of the whistles was “extraodrinary” claims Ramon Mendoza, who was 16 at the time and would go on to become president of Real Madrid in the 1980s.
Barcelona player Josep Valle recounted the arrival to Lowe.
“The atmosphere was very strong,” he said. “No sooner were we in the stadium than the stewards were saying to us: ‘you’re going to lose’. We went out onto the pitch where there the whistling was monumental.”
The Barcelona penalty box was already full of coins, hurled down from the Chamartin stands. “Barcelona’s goalkeeper Lluis Miro rarely approached his line,” writes Lowe, “and when he did, he was within reach of the supporters behind the goal, armed with stones.”
Bottles also rained down from the stands, one narrowly missing Jaime Sospedra, as the home crowd chanted “Reds! Separatists! Dogs!” at the Barca players. When they went to take a throw-in they had to grapple with aggressive fans just to get the ball back in play – it’s impossible to imagine a similar sight today.
The message from the stewards was also given to a member of Barca’s coaching staff, Angel Mur – who thought his ear drums were going to burst from the noise reverberating around the stadium – but this time from a police officer.
“Today, you’re going to lose.”
“It was not a question,” said Mur. “Chamartin was like the Roman Colosseum and we were the Christians.”
It’s important to remember the context of the time. This is Europe during the Second World War and Spain is in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Franco is still aligned with the Axis nations and dubious arrests – and worse – for dissent or signs of rebellion were not uncommon in the fascist state.
“Secret police and denouncements were common. The repression was ferocious; life was cheap and imprisonment cheaper. The fear was geniune,” says Lowe.
It’s also widely acknowledged that someone – though the identity of just who it was is disputed, depending on you speak to – entered the Barcelona changeroom before the match with a similar message that the police and stewards had already passed on.
“According to some versions of the story,” writes Lowe, “it was a policeman; according to others, a Civil Guard officer or even [General] Moscardo. There are other versions that suggest it was only the referee who came into the dressing room pre-game – but that he was acting on behalf of the authorities, so the threat came with menace.”
Some versions even claim that Barcelona’s players were reminded of their lack of patriotism previously – the club had a number of players who fought for the rebellion forces – or that they were only allowed to play football thanks to the “generosity” of the regime.
It’s also rumoured that the Director of State Security, Jose Finat, a collaborator with the Nazis during the Holocaust while serving as ambassador in Berlin, was the one who delivered the warning to the Barcelona players.
All Blue Daze even allude to accounts which feature a loaded gun, ensuring the players understood the seriousness of the situation.
Whoever it was, if it did indeed take place, they had done a good enough job to prevent Barca from playing.
In the first half an hour Real found themselves up 2-0, while a third goal came shortly after and a dubious red card for Barcelona’s Benito Garcia. From that point on, like a matador, Barca stepped aside and allowed Madrid a free passage to goal as Real netted six goals in 15 minutes to give them an 8-0 lead at half-time.
At the interval the Barcelona players agreed they were not going back out for the second half. It was not possible for both teams to contest the match.
“That was when, according to an interview Valle and [Francesc] Calvet gave La Vanguardia in May 2000,” says Lowe, “a colonel appeared in the dressing room and warned that they had a duty to carry on.”
“Go back out onto the pitch or you’re all going to jail,” Calvet said in the interview, while later telling his biographer that they were also told: “shut up, obey, go out there and play… and lose!”
And they did, conceding three more in a second half that continued in a similar vein to the first, though in the 89th minute Barcelona broke their duck to make it 11-1; an action that many have read into as a proud act of defiance by the Catalans. A reminder that they could play, but were clearly not allowed to.
“There is no need to look for guilty men, because there were none on the pitch,” wrote future IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in La Prensa. And while a Catalan, Samaranch was very much allied with the Nationalists. He was a fascist and card-carrying member of the Francoist state party, but knew there were other factors at play.
“Barcelona were simply not seen all afternoon. That was the best thing they could do in the circumstances. That’s the way it ended and that’s the [only] way it could end.”
Both clubs were find 2,500 pesetas by the federation and Piñeyro, a man chosen by the regime to head Barcelona, resigned in protest while Samaranch “was ‘invited’ by the regime to leave journalism” while Teus remained. In a kind of poetic justice Real Madrid were defeated in the final by Atletico Bilbao, and Barca won the title five times in the following 16 years compared to Real’s two.
It is still disputed whether it was Franco’s influence that caused the circumstances around the 11-1 match at the Chamartin; while it is also not universally agreed that Real were his team, the Catalan side represented themselves as the antipathy of the dictator, so it’s no surprise if he wanted Barca humiliated. Franco was from the Galician region, so his only legitimate ties to Madrid came once it was adopted as his capital following his triumph in the Civil War; and he also had an obvious soft spot for city rivals Atletico Madrid as he combined them with the armed forces squad, so could essentially conscript players of his choosing who would then be forced to join Atleti.
All Blue Daze questions the legitimacy of the Franco-Real bond, and offers “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 ever really Franco’s team?” implying the he wanted to ride on the coattails of their dominance in Spain and Europe, and present them as Spain’s team, rather than any preconceived favouritism.
Either way, there were external factors at play for one reason or another, and it shaped the history of these two great clubs.
The 11-1, described by one paper as “absurd as it was abnormal” was the turning point in the rivalry, and added a bitterness and fierceness that hadn’t existed in a match-up that was purely competitive before. The situation at the Chamartin in 1943 laid the foundation for what was to follow over the next number of decades, built on by the two sides becoming two of the richest and most successful sides in Europe, the issue of Catalan independence and separation from the Spanish state, as well as the likes of Luis Figo and current Barcelona manager Luis Enrique crossing the divide and joining one club from the other.
“Did that [match] change the rivalry?” Lowe asked Fernando Argila, the back-up goalkeeper of the Barcelona side who was at Chamartin that day.
“Of course. Then there was rivalry, afterwards.”