When Spain take to the field of Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium on Friday to dispute their European qualifier against Ukraine, few will remember the historic final of the 1964 European Nations’ Cup, when Spain beat the Soviet Union. It was a defining game which pitted fascism against communism, and demonstrated the power of sport as a political tool.
On June 21st, 1964, a Santiago Bernabéu stadium filled with 125,000 fans roared as Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the Spanish leader, stood up to leave. The final whistle had just gone on Spain’s victory over the Soviet Union, and it would be 44 years before they would win another trophy. However, while the cliché of football being ‘more than a game’ is often used without justification, this was undoubtedly a game which had huge repercussions. The match had been billed as a battle between fascism and communism, with one team representing one of the last totalitarian fascist states in Europe and the other a totalitarian socialist one. In the words of Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja, ‘football and politics were in perfect synchrony’.
Four years earlier, Franco had refused to let Spain play against the Soviet Union for a place at the inaugural tournament. Two days before the team were due to depart for Moscow for the first-leg of their qualifier, they were told that the trip was off. Franco feared that a Spanish defeat would be exploited by the USSR for propaganda purposes, while he had also received supports that the Soviets would have significant support at the Bernabéu if the second leg on Spanish soil went ahead. This was all too much to stomach, and he gave orders for the Spanish Football Federation to withdraw the team from the competition. The President of the Federation made it clear to Alfredo Di Stefano why the trip had been cancelled. “We’re not going to Moscow. Franco said so.”
It was a sign of the politicisation of Spanish football, and the influence Franco was allowed to exert over Spain’s best-loved sport. As it happened, the decision to withdraw Spain from the competition turned out to be a disastrous one, and was greatly exploited for Soviet propaganda purposes. Khruschev himself labelled the decision an ‘own goal’, and Franco had been embarrassed on the big stage. It was no surprise, therefore, that he took every opportunity to make the most of the final of 1964. When the Generalissimo entered the stadium, he was greeted with cries of ‘Franco, Franco and Franco’, initiated by groups of Falangistas, and which spread around the 125,000-strong crowd. The occasion was not lost on the members of the squad either, with the Spanish coach José Villalonga preparing his players for the final as if it were a war.
Franco’s relationship with football is complex. In the past, some historians have argued that he was an avid football fan, but others, such as Santiago Segurola, Spain’s most esteemed football writer, have claimed that Franco ‘had no special interest in football’ and ‘preferred to sign death sentences to playing football or watching a game’. Specifically, Franco has often been described as a Madridista, a Real Madrid fan, because of their success during the period that Franco was in charge, but according to the club’s then-press secretary, he never betrayed any emotion during matches. The fact that Real Madrid are still criticised for supposedly being ‘Franco’s team’, stems from their success in the late 1950s, when Spain was at its lowest ebb. This was the dream team of Di Stéfano, Puskás and Kopa that won five consecutive European cups from 1955 to 1960. While Spain was languishing, the lavish team of Di Stéfano and co. were conquering everything, giving Spaniards something to cheer about.
Invariably, football was a tool for diplomacy, and Franco knew how to use it. He was clearly taken away by Real’s success, and did favour them in some ways, but this was because, as Franco’s foreign minister at the time once said, Real Madrid were ‘the best embassy we ever had’. Spain had been rejected by the international community following the Civil War, but Madrid’s lavish array of foreign players meant that Spain wasn’t so distrusted anymore. It also stemmed from Real Madrid being the team of the capital. Real Madrid were not a fascist team, and Franco did not rig games or pay off referees, mainly because he did not have to. All his resources were concentrated in Spain’s capital, and so this created the perfect environment for Madrid to flourish.
Franco was not a football fan in the traditional sense, but he saw the potential in the sport to portray Spain as a virile, strong nation. He may well have favoured Real Madrid, but this was inevitable given their success during his time in charge, and the fact that they were the capital’s best team. As the sport of the masses, Franco was able to use football as a diplomatic tool, and certainly succeeded in doing so. Although there will be a reasonable amount at stake in the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán on Friday, it will be nothing compared to the final of 1964. That match between Spain and the Soviet Union still stands as a warning of how dictators can hijack sports, and in particular football, to their advantage.