Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fascist Versus Communist: Spain's football past

UEFA's recent decision to allow Gibraltar to take part in its European Championship will require a touch of manipulation of the balls when they are placed in the hat in order to determine qualifying groups. Gibraltar and Spain will be kept apart. It is a political necessity and a diplomatic manoeuvre designed to avoid any embarrassment for the Spanish. If there was no manipulation and were Spain to find themselves in the same group as Gibraltar, they might feel obliged to withdraw from the competition. They probably wouldn't because, despite Spain's ongoing claims on Gibraltar, these are different political times. Very different to what they were like when the original championship, the European Nations Cup, started in the 1960s.

Politics and political tensions were a big factor back then. UEFA, for all its diplomacy now, didn't take them into account. You were drawn against whoever you were drawn, even if you happened to be at war with your opponents. In 1964, Greece and Albania found themselves in just this position. They couldn't play each other and so they both withdrew. Four years earlier, there had been a more spectacular withdrawal from the first ever Nations Cup. Spain's.

The quarter-finals, which were then two-legged home-and-away ties, were meant to have featured Spain versus the Soviet Union. You can probably imagine that this posed a slight problem. Not for the Soviets, but for the Spanish, and the Spanish regime under Franco in particular. There was no way that Franco was letting the Spanish side travel and there was even less of a way that he was going to allow the Soviets to enter Spain. The result? Without even kicking a ball, the Soviets qualified for the four-team finals in France.

The Soviet Union went on to win the inaugural Nations Cup, but had they played Spain in the quarter-finals, it is quite possible that they would never have made it to France. Spain had been favourites to beat the Soviets. It is also possible, therefore, that not only would Spain have won that first tournament but that Spain would have staged those finals. Back then, the decision as to where the finals were to be held was taken once the four finalists were known. It could have been France, it could have been Spain. It couldn't have been Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. Politics did intervene when it came to host-nation choice.

And this was probably as well. In 1964, a similar Spain-Soviet Union issue arose. The two sides had qualified for the finals along with Denmark and Hungary. On the basis that UEFA would not stage the finals in a Communist country, the choice as to host nation was between Denmark and Spain. It wasn't much of contest. We will never know whether Spain would have played, had UEFA done the unthinkable and chosen the Soviet Union, who were after all the champions, but perhaps Franco had lightened up a tad by then. The Soviets were allowed into Spain, though more than it having been a case of having become more tolerant, Franco would have known that it would not have reflected well on Spain if he had refused entry to the Soviets. And even more likely, if he had refused them entry, Spain would have been kicked out of the tournament.

The two sides were kept apart in the semi-finals, both played on 17 June 1964. Had this been by chance or had it been deliberate? Either way, there was always the strong possibility of the two reaching the final, which is what happened, though it very nearly didn't. Spain only overcame Hungary in extra time.

And so to the final on 21 June. Fascist versus Communist. Nationalist Spain versus the supporters of the old Republican Spain. In front of General Franco and 80,000 fans (or perhaps 120,000) in Madrid's Bernabéu Stadium, there was a recipe for a good old footballing kick-fest in the finest traditions of ill-tempered matches of the time. If it was a kick-fest, then it was the Soviets who were to blame. At least, this was how the Spanish media saw it. In the "Majorca Daily Bulletin" for 23 June, there was a match report. It dealt almost exclusively with what the Spanish press had to say about the referee, England's Arthur Holland, and his apparent leniency towards and favouring of the Soviets. Despite this, Spain won.

Perhaps because it was the low-key European Nations Cup, the victory didn't create quite the stir that England's was to at the World Cup two years later. The win didn't fade from the memory though. For 44 years, Spain were dogged with the tag of the great underachievers. 2008 changed all that.

Any comments to please.

No comments: