Politics In Spanish Football: Franco, Secessionism and Identity

Spain is a country that was faced numerous times with secession. Before what is today modern-day Spain, the country was divided into numerous kingdoms. These kingdoms turned into the 17 autonomous communities that make up Spain, which apart from legislative power, they retain their own traditions and languages.

These frictions in the Spanish nation are inevitably reflected in its football stadiums. Furthermore, during the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975), the sport was used as a vehicle for promoting the general’s goal of a fully centralised government.

Most football fans will have knowledge of these issues in Spanish politics and their connection to football due to FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. The 2009 and 2012 Copa Del Rey finals were played between the two teams and the majority of the Basque and Catalan supporters jointly booed the king and the national anthem.


During the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia was an important Republican unit. Franco’s group was against the idea of Catalonia keeping its separate entity. Franco revoked the area’s autonomy and repressed its culture. The murder of the Barcelona Football Club president Josep Sunyol in 1936 was an example of oppressing secessionist desires.

The regime saw that no club would be allowed to have a non-Spanish name and Barcelona got renamed to ‘Club de Fútbol Barcelona’. They were also forced to remove the Catalan flag from the club logo.

Catalonians were not allowed to speak their own language. The only place where they could do so was the football ground, hence FC Barcelona became an extension of their nationalistic and anti-Franco struggle.

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FC Barcelona’s local rivals, RCD Español came to existence in 1900 under the name of Sociedad Española de Football (Spanish Football Society). Español represented the people of the city that supported the monarchy and did not want to become separate from the rest of Spain. During and after the Civil War, the team was connected with Franco’s militia. Nevertheless, the once Castilian name Español was substituted in 1994 with its Catalan version, Espanyol.

Since the end of the dictatorship, Catalonia has recovered much of its autonomy, including the right to use its language. Yet it is still not permitted to govern itself, or even hold an official independence referendum.

FC Barcelona remains a vital symbol for its homeland. The club continues to promote Catalan language, culture and symbols, continuously shaping an identity throughout the region.

Basque Country:

Except for winning eight La Ligas and 23 Copa del Rey titles, Athletic Bilbao is also famous for its cantera policy, which means that the club is only allowed to field players native to or trained the Basque Country.

The first football match known to have been played in the Basque Country took place in 1895. The same year the Basque Nationalist Party was founded in Bilbao. Football and Basque nationalism were to form a close relationship of convenience that lasts until today as it provides Basque national identity with a vehicle of symbolic expression. Worth noting is the fact that the president of the first legitimate Basque government (1936), Jose Antonio Aguirre was a player for Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, the two prominent clubs of the area, became simultaneously and contradictorily, signs of identity of Basque national identity for some and of Spanish national identity for others.

Real Sociedad acquired its name (Royal) and included the crown in its badge in 1910 in honour of the king of Spain, Alfonso XIII. Later, during the Republic and until the Basque Country was taken by the Francoist side in the in 1937, the club came to bear the name of the city in the Basque language, Donostia.

Athletic Bilbao was forced to make its name Spanish by using the name Atlético de Bilbao. During the first years of the dictatorship it was compulsory to include Francoists on the boards of directors of football clubs. Also, Basque teams were forced to give the fascist salute at the start of each match.

Contrary to what the regime wished for, a fraternity emerged between Sociedad and Athletic. During a derby in 1976, the players of the two teams went out onto the pitch displaying the Basque flag in front of thousands of spectators, although it had still not yet been legalized.

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Traditionally Real Madrid have been thought of as the team of the elite. Contrary, Atletico is thought as the club of the working-class Madrileños.

However, the accepted narrative of Real Madrid being the “rich fascist elite” while Atletico are the “good honest poor” is just too simplistic. The Madrid derby does not represent rich vs poor, the establishment vs the working class. It is a fixture between two local rivals whose history, politics and supporters tell a more complicated tale.

As with all big clubs, Real Madrid attract interest come from all social classes. Real Madrid have more followers from every stratum of society because they simply have more supporters.

Atletico came into being in 1903 when three Basque students living in Madrid decided to form a sister club of Athletic Bilbao (hence the sharing of the ‘Athletic’ prefix and red and white shirts). The team used to play an important role for the Basque community in the capital.

During the Civil War, Atletico merged with a club founded by members of the Spanish Air Force. Athletic Aviacion de Madrid gained much approval from the new authoritarian government. A team staffed with many war heroes won the allegiance of General Franco. Nevertheless, like many other teams, they were forced to change their name, thus becoming Atletico.

Real Madrid are often considered to be Franco’s pet, but the dictator had ulterior motives in associating with the club. When exactly the Generalisimo switched his allegiance to Real Madrid is difficult to ascertain, but he reveled in their success in the 1950s. As Alfredo Di Stefano led Real to domestic and European success, Franco saw the potential to further his agenda. To Franco, Real Madrid symbolised the virtues of centralism and the greatness of Spain.

The prestige of the regime would take a huge blow if Real lost to Barcelona. The story of the 1943 semi-finals of the General’s Cup (now Copa Del Rey) illustrates how the players of the Catalan club had to give up their lead to save their lives. Barcelona won the first game 3-0. For the return leg in Madrid, they apparently got visited by the director of state security. They were lectured about the generosity shown to them by the State by letting the Catalans be part of the country and subtly threatened them. The players complied and lost the second leg 11-1.

Los Vallecanos:

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Ask any Madrid inhabitant which team represents the working class and you will get the same answer: Rayo Vallecano. The club from the barrio of Vallecas are the Madrid’s real working-class team.

Rayo’s players have taken to the streets during general strikes and donated money to people in need. In 2015, the team’s president vowed to pay the rent for an 85-year-old woman evicted from her home because her son could not pay his debts.

For the locals, Rayo are a huge source of local pride. Its fans are proudly anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-establishment.

As in many other places, Spanish football is linked with the nation’s social and political past. What distinguishes the case of Spain is that many of the country’s teams don’t only represent local communities but also their desires for autonomy.

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